Novelist Ashley Amber describes how she ‘upped the saturation level’ in her writing by immersing herself in her novel’s setting.
Have you ever wanted to jump into your novel and explore the surroundings? See how your characters really live? Hear the sounds and taste the tastes? See the skies and touch the grounds?
Well, I did just that!
The book series I began writing in 2013 takes place in Dublin, Ireland… but I’d never been there. I was born and raised in the U.S. and, having never left the country, relied on common knowledge and the research I’d done online for every single line of setting I wrote.
In 2019, when I finally had a chance to visit Dublin and the opportunity to jump into my book, I seized it. I stuffed a notepad into my purse, boarded my plane, and didn’t look back.
On the day I arrived, as I stepped out onto that Irish pavement in the middle of the city, my very first thought was, “My characters live here.” The realization hit me just as I was about to cross a street — I was standing in exactly the place I’d always imagined my characters living.
I was standing in exactly the place I’d always imagined my characters living.
After a few hours of exploring sights like Grafton Street and St. Stephen’s Green, I made detailed notes about the scenery. I’d always heard about Ireland’s “skies of blue and fields of green,” but seeing them in person was different, and it allowed me to ‘up’ the saturation level of my book’s setting.
I spent my second day in Dublin as a ‘full-on’ tourist, taking time to sample the scrumptious Irish food I’d heard so much about but had only ever eaten with my eyes. I ordered fluffy scrambled eggs for breakfast and “vanilla sea salt” ice cream for dessert, never expecting them to taste so much better than they looked in photos and so much richer than the eggs and ice cream from home.
I took notes about the green pastures and perfect climate that make Ireland’s dairy products so rich and delicious. Which brings me to my next topic: Chocolate. You haven’t really eaten chocolate until you’ve tasted the Cadbury chocolate made in Ireland. It was so sweet that I could only handle a few bites, but it gave me inspiration for a story idea, so I saved it for later while I jotted down a few more notes.
Trying all this delicious Irish food gave me a deeper understanding of the vast culinary differences between the U.S. and Ireland. The food my characters grew accustomed to in America, where they were raised, was (literally) an ocean apart from what they would later eat when they moved to Dublin, and, naturally, that inspired me to eat on.
At lunchtime, I ordered traditional Irish fare from one of Ireland’s most famous fish and chips joints (though my vegetarian-self only ate the chips!). I ordered it ‘takeaway,’ finding a little picnic table at the church across the street, where I dined to the sound of church bells.
Between the chiming bells of the churches and the jaunty tunes of Grafton Street buskers, the sounds floating out across the city had to be one of the most memorable parts of my trip. But my favorite sound was the music of Westlife, my favorite Irish band, whose songs – the same songs I’d played on repeat while writing the first novel in my series – rang out from every pub I strolled past.
It rains most days during the summer in Dublin, something I definitely needed to make a note about. Well, it rains on most days, just not the four days I spent there. On my final day, though, on my way to the airport, I watched the rain fall across the city, the blue skies turning gray, and the green fields quenching their thirst.
“You brought the good weather wit’cha,” my taxi driver told me, his thick, Irish accent another beautiful sound of my trip.
But the final experience that stood out to me was a painting I passed every day as I left my hotel room. It was an abstract print, maybe an Irish landscape, hanging on the wall across from the reflective doors of the ‘lifts.’ The only colors used in that painting were broad strokes of green and purple.
Why was this painting so significant? Because my main characters’ favorite colors are green and purple, and those two hues have grown in importance throughout my series. I could have been placed in a room on any floor of that hotel. Any old art might have hung on the walls, but I was given a room on the floor with the green and purple painting, and every single time I walked by, it reminded me of my characters.
Spending those few days in Ireland changed me as a writer and as a person. They taught me to look more closely at my surroundings and to use all of my senses when taking in the masterpieces around me. I ended up with page after page of notes and story ideas, and that notepad is the most valuable souvenir from my trip.
If you have the chance, I highly recommend visiting the setting of your WIP. It will enhance your writing and bring a greater sense of realism to your story. If you’re already living in your book’s setting, then carve out a day to really look around. Listen, taste, and touch the scenery. Just don’t forget to bring your notepad.
And if you’re a fantasy writer whose setting is a mythical world, a desert island, or a fictional planet, well, then your imagination is a wonderful gift!
About: Ashley Amber has been writing since she was nine. After writing a novella in her late teens and breezing through English classes, she self-published her first novel in her early twenties to rave reviews. Ashley is currently seeking representation for her LGBTQ+ YA series. Show her some love on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter!