On Setting and Sharks: My Research Trip to Nantucket

A little over a year ago, I put aside the novel I’d been working on during the first year of my MFA program to start something new.  After reading an inspiring blog post by E. Lockhart on Cynsations about where fiction comes from, I had the seed of a new idea.  I had a clear emotion in mind, and I wanted to explore that emotion through my story.

But I also needed to avoid the problems I’d had with my last attempt at a novel (mainly that there wasn’t a clear inciting incident or, well, plot, and my character wanted too many disparate things instead of having one driving desire).  I decided to set the novel within a summer instead of during a whole year to keep things simpler.  And drawing upon Robert McKee’s definition of an inciting incident in Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, I came up with a true, world-shaking event to start my character’s story, and then I set her off on a journey to try to set her world right again.

That journey took her to Nantucket, a place I had loved when I was a child and we spent two weeks there every August.  I hadn’t been there in twenty years, so I knew my memories couldn’t be entirely accurate and the place had probably changed a lot.  But I figured if that was where my novel wanted to be set, I would do as much online research as I could to try to keep the setting authentic, and then later on, I could decide if I wanted to fictionalize the place.

Last weekend, on pretty much the best “working vacation” imaginable, I went back to Nantucket.  Except for the beach, which seems much narrower than it used to, the part of the island where we used to stay doesn’t feel that different from how I pictured it, but the town definitely does.  I just finished a full draft of the novel on Friday (yippee!), and I will have to take a careful look at whether or not it makes sense to fictionalize the setting as I start to revise.  I think it probably does, so that I can have more creative leeway to establish the feeling I want the town to have, but either way, my “research” trip will enrich my story.


Madaket Marina, near where we used to stay, where I biked on our second to last morning.

I had forgotten the violet puffs of cloud at sunset that look like chimney smoke, the way the marine smell hangs thicker at the dock than at the beach, the rocks and shell bits that jab your bare feet at the town beaches, and the way you have to slow down and veer to the edge of the bike path when people are coming around a curve from the other direction. As Sarah Sullivan said in a post on Through the Tollbooth about the effective use of setting in the adult book Olive Kitteridge, authors can choose “details in a setting to hold emotion, to transfer the reader’s eye off the point-of-view character onto something in the setting, thereby allowing readers to experience the particular emotion the main character experiences, along with that character […].”  We can have a character notice something in a setting that resonates with the character’s emotional state—one shiny, whole shell amidst a bunch of broken shell bits; nests of dark seaweed littering the smooth white sand; or a beach that has eroded to half the width it used to be—and leave the reader to feel the character’s emotions and make inferences about the connection between the character’s emotions and the detail she notices in the setting.  Whether or not I call the island in my novel “Nantucket,” I hope to be able to use the details I absorbed during my time there to enrich the setting of my story and increase the emotional resonance in some of my scenes.

Oh, and there’s something else from my trip that might make its way into my novel.  On the second full day of the trip, we headed two hours out into the ocean and saw five different blue sharks that came right up to our little boat.  If we wanted, we could climb down into a cage on the side of the boat to see the sharks up close underwater.  I was nervous, especially since there was an opening in the front of the cage and the plexiglass came loose from one side (but don’t worry—our guide rigged it back up), but realized that if I didn’t try it, I was going to be disappointed.  After I confirmed that someone could pull me right back out of the cage if I freaked out, I did it.  What a rush!  The sharks are this beautiful blue on top and white underneath, and it was so cool to see one shark’s white underside and its round black eyes as it chomped on the bait our guide had set up for it.  I don’t plan to randomly include a shark scene in my novel, but that feeling of doing something a little scary but exciting because I wanted to for myself, not because I was worried about what other people might think of me if I didn’t?  That could fit into my character’s journey for sure.


One of the blue sharks swimming toward our boat. (Photo taken by Mike Fabius)

One Response to “On Setting and Sharks: My Research Trip to Nantucket”

  1. janedwellable

    Hi Laurie,
    My name is Jane and I’m with Dwellable.
    I was looking for blogs about Nantucket to share on our site and I came across your post…If you’re open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
    Hope to hear from you soon!