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4 Tips for Setting a Novel in a Place You Don’t Know Well

You want to write your story in a place you're not familiar with, but how can you do it justice? Kim Hooper, author of No Hiding in Boise, has some tips.
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They say “write what you know,” which is why most of my novels are set in California. I know the beaches and mountains and deserts of my home state. I know what the air feels like, what it smells like. Even if I don’t include all these details in my stories, they are still part of the story. Setting is a character in itself.

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When I started thinking about my fifth novel, which centers around a shooting in a small-town bar, I knew it would take place outside of California. At first, I thought it would be somewhere in the Midwest. But then I visited a friend in Boise and I thought It’s here. This is where it is.

Boise is home to more than 200,000 people according to the latest census data, so it’s not that small of a town, but it feels like a small town. That feeling is what’s behind the title of my book—No Hiding in Boise. In Los Angeles, with its millions of people, most of whom are hiding behind sunglasses on the freeway, it’s possible to hide. In Boise, anonymity is not so easy.

Because I’ve never lived in Boise and didn’t know it intimately, I had to put in significant effort to get the proverbial lay of the land. As writer Lynn Flewelling said, “Setting is the bedrock of your story. If you choose a real-world backdrop, be certain you get your facts straight.” Until I felt confident I had my facts somewhat straight, I knew the rest of the story would be stuck.

No Hiding in Boise by Kim Hooper

No Hiding in Boise by Kim Hooper

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Here are four things I did to gain confidence in my setting.

4 Tips for Setting a Novel in a Place You Don’t Know Well

1. Visit

I went to Boise twice and took notes on everything from what the weather felt like to the names of streets (and if they were one-way or two-way). I eavesdropped on conversations among locals. I got a sense of favorite restaurants, what people do for fun, and what the different neighborhoods are. As I said, I have a good friend who lives in Boise, so she served as a helpful tour guide.

2. Use Google Maps

Once I was back home, I relied on Google maps to refresh my memory of locations, names of places, and distances between different areas. I plotted out on a map where my characters lived, as well as the location of the bar where the shooting occurs. I identified a coffee shop that would be the coffee shop in the book (though I gave it a different name in the story). I familiarized myself with the characters’ driving routes, work commutes, and where they went to see a movie or get groceries.

3. Peruse Local News Sites

I found that there are two local newspapers—the Idaho Statesman and the Idaho Press. I spent time visiting the websites to see the top news stories on random days. This gave me a flavor of the area and what locals care about.

4 Tips for Setting a Novel in a Place You Don’t Know Well

4. Enlist Local Beta Readers

My friend and her husband both read the early draft of my novel to check for any little mistakes. This was extremely helpful. They were able to point out that victims of the shooting would have most likely been taken to a different hospital than the one I had in the story. They corrected highways, clarified the time of sunset, and explained the hiking trails in the local mountains. Without their guidance, I simply would not have known these things.

Capturing a real place is not easy. I can see why many authors invent towns—Stephen King created Castle Rock, Maine; John Grisham created Clanton, Mississippi; Kurt Vonnegut created Illium, New York (and Midland City, Ohio). I felt it was important to set my story in a real place since so many tragic shootings are happening in real places across our country.

It’s my hope that Boise readers feel I represented their city well. I plan to visit again soon so I can hear their thoughts in person. 

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