First, full disclosure—I am the polar opposite of a pantser (that is, a writer who just sits down and starts writing with no preparation). As a former software engineer, I plan out my books to the nth degree before I ever sit down to write page one. I complete a detailed synopsis and fill a file with copious notes before starting chapter one.
But even before creation of the synopsis comes my favorite part of the process—extensive character sketches. I like to know everything about my characters from where they went to school to what their favorite color is, from who their parents were to key turning points in their lives.
Most of my character sketches deal with the characters’ pasts, what made them who they are today. But there’s one important element that pertains to the here and now—where my characters currently live. If much of the plot revolves around their home and home town, I need as concrete as possible an image of what that happy (or not so happy) home looks like.
After I choose the locale (town/city/part of the country) for my character’s abode, I decide what kind of place they live in–an opulent estate, a one bedroom apartment, a ranch out in the tulies. I then turn to a handy Internet resource—real estate websites. Sites such as www.realtor.com and www.realestate.com allow me to search their database of listings by location, price, number of bedrooms, acreage, etc. Most of the listings have at least one photo of the home for sale, some have multiple pictures, interior and exterior. Some even include video “tours,” animated views of the home in question.
For instance in one of my romance novels, HIS MIRACLE BABY, the hero is a wealthy man who lives on a large estate in Granite Bay, CA. The estate had to include a guest house where the heroine would be living while she acted as surrogate for his implanted embryo. On the Realtor.com webpage, I searched for homes with 5+ bedrooms with a price above $2 million (hey, I said he was rich). I found a lovely farm style house on four acres with a small “granny flat” on the property.
I copied the photos from the listing and pasted them into a Word document for later reference. Then, when I needed to describe the grounds or the living room, I had the pictures at my fingertips. I also printed the original listing with all the details about the home, further ammunition for my descriptive passages.
Once I have a specific address, I can use a mapping program such as Google Maps to calculate driving distances to various locations mentioned in the story. For instance, when the heroine feels sharp pains halfway through her pregnancy and fears she may be going into labor far too early, I want to know the hospital is only ten miles away, but a twenty minute drive from the hero’s home. In another of my romance backlist, HER MIRACLE MAN, it’s an important factor in the story that the hero’s isolated mountain retreat is at least an hour away from the sheriff’s station in Lake Tahoe, a route he’s loathe to drive with a storm raging outside.
I’m not a slave to reality when I choose a home for my characters. I adapt the actual house to what works best for the story. If I need a small room upstairs to serve as the nursery, I put it there in my fictional home. But the information gleaned from the real estate websites gives me a framework with which to start and some good visual images to act as a launch pad for my creativity.