Lea Wait, here, working on two books. Both are set in Maine: one on an island (the second in the Maine Murder Mystery series,) and one in a small harbor town with a working waterfront (the ninth in the Mainely Needlepoint series).
If you think those settings are very similar, you’d be right about a few basics. Both places have access to, and a view of, the sea. Both books include fishermen, visitors from away, and Mainers who make their living from the tourist industry. Herring gulls and barnacles and rockweed; rocky beaches and lighthouses; and, of course, the omnipresent (at least in books) lobsters, are in both books.
But my descriptions of the settings of each book will be very different.
First, the book set on an island takes place in mid-June, and the Mainely Needlepoint book takes place in late July. Perhaps only a six-week different on a calendar, but in-season vegetables, fruit, and fish are different. Late July temperatures can be twenty or more degrees warmer than in June. Hurricanes could be brewing in August. What wildflowers will be blooming at each time? What birds and butterflies will be in residence, and which traveling through? How many days will be rainy? How high will the temperature and humidity rise? What about fog? When it is more likely?
Before I begin a book I take a little while to check all my natural history books to make sure I have it right. I’ve written books set in places as divergent as Edinburgh, Scotland, and Charleston, South Carolina, so researching those areas makes sense. But two books set in Maine should be a cinch, right? After all — I live there! Of course I’d know what the natural world looked like around me.
But, still, I check. Two books are especially helpful — Naturally Curious: A Photographic Field Guide and Month-by-Month Journey through the Fields, Woods, and Marshes of New England, and even better for my purposes, A Natural History of Camden and Rockport by E.C. Parker. Published by the Camden-Rockport Historical Society in 1984, that second book isn’t easily available (I found mine in a second-hand bookstore in New Jersey) but I love it because it includes historical changes in wildlife and a detailed analysis of the physical geography. Of course — global warming has changed some time frames since 1984, but most of the information is still good.
I also have several shelves of books on nature, from rocks to birds, mammals, sea life, ferns, snakes, insects — whatever. I want my readers to smell the salt on the kelp they see on the beaches or mud flats, recognize the dragonflies or bats or butterflies whizzing past them, and be able to identify the periwinkles and sea urchin and limpet shells they pick up on beaches while they’re looking for blue or red (rare colors!) sea glass.
So before I write a book I jot down what parts of the natural environment my characters are most likely to encounter. Sometimes the encounter is the basis for a scene; more often it is a passing comments. Some characters take the world around them for granted; for others, it is a new place; they notice differences from previous places they’ve lived. But in both cases, my motive is simple: to pull my readers into the place and time I’ve chosen to set my story.