I have an image in my mind, I don’t know where it came from, but there’s an upright piano, various bottles of spirits with bourbon being dominant and pinstriped trousers and a hat although I can’t tell you its shape and colour. The walls are dark, maybe even matt black and the ceiling and cornices have elaborate plaster mouldings or maybe pressed metal. I’m getting a 70s vibe from this image and smoke, cigarette smoke, laughter, singing and then it’s gone.
Wait, it’s back, I see those matchbooks you used to see in bars—all different colours, fonts and logos. Was there a glass bowl on the piano to hold them?
I don’t think I’ve ever been to this place, but I still have the image. Perhaps I’m remembering a dream or perhaps I’m remembering an imagining. I may have even seen it in a movie. With writers, reality, memories and imaginations sometime bleed into one another. So what does a writer do? How does a writer make it seem authentic?
The answer is to go into the field. I once walked around the streets of Sydney, Australia to get the setting right for a short story I had written. Even though the story was set in the future, I needed to see the existing structures and to know what characters would see, hear, smell, touch and experience. A fight scene takes place in a lonely underpass. I needed to stand in that location and think about the fight’s choreography.
A field day (or night) provides concrete information to write about and gives you a huge amount of confidence about what you’re writing. Take a camera or a smartphone to capture various views and sounds for later. Take a friend or partner along as their revelations about the setting can be useful. Although you might not notice the graceful wisteria draped over a fence or a man wearing funky shorts walking a dachshund, your friend or partner might. The heat of the city or late afternoon shadows could become crucial to the plot, so look at everything as a possible inclusion.
Pack the writing away for a day and get out into the field. Experience what your characters experience.
Done this before? What did you learn? How did it impact your writing?