Chicago Bean
Image by Geoff Livingston via Flickr

Today I started working on researching the setting for my book.  I’m not sure how most people handle this.  I know sometimes (maybe even mostly) people set books in places they know or have at least visited.  I’m not sure if the “norm,” if there even is one, is to decide on the setting before you write, or as you’re writing.  I know that in my case, since this was a book I wrote during NaNoWriMo, I didn’t have time to do research on the setting.  As far as specific locations (apartments, workplaces, etc), I mentioned details, but for the big-picture stuff–the city the story takes place in–I was purposely vague because I knew I’d be going back during rewrites to fill in the detail.  That brings me to the odd situation I found myself in while I was writing.

I know few major cities well enough to say I KNOW them.  I’ve been to NYC, Boston and Philly.  I love all three, but with a couple of exceptions I don’t know them well enough to tell you where anything is.  I can talk a bit about the Quincy Market area of Boston, 5th Avenue in New York, and South Street in Philly.  For those of you not seeing the trend, the common theme there is shopping, not daily life.

I am from Connecticut, so there are a number of small cities I could have used, but this felt like it took place in a large city to me.  The problem is, no matter how often I tried to steer myself toward a city I had some knowledge of and a likelihood of visiting based on distance from my home, the story kept insisting on taking place in Chicago.  I have no idea how to explain the reason for that, or how to explain what I mean by that statement.  It just happened.  I would be thinking about what was happening, and that’s what I kept coming back to.  The story is set in Chicago.  I have a picture of one of the major locations in the book, and that picture is labelled “Gallery in Chicago.”  Maybe I listened to the soundtrack one too many times.

I have never been to Chicago.  Except for a brief drive over the state line when I visited friends in Indiana once (since it wasn’t too far from where they lived in Terre Haute at the time), I have never even been to Illinois.  I may as well have picked Kalamazoo, MI or Lima, Peru for all the first-hand knowledge I have of Chicago.  The closest I’ve come is going to a couple of Pizzeria Uno‘s on the road and in Connecticut, and they all were awful and not at all like the original from what I understand.

So I spent a good part of my afternoon researching Chicago to learn more about it, including looking at pictures of the city.  I haven’t even scratched the surface of what I want to find out, but it’s a start.  As I suspected, I’d like to visit some day.  As someone who enjoys ballet, seeing the Joffrey perform on their home stage has always appealed, as has visiting the museum which houses the most famous Seurat painting in existence.  I have also found so much more that I’d like to see and do if I am ever lucky enough to get there.

I am enjoying the research I am doing.  It’s virtual sight-seeing, and very easy to get side-tracked from the task at hand, but I love learning about new places and if I can’t visit it this will have to be the “next best thing” for now.

Do you set your writing close to home?  Of course, if you’re writing scifi or fantasy that may not be possible, but just in general, what is your own preference?