While working on a ghost story set in St. Louis for an anthology of Missouri stories, I had to face three realities: (1) I hadn’t been in St. Louis for a long time, (2) I didn’t have a budget that would allow me to rent a plane and fly up there to do research, (3) My setting had to be believable to people who lived in St. Louis.
The story features a modern-day student and a a real historical figure, Patience Worth, channeled years ago by Peal Curran. I was vaguely aware of Patience Worth and the sensation she created a century ago as she turned out books and poems that were quite well received.
I knew what I wanted the story to do. But I needed to familiarize myself with the writings of Patience Worth so that my ghost in the story sounded like the “real” spirit. Fortunately, her writings are accessible on the Internet, and a kind expert in the subject gave me many wonderful pointers.
While it was crucial to “get Patience right,” the settings were also important. It took a while for me to nail down whether the house where Pearl Curran channeled Patience was still standing. Once I found it, it didn’t take long to discover a picture of it using Google’s Street View. I also looked at the adjacent streets in the historic neighborhood where the house still stands.
While I don’t reveal the address of the house in the story, I needed to see it online so that when my young, modern-say protagonist drives down the street, she’ll see something that not only is real, but that sounds real to anyone who knows the area.
Near the historic house is Kennedy Forest, a part of the city’s Forest Park, the seventh largest munipal park in the nation. While there are a lot of pictures and descriptions online and while Google Street View showed me what it looked like, a forester helped me make sure I had the tree types correct. Why? I wanted my character to go to that forest and see what is really there.
I also found major streets so that my character could drive from the Patience Worth house to the park on real streets with accurate descriptions. The descriptions add ambiance to the story and bring the real setting into believable focus.
A lot has been written about Patience Worth, the historic district where the channeling too place, and the nearby landmarks. All of this greatly helps a writer while s/he is working on a story set in a town s/he hasn’t seen for a while. The age of the house and the park fit my needs perfectly: I wanted something very old to appear in a modern world, and the locale itself helped me tell my story “Patience, I Presume.”
My approach is always to research settings and subject matter extensively and then let the story tell iself once I’ve immersed myself into the time and place where it unfolds. If you’re a writer, you probably approach your stories quite differently. We never know when we think of a story what we’ll need to do to get it down on the page the way we imagine it. I start with my atunement to place and work outward from there.