I sometimes envy those authors whose books are centered in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. They describe neighborhoods and toss out street names and locations like a poker dealer throwing out the new hands to the players. Of course, if those authors live in those cities, then the familiarity is understood. For me, though, it’s still amazing because they seem to know their metropolises like the backs of their hands.
I’m not sure I would like to venture into writing a scene in one of those towns. My fear is someone would write back with corrections. “Hey you idiot, the Bronx Zoo is not located by La Guardia airport.” I have enough problems withDes Moines,Iowa. In major metropolitan areas, there are always a few radio stations broadcasting traffic and weather every five to eight minutes and with the slew of interstates, highways, and interchanges, the traffic reports can be daunting and confusing. For those not familiar with Iowa’s capital city, you’d better be listening carefully and closely when the traffic reports air. Why? For the simple reason that the sponsors’ commercials last longer than the report.
However, I digress. When outlining my book “Beta”, I discovered I was going to have to do a lot of research to stay true to the locations depicted. I really admire the late Ed McBain and his ability to create an entire fictional city for his 87th Precinct stories. For me, I can create fictional characters, as well as a few fictional locations. However, for “Beta”, I wanted to use actual locations if possible.
So I spent countless hours visiting the various locations, sitting in my car writing descriptions in a notebook, maybe snapping a picture or two. Often times, if a scene took place inside, I took the time to talk to the employees, learn a little about the business, and again, scribble down some details.
Part of my novel is set in the Quad Cities, where I spent several years as a child. I was familiar with the area. Still, I wanted to visit locales, get a feel for the neighborhoods, talk to some people. I drove the route my detective and her partner took during their day together, stopping at various places, noticing minor details I wouldn’t have caught had not been there.
After I did this, I discovered a problem. The detective’s search for the missing little girl by traveling all over the Quad Cities takes all day. She leaves the police station around nine in the morning and doesn’t return until after five in the afternoon. My problem was that, even taking into account time for visits and conversations, I finished my route by noon. How could I fill up the rest of the day in the story? I didn’t feel I could legitimately add in more scenes just for filler. I needed to slow down the day without resorting to an out-of-left-field time warp. To do this, I added in traffic problems, delays due to police activity, lunch, and scene where my detective gets to con a con by playing to his baser emotions.
Another problem I’ve had with my research is often times businesses will change or even disappear. In the last few years, the downtown Des Moines landscape has drastically altered. The building where I set Mallory’s office building is no more, as well as some restaurants, gas stations, and other businesses I’ve included. In the years during which I wrote this story, I left in a lot of the material from those original research excursions because I couldn’t go back and alter the scenes to fit reality. It would have taken too much time and I’d have never finished the book.
However, one benefit to my travels was I met people and saw things that ultimately ended up in the story. A lot of the people you read about and little tidbits added to the scenes are based on actual sightings. The stern secretary who wouldn’t assist me in my endeavors. The almost militaristic and or mechanical receptionist and parking attendants. The flustered receptionist who didn’t have a clue what I wanted. The surly looking meat market owner. Of course, I changed the names of many actual businesses and fictionalized their interiors since I was unable to see inside. I felt very happy, though, to accumulate much more material by just looking around me as I traveled.
Sometimes…you just can’t make up this stuff.