Researching a Contemporary Novel in a Foreign Setting

Norma 2017 2

I am thrilled to have Author Norma Gail as my guest today. After reading her novel Land of My Dreams I fell in love with Scotland. She’s agreed to share how she did her research to make her setting so believable. By the way, Land of My Dreams just received the Bookvana Award. Way to go Norma. I’ve got my notebook out and my pen is ready.

LoMD Bookvana cover

Accuracy is a challenge faced by every writer, no matter what your genre. A contemporary setting can be just as challenging as a historical one. When I decided to set my debut novel, Land of My Dreams, in Scotland, there was quite a learning curve. During a two-week vacation, I barely glimpsed the top of the ben (mountain) when it came to understanding the language and culture necessary to portray Scottish life with accuracy.

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Photo provided by Norma. Sheep farm in Scotland.

 

More than just the northern part of Great Britain, Scotland is a unique and unusual place. Everyone knows about kilts, bagpipes, and castles, but little else. I’m from New Mexico, and as one of my main characters remarks, “Scotland and New Mexico are as different as water and dust.” So what can you do when your setting is unfamiliar? The internet is wonderful, but some things are hard to understand if you haven’t been there.

If you can travel to your setting, stay in small hotels, get out among people, and make opportunities to talk with them. Develop the art of observing small details. Take photos of everything, but also make notes about things that strike you as different, food, architecture, speech, and music are easy. I created a file of over 400 photos, some from our trip, but most from various websites about the area around Fort William, and Loch Garry. I set it up as a screensaver on my laptop. Now, whenever I walk through the room, I catch a glimpse of scenes that trigger thoughts of what might take place in such a setting. Watch YouTube videos where people describe the countryside or talk about some local event.

A selection of pictures Norma took of Scotland for her research.

A Scottish accent either confuses the daylights out of Americans or makes them swoon. I love their unique English, peppered with Scots, a Germanic language, and Scottish Gaelic, a native Celtic language. Fun words such as bubbly jock for turkey, tattyboggle for scarecrow, and clishamaclaver for chatter or idle talk make me giggle. Pesty insects are wee beasties, and they might refer to a disturbance to as a stramash or kerfuffle. The first time we ordered water with a meal, the waiter asked if we preferred “still or sparkling”.

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Highland Games

Scots might be among the toughest people on earth, plans continuing in spite of the weather. While we layered shirts, sweaters, and rain jackets for the Highland Games, children sported shorts and sleeveless shirts. A dapper, elderly couple, him in his kilt and her in a tartan skirt, eating ice cream cones in the chilly weather, declared it a “Lovely day!” It was August, after all.

Determined to eat what the Scots eat, I ordered their national dish, haggis, a “pudding” made from the heart, lungs, and liver of sheep, minced fine and mixed with spices and oats. Imagine this mixture, resembling dark, coarse sawdust, sewn into the stomach of a sheep and boiled. It wasn’t bad. We ate in small local restaurants so we got a real sense of local flavor.

I have a playlist of Scottish music on my phone. Yes, I love bagpipes, but much is traditional and some is contemporary. I listen as I drive and remember the images that spring to mind. I read Scottish news from time to time. It’s necessary to know what kinds of issues affect the lives of your characters, like the recent referendum on Scottish independence and Brexit.

I met Scottish editor through ACFW who combs through my manuscripts to make certain things are accurate. She suggests words, customs, or a change of scene that might work better.118 D&N Old Town Weaving Co 5x7(1)

The time you spend creating your story world is never wasted. Above all, strive for accuracy. Readers will never go for a book that doesn’t ring true to life and believable.

© Copyright Norma Gail Holtman, June 12, 2017

 

Thanks for the great information, Norma.

Here’s how to follow Norma:

www.normagail.org      

https://www.facebook.com/AuthorNormaGai

http://pinterest.com/normagailth/boards/

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7874459

https://twitter.com/Norma_Gail

https://www.instagram.com/normagailwrites/

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Land-My-Dreams-Norma-Gail/dp/1941103170

Do you have any questions for Norma about research? Post in the comments.

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5 thoughts on “Researching a Contemporary Novel in a Foreign Setting

  1. janetgrunst says:

    Lots od great information, Norma. I’ve been to Scotland three times and like you, find it fascinating. I liked the haggis. It was similar in texture and taste to Scrapple, a Pennsylvania dish. The Scots I met were charming.

    Like

  2. Great interview, Norma and Cindy. I enjoyed learning more about the behind the page research that Norma did. It paid off because I felt like I really was in Scotland when I read her novel.
    Blessings ~ Wendy

    Like

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