Research for a story is one of the things I like best about writing a novel. When I come up with an idea, a situation, or bring together a group of characters, I start to wonder about why they’re there, and what the connection is between people and the place they’re in.
Sometimes there are just too many options when it comes to characters. Everything from gender to heritage to health and education comes into play, along with every conceivable influence of nature and nurture. How do I choose from so many options? A place, however, is not as varied, especially when it’s the location for a series. The geography, the weather, the development, and the history may be rich and interesting, but it is still specific. There are workable parameters.
The limitations of place not only help me narrow the range of characters, but to develop their back stories, whether or not they are natives of the place. Why are they there, or why haven’t they moved away? Are there family ties? Ties to the university? Ties to the long-ago past? Small towns in particular develop in specific ways, around a college, a tourist attraction, an industry, or as somewhere on the road toward one of those things. The way it looks sometimes reflects the original settlers, such as Germans, or perhaps a religious group. Proximity to a big city like Chicago could have contributed to local Prohibition-era history. Strategic location could have brought in early railroads–Underground and otherwise.
In An Uncollected Death, the town of Elm Grove has a 19th-century downtown area, and a small university. It’s close enough to Chicago for elderly Helene to make frequent trips there, and populated enough to support a variety of restaurants and non-big box businesses. There’s truck stops and strip malls on the north side of town, and a four-lane highway on the south side that’s a straight shot to the Lake Parkerton development. But that’ pretty much all that’s known.
In the next book, whose working title is An Unexamined Wife, I’m imagining more of the geography of Elm Grove, the hills and valleys between the university area and the original downtown. There’s a train station, with a commuter line to Chicago. From there I realized that Elm Grove was probably two different towns at one point–Elmhurst, where Corton University was first established, and Penn Grove, where the train station was. Elmhurst was too hilly for the railroad to bother with, when a slight curve would keep them on flat land all the way to Chicago. Thus Penn Grove was founded, and the downtown grew exponentially from the station, eventually spreading to Elmhurst. Penn Grove wanted the school and Elmhurst wanted the train station, so they merged for mutual benefit.
This led to considering the early history of the university, and of 19th-century social and business conventions. I stumbled across various elements of Indiana history, such as the Underground Railroad, the Indianapolis Catacombs, the KKK, John Dillinger, secret societies, and the Quaker-founded communities, all of which in turn led to more things and helped me to create a not-implausible history for the fictional town of Elm Grove.
That’s when the magic starts to happen–understanding a place helps to give a reason why the various characters are there, which in turn shapes their individual back stories. From there, I find it easier to know how they’d react to one another or in various situations. As the story line develops, I sometimes find I need a character to behave a certain way–and if that behavior is different than I’d expect, it might require a key change in the character’s age, gender, or even race. Or it might be more plausible to shift the story line. Either way, shaping and developing takes place, problem-solving progresses, and the plot, as it were, thickens. This is all to the good!