You’re writing a contemporary, so you don’t need to research, right?
While your characters live in basically the same world you do, there’s still plenty to learn—unless you are actually writing about a person who lives in your town, has your same job, and enjoys the same hobbies as you do. In that case, just x-out of this right now and get back to your MS.
But, for those of us who are not writing about people just like us living in our town, there’s plenty we need to know.
First of all, setting. I love maps and travel guides. Most states will send you a packet with all sorts of information. Those are super cool, lots of pictures. Of course Google maps, and an almanac—you want to know what the weather is like. And does it get dark early in the winter? Things like that add depth to your story and make the reader feel like they are one step deeper inside. That’s what we want, right?
And find movies shot in the location you’re writing about. That gives you a whole lot of setting ideas and helps you picture it, especially if it’s somewhere you’ve never been. Coffee table books, post cards, and of course Google images.
Next up: culture
This is tricky. You can’t just learn a culture. But you can find out bits and pieces of what people there are like, and that will not only make you look like an expert on the region, it will help with your character development.
I like history books for this. Both fiction and non-fiction. History of a place tells why the people there act the way they do now.
And what better way to learn about a culture than its stories?
And now for: Language
It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, every region has its own distinct way of speaking. Even twenty miles away from your house, you can find something unique about how people talk. So, learn about it. I’m not saying you have to be fluent in a new language, but an accent, a unique speech pattern, even a few words from your character’s native tongue makes them more interesting. And who doesn’t like reading slang from somewhere new? It’s fun and can help make your story richer.
Keep your eyes open, you’ll find facts and interesting tidbits that can add to your story in the funniest places. I found this article in an airplane magazine about Irish surfers. Did you know they surf in Ireland?
I didn’t. But a character in my Irish book would definitely know.
Any time I go to a museum or some sort of historical place, I get the souvenir guides. They don’t cost much, and there are tons of things to remember. Plus, again pictures.
And last of all: Don’t be afraid to ask.
Something I’ve learned is people love talking about themselves, their job, their family, their hometown. Just get up the nerve to ask.
I wrote a book about a girl that grew up on a cattle ranch and so I asked someone I knew about it, and he took me to his ranch when they were branding—it was an entirely new world to me, one that I can write into my story with details of smell, (bad) sounds, sights that I wouldn’t have ever known without experiencing it for myself.
So, get out into the trenches, writers! Don’t be afraid to get dirty, and of course take lots of notes, you never know when you’ll need them.