Since I often write in actual existing places (the “Iron Shoes” stories in Saratoga Springs, the Of Blood and Brandy novels in Porto, and the Russian novella outside St. Petersburg, for example), I have to do a lot of research.
Now my work is fantasy, so I’m actually writing a form of ‘alternate’ history. I can change things, including geography, within reason. I like to have a reason behind those changes, though, and I tend to obsess about making things fit.
I want to get the trees right. I want to get the birds right. I want to get the cobbles in the road right….so I research waaaay more than is likely needed by my readers.
For “Iron Shoes”, not only did I procure as many period books about Saratoga Springs as I could find, but I also went through blogs. I dug through web-sites. I read diaries about horse-racing stables. I ran down costume books and catalogs so that I would have my characters dressed appropriately. I purchased a movie DVD because it was partially set in a Saratoga Springs hotel that was subsequently demolished. Google Street View. Google Maps.
I had also -visited- Saratoga Springs. From the train I watched the trees and undergrowth as we passed so I would know what trees I would find in the forest there. I tried to remember what kind of birds I’d find there.
I’ve just returned from Portugal, where I noted that there are 2 kinds of seagulls in Porto (brown and white). The pigeons of Porto are uniformly dark, while down in Lisbon, there’s a lot of variety (white, brown, gray, mixed). There are also super-cool little diving birds out on the Douro River that made a little popping sound when they broke the water (although we only saw two…and I haven’t figured out yet what they are.) It can be drizzling and then suddenly raining in sheets…and then stop again a moment later.
But St. Petersburg? No, I’m not visiting there any time soon, so I have to research on paper.
One of the things I like to use is stuff written by the people who lived there and then to give me that background. I’ve read some biographical work for this story: The Pearl and A Life Under Russian Serfdom: The Memoirs of Savva Dmitrievich Purlevskii (still reading), both tales that talk about the relations between the slaves and masters in pre-emancipation Russia.
A lot of things can be found via your library. Other things aren’t available that way, especially books written decades ago (if they’re not popular, they’re removed from the library eventually). The used-book market can be useful here. Also, a lot of it, if published before 1923, is going to be available on-line via Google Books or Project Gutenburg. If you can put up with the iffy OCR, you’ll find a lot of things are still out there.
But these days web-sites are also your friends. Google Maps and Google Street View are awesome resources. I’ve used the archives of the New York Times a lot. You can also use the internet to contact librarians…which I’ve done. I communicated with the public library in Saratoga Springs on a topic where I couldn’t find the answer, and the librarian tried her best to find the answer for me. (In that case, she didn’t have the answer. I found the answer in the NYT Archives and ended up sending that link to her so she could stick the article in her file for future reference).
I’m a bit obsessive about this…and no matter how hard I’ve looked, there are some things I’ve had to fudge. But I’m still going to keep trying…