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Local Knowledge: Background and Historical Setting in Novels

You're writing a story set in your local city, but one hundred years in the past. How can you recreate the feel of the past in your words of the present? Local knowledge, that's how. And how do you get this sort of knowledge when your characters were walking around one hundred years ago and you're situated well and truly in the 21st century? Exploration on foot, a reliable camera and a willingness to stand on a street corner and imagine everything and everybody as it was in the past.

A good place to start, whether the city or town of your story is close by or not, is internet research. Major cities and many less major towns have their own tourist and business websites, visitor information sites, museum and exhibition listings, historical society and genealogy sites, and maps galore. Look closely for any sites that offer free tourist booklets. As well as the usual restaurant and accommodation guides, maps and business listings, most tourist booklets will also include photographs and brief histories of the area.

Next go to your local library or bookstore, and find travel guides to the location you're interested in. These travel guides will provide a well-rounded and "larger picture" of your area, and include customs, history, current information and maps. Other books that will be a boon to your research are historical novels and non-fiction works that are set in similar settings to your own. Non-fiction books have the added resource of the bibliography. Author talks are an extra benefit, especially question time. Have your questions prepared beforehand and listen to the questions and answers for other audience members.

If you live close to your setting or can travel there easily, the rest is as simple as driving off in your car or jumping on a train. Book yourself into a guided tourist walk. Put on your most comfortable walking shoes, grab your camera and a notebook, and off you go. From pub tours to historic house tours, there's a walk that will suit your historical needs. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Relate them to your characters and storyline, and not only will you get pertinent, accurate information, but you may also be inspired with extra plots and new story ideas.

Visit the local museum for that area, obtain a listing of historic houses, find the local public art [often historical in inspiration], trek through transport museums and art galleries, attend cultural events and participate in writers' festivals.

Factually, the accuracy of your novel should be vastly improved. Don't forget to take plenty of photos and notes, and collect fliers, booklets and maps at every opportunity. These are all resources that you can refer to in the future. Good research shows through in every paragraph.

The next step is to walk the streets of your novel setting on your own, if it's safe, or with a friend if you prefer. You should already know where the most appropriate sites are, going back for a second or third look will cement details in your head. Touch the walls, wander through gardens and smell the flowers, listen to the traffic and imagine how it must have sounded in the time period of your story. Your characters will be able to walk the streets and see the buildings for themselves. More importantly, your readers will be able to connect and relate to the realism you've brought to the pages.

Trish is a freelance writer, novelist, and traveller from Sydney. Her recent publishing feats have included a short story in the online River Walk Journal, a quarterly arts bulletin for the Sutherland Shire and several non-fiction articles for websites, online journals and print publications. Her most recent research tour was a roadtrip through the South West Plains of America and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming. She is a regular tourist in her home city of Sydney, Australia.

Trish is available for research assistance, especially locations and settings in the greater Sydney area and beyond. Send your email query to:

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