In a recent author interview, I was asked about my research into Bodiam Castle and its integration into the novel. And it’s been an amazing experience. When I first started writing Screwing Up Time, the castle existed only in my mind. As I added more detail, I decided to look at pictures of real life castles. When I found the picture of Bodiam Castle, I couldn’t believe it. Here was an almost exact replica of what only lived in my mind. As I researched the castle’s history and lore, I discovered the legend of the woman in red (who in my novel was already Miranda). Then, I knew that Bodiam Castle was going to be the site of my novel.
Of course, picking a real place as a setting can be very difficult, especially if it’s not down the street. So I bought and borrowed books. I looked up websites. I did everything I could to accurately ground my novel in Bodiam Castle. And I thought I was done. I turned my attention to other editing issues. When I was doing a final editing pass, I decided to add more detail to a section on the castle, so I went back to my sources. But I couldn’t find the exact information I wanted. So I googled the castle. I was amazed at what came back. In the time since I’d started the novel and finished it, people had posted their personal vacation photos online. I found scads of photos of all the interesting parts of the castle, usually with people next to them so that I could have a sense of scale. It was an amazing bounty of knowledge. And then, I discovered that some of my resources were inaccurate. Things at the castle had changed. A room that had had a grass floor now had a floor of loose pebbles. Oops. I went back and rewrote that. Most of the changes were small, but so important to render the kind of accuracy that allows readers to be transported.
I would strongly encourage people that are using real locations in their novels to view personal photographs that people make available online. It helps to see what things look like under different lighting and from different angles. View Google maps to see what your character would see as he/she walked down the street. And don’t trust your memory of the places—places change and memory becomes distorted. We have so many options now to keep our writing grounded, use them.