The story takes place in your town; the streets and houses are as familiar as the little wrinkle near your eye. You know where the bus stops, and when the kids from the local high school invade the coffee shop on Elm Street. Maybe your children went to that school, it might be more than likely that you did too. So to write about how it feels to walk down a street, choose the sunny side and smell the freshly baked bread coming out of Greta’s Bakery is easy.
If your place is the city, you jaywalk and nearly get hit by a taxi as you rush to cross to the shady side of the street. The pavement is melting in August; you want to be some place else, so you hurry like everyone around you. You never notice the man with a briefcase staring at you. You stop and check your reflection in the window of Barney’s and when a stranger starts a conversation you’re startled. No one talks to each other in the city.
What happens when the place you are writing about is on the other side of the world and your story begins in 1859. Researching the country, the city, and the era is part of finding the place. Reading journals and letters from public figures are a more intimate glimpse into the daily life of the population. Archives in libraries are often online and reading old newspapers give you the color of events the way they were seen. I found that looking at historic photos of people and streets in my place made it come to life.
How fortunate for me that one of my characters, James Light, took the same ship, The Roman Empire, as Samuel Butler. (How fortunate indeed!) Using Samuel Butler’s life and diaries I had grist for conversations during the long voyage. I found a description of the The Roman Empire and how it sailed into Lyttleton Harbor NZ in 1860. (Time and place recorded in the Lyttleton Times 1860). Somewhere in my digging through the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, I read that a Judge Gresson, lost all his law books on Sumner sand bar (anecdote for character to use). James brought twenty-one boxes of books with him from London (of course he did and none of his books were lost).
When you have done your research putting your characters in a place is like finding a briar patch.
Part of a conversation between James Light and Samuel Butler in The Last Daughter of Elizabeth Light:
They pushed themselves away from the table and pulled out their pipes and small sacks of tobacco. Going out on the deck to catch the night air and enjoy their habit, they rejoiced in the kindness of the weather: the still wind, the calm sea, and the light from the universe allowing them to see each other clearly.
“My mother was born on a large estate in Sussex, her mother was a nursery maid and my great-grandmother was the head housekeeper.”
James looked out over the endless black swells of water.
“I will not pry, as all families have their histories. I am of the belief that what has made us evolve is the struggle and cunning of the individual. This is passed down through the generations by way of unconscious memories and habits. So I am more interested in your daily life and communication with your mother. We all too often tell of the big events and leave out the subtle details that make us who we truly are; what was happening every day is more important. What did you discuss over your evening meal?”