Actors sometime talk about “inhabiting” a character. As near as I can tell, they mean that they try to get inside the skin of the character and live—at least for a while—as if they are that person. They want to ‘think’ like the character so their actions will come natural.
We writers generally can’t do the same thing because we are writing “many” characters. We can’t inhabit just one or all our characters will sound and act the same. What we can do, however, is inhabit the setting our characters move through. Setting has a powerful influence on character thoughts & actions. It affects every character.
Take the woods, for example. I grew up in the country and spent a lot of time in the forest. I’ve been there in daytime, in fog, in mornings & evenings, at night. I’ve camped out. Explored. I’ve been cold and shivering there, felt awe and fear. While writing the book Cold in the Light, which was set mostly in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, I took many long walks in the woods at night to try and get back the feel for such wild climes. I was putting my characters through that kind of experience and wanted to feel what they were supposed to be feeling. I think it worked, and parts of that book made me distinctly uncomfortable while writing them.
Anyone can experience the woods, of course. But what if the story setting doesn’t actually exist? Under the Ember Star takes place on the frigid desert world of Kelmer. I’ve never been. So how did I ‘inhabit’ that environment? First, my wife and I took a trip several years ago to Arizona & New Mexico. Lana is a photographer and took many pictures of barren, desiccated landscapes. We toured a slot canyon that showed the power of water in a desert setting. I spent a lot of time in those places, soaking in the feel. I also read a bunch of books about living in desert environments, such as Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire.
Then I did lots of imagination work related to the story. Not just on the storyline. I imagined and worked through scenarios in my head for all kinds of settings in the book. I asked questions like, what if I had been there a few hours before an event in the book took place, or a few hours after? What would the temperature be? How much dust would be in the air? Would there be bugs? Would there be any food? How would the plants look? I followed these questions up, if needed, by Googling photos and chronicles that might help me.
A writer’s primary job is to get the reader to ‘experience’ what the characters are experiencing. Inhabiting the setting for a story is one way to do that.