Here’s the seventeenth episode of the Writing Talk Podcast.

In this episode of the Writing Talk Podcast, we’re looking at setting the scene and the role of research in fiction writing.

Plus this week’s writers’ toolbox tip and some listener feedback. There’s also a quick review of my news.

Hope you enjoy listening.

NB: You can support the show by subscribing from the links above. Please also consider sharing the show with your writer friends.

Show Notes


I’m still embroiled in formatting, though now making much more progress. I’m also the point where I’m wondering if I’ve taken on too much. I have this podcast to prepare and produce, and last week it took me most of the day to put together. I’ve been trying to vlog on YouTube at least once a week, and failing miserably at that. I’ve been posting breaking ground up on my website and on Wattpad in weekly episodes, and I’ve been writing, week by week, a sci-fi serial with the working title of conspiracy. And that serial is going up on Wattpad and on the website at:

EDIT: These serials are no longer available.

And all this is on top of writing, editing, and publishing books. It’s too much really.

If you’d like the podcast keep going, please share your favourite episodes and subscribe. I know everyone says this on every podcast, but at the moment it’s hard to justify the effort I’m putting in when the audience seems relatively limited. If we can get a few word-of-mouth recommendations going out, then that would make all the difference and I’d very much appreciate it. Thank you.

Now onto this week’s main topic, which is setting the scene and using research.

Main topic

The other day I heard some writers being interviewed about the extreme measures they go to in their research. These included wearing reproduction clothes and shoes based on the materials and designs of hundreds of years ago, moving to another country for an extended period, and other similar and seemingly quite bizarre measures. And I had the quite uncomfortable feeling that here were some writers wearing their research like a badge for all to see. And I wondered whether I would really enjoy reading any of their work.

Now, there are some genres when this level of detail may be appreciated, and even expected by the audience – yes, historical literary types, I’m looking at you. But on the whole, I hate to see research muscling in on the action. The focus should always be on the storytelling. I don’t like to see people wearing their research on their sleeves. It’s our job as writers to disappear into the background as much as possible. Even in historical fiction, it’s a good idea to remember that if everyone wore rough material, then they wouldn’t know any different. When I pull on a pair of jeans, I don’t notice the texture of the denim, nor comment on the stitching in the seams. So just because the story is set in the past, I don’t necessarily want to hear about the coarse linen shirts  or heavy worsted trousers.

So am I saying that details aren’t important? No. But I do believe that we should use details from our research like salt and pepper: a little adds a lot of flavour, but too much will ruin any dish. Even if your readers like to see little details, they will still be much more interested in what your characters are saying and doing.

I’ve written plots set in the modern day, 1920, 1939, the  Neolithic period, and in the future, and I’ve always checked as many details as I can beforehand, but I hope I haven’t gone overboard in pointing them out. It helps me to write confidently when I know there’s a basis of truth in the scene that’s playing out, and I feel I owe it to my readers not to spout nonsense, but over description will take your readers out of the flow. Imagine you were in the cinema, engrossed in a film, and in the middle of the heist scene, the person next to you nudges you in the ribs and says, “Look, that bank robber’s suit is made from pure new lamb’s wool with a polyester lining.”

You’d be justifiably enraged.

Science fiction writers are terrible at this. It sometimes feels like a character can’t go through a door without us having to hear how the damn thing works. In a modern day setting, would you describe the workings of the doorknob? Of course not. It’s far too mundane. And to the passengers aboard your futuristic spaceship, the doors would be just as mundane.

I would suggest that the right time to include colour in the form of details from your research, is when those details become important to your characters. Then and only then. If your character is picking a lock, then the type of lock and the method of picking it is important. If the character is about to attend an interview, then the choosing of clothes becomes important. At other times, who really cares what someone is wearing?

When it comes to settings, we have a shared understanding with the reader that the places we describe are fictional or fictionalised. Most great writers have taken liberties with real places and you shouldn’t worry about doing the same. Again, background preparation is needed – it gives confidence, and confidence will give your writing a sureness of touch that it might otherwise lack. Your preparation will prevent you from getting muddled and your style from wavering. But, if I could afford to have a jacket tailor-made, I wouldn’t expect to see the tailor’s chalk marks all over it, and I would have no interest whatsoever in running my eyes over the pattern that was used to cut the cloth.

Give your readers just enough information for them to feel in the moment.

Like most aspects of writing, it’s a delicate balancing act, but keep it in mind and your writing will improve.

Choosing your settings is a largely intuitive business. It’s a great idea to choose a setting that intrigues you. For instance, I’ve visited Exeter countless times, but until a while ago, I’d never known about the underground tunnels that have run beneath the streets for hundreds of years. The tunnels are mediaeval and were built purely for the function of housing pipes that carried fresh drinking water, so as you might imagine, they are dark, narrow, and damp, with low ceilings. It’s a tourist attraction now, and you can go on a guided tour. It didn’t take me long on my trip through the tunnels, to realise that I just had to use the place. So they appear in my novel Outcast, which is the second Darkeningstone novel and you can read all about it when it’s launched in early June. In the book I certainly changed the layout of the tunnels, and I invented a whole new section of the place. In this case, a personal visit to the tunnels was invaluable, but it isn’t always necessary to actually set foot in the places that you use, especially when there’s so much information online. In the third Darkeningstone novel, which I’m currently editing, I set some of the action in a museum in France. I’ve based it on a real museum, but it’s a place that I have never visited. I’ve trawled through their website, just enough to inspire me, and the rest I’ve invented using common sense and intuition. For instance, it seems reasonable that a museum would have a lab for conservation work, storage rooms for keeping artefacts, and even a staffroom where the employees could have a cup of coffee.

How can I get away with this fabrication? Because my readers will recreate the museum in their minds, using their own experiences. To some, the museum will resemble the one they visited on a school trip, to others it may remind them of the documentary they once watched, and so on.

Never do too much work for your readers – they won’t thank you for it. It comes across as heavy-handed, as if you’re trying to micromanage their experience. It can even feel as if you’re trying to reach out from the page and grab them by the throat.

So, by all means, do as much research as you need in order to write with confidence, but when it comes to drafting, avoid showing off your knowledge. And when you’re editing, look for opportunities to cut or tone down the level of detail, remembering that the real story exists in the space in between the words you’ve written.

Listener feedback

In last week’s show, I asked some questions about how writers developed their fictional characters. I had a very good response this week and here are some of the highlights:

last week I asked for tips on how you organise the plethora of information that seems to be generated in the writing of a novel.

Lee Bailes said:

Within each folder I use standard version control practices that I use at work, to keep the folders organised, (keep old stuff in an ‘_old’ folder) and only latest working versions in the root folder – and date (in the file name) and up the version number on each successive iteration.

I really like the idea of separating working drafts from older versions, and I’ll be looking into trying that out myself. I do something similar with formatted books, and published books.

And Lee also gets an honourable mention for sharing a project tracker spreadsheet that he’s made, and here’s a link:

Kenneth Buff said:

I just use Scrivener, and keep a folder on my desktop with all my project files in it. As far as paper notes and what not, that stuff isn’t organized at all. It ends up all over the place.

And I can certainly relate to that. I like to quote Thomas Edison who said:

have a place for everything, and keep it somewhere else. This is not advice, merely custom.

But that is why I have to do force myself to be strict it’s very frustrating to waste time searching for the nugget of wonderful prose that I’ve buried in a pile of notebooks.

Another nice idea came from Tiffany Pitts who said:

I write daily word counts in a fresh document then cut and paste what I want to keep into the main manuscript doc. Everything has a date on it. Word lets you save titles with periods in them so dates are necessarily in the format: DD.MM.YY

Thank you very much to everyone who shared their tips.

This week, I’d like to hear from you if you’ve done something strange or interesting in the name of research.

For instance, for Outcast, I went out and tasted dandelion leaves and clover leaves, but I won’t explain why because it would be a spoiler.

So please leave your comments on this episode, episode 17, on the website at and you might get a mention in next week’s show and a link from the show notes.

Writers’ Toolbox

in this section of the show I like to set exercises from time to time. You can use the exercises in any way you see fit, but if you’d like to take part, please post the results on your online space, and then post a link in the comments here.

This week’s task is to write a scene set in one of the following places, and make it tick with only minimal description. If you can, give a significant flavour of the place in a single sentence. For example, I was listening to an episode of the Moth radio hour, which is something I heartily recommend, and the speaker said this: Seattle is a little bit different from New York, it’s a city when no one is trying to accomplish anything.

I love that phrase, and it struck a chord with me even though I have never been to the USA, never mind Seattle. Perhaps we can all imagine somewhere like that. In other words, it works. Similarly, in the restaurant at the end of the universe, Douglas Adams memorably described a car park by saying that like all car parks it predominantly smelt of impatience.

So here are your places to experiment with, because many or as few as you wish, and try to make as picture them with a single sentence if you can:

  • a dentist’s waiting room
  • a library
  • a graveyard
  • a department store.

What single aspect of those places could you pick out that would give us a unique insight and deliver a sense of place?

If you’d like to share your efforts with us I’d love to see them. Just put a link in the comments.

That’s it for this week. I hope you found this episode useful, if you have, please share the podcast with your writer friends, e.g. you could post a link in any writing groups you’re a member of. Also, please consider supporting the podcast by subscribing. The show is on itunes, stitcher and youtube, or you can subscribe by other methods on the site at e.g. you can have new episodes emailed to you.

Thank you very much for listening and for all your support. Until next week, keep writing, keep tapping at the keys, keep scribbling, and above all, keep smiling.

Other Links:

The Moth Radio Hour

Mikey on Wattpad

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