Take a trip—and never leave the farm

[May 2007] Because of the Hardy Boys, I went to Greece.


When I was a young reader, I devoured the Franklin W. Dixon books. The local librarian peered down her nose at me when I checked them out. Her sighs betrayed her belief that they were only on the shelves because the library couldn’t afford anything better. She deemed them junk food, long before anyone used that term.

One of the later books in the series, The Shattered Helmet, was set partly in Greece and the foreign setting fascinated me. Several years later, when my high school history and art teachers announced they were arranging a spring break trip to Greece in 1978, the resonance from that book returned to me. I set about trying to convince my parents I should go. To my delight and surprise, they didn’t take much convincing. Though we weren’t exactly rich, they had traveled overseas for the first time a few years earlier and had an appreciation for the potential benefits.

The trip did not disappoint—everything exotic I believed about Greece based on The Shattered Helmet was borne out by reality, and then some.

Over the years since then, I’ve traveled extensively—Australia, Hong Kong, Venezuela, Hawaii, the Caribbean, all over Europe—and I lived in Switzerland for a couple of years. Most of my journeys took place before I started writing, though. I have photographs and memories of those locations, but when I visited I wasn’t looking with a writer’s eye for detail.

Two days from now, I’m leaving for Japan. I’m spending the better part of a week in Tokyo and Osaka. It’s my fourth or fifth trip to that country, but my first since I began writing. I’m excited about the possibility of gathering local color for a story I might set there some day. I have an idea already—I’ve had a research file about hikikomori on my memory stick for over a year. This trip might help kick start that story.

When I travel these days, I take a recording device so I can preserve intriguing details as I encounter them. For Japan, it’ll be a camera and a digital voice recorder. The country is so high tech that if I’m seen muttering into my hand I won’t look crazy. Video cameras are great tools for recording impressions that you can revisit over and over again later, observing new details—new sights and sounds—to dab into your fictions.

I’ve set tales in Australia, Hong Kong and Canada and have traveled around Texas to capture settings for stories and novels. I like getting details right. Nothing annoys me more than reading a book or watching a film set in a familiar location to discover they’ve bollixed it up. I remember an episode of a TV show where the cast went to Paris. Between the airport and their hotel, the taxi passed every famous site in the city. Boy, did they ever get taken for a ride. Readers of The Da Vinci Code familiar with Paris will suspect that Dan Brown never visited there before writing the book, too.

Stephen King said that one of the barriers to writing Cell, even though he had the inspiration for the novel several years earlier, was that he originally planned to set it in Manhattan but didn’t know the city well enough. He anticipated all the letters he would get if his characters left town via routes anyone familiar with the city would never use. Readers are quick to let you know when you get it wrong—witness the Dark Tower fans who knew the A Train didn’t go to the station where Odetta lost her legs. When King relocated the story to a more familiar place—Boston—Cell took off for him.

Books possess the power to allow readers to—in the words of Jim Stafford—take a trip and never leave the farm. The setting can be as crucial to the story as the characters. Sometimes the locale is exotic—a Greek island or Jerusalem, as in Graham Joyce’s House of Lost Dreams and Requiem—or simply foreign (to many of us), as in Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh novels and Colin Dexter’s detective stories set in Oxford. One reason I enjoy David Lindsey’s crime novels is because they are usually set in Houston or other parts of Texas familiar to me.

These writers have intimate knowledge of their settings, either because they’ve lived there or spent considerable time visiting the locations.

We make things up all the time. We create people who never lived and put them through ordeals that never happened. Why not simply make up locations? That’s certainly an option. Science fiction writers do it all the time, and some authors create fictional towns where they can establish the geography as they go along. Ed McBain’s fictional Isola is a Manhattan clone, but he doesn’t have to be slavishly faithful to a real place.

There are advantages to using real locations. Every city and town brings with it history and geography you can use as an anchor for your story. You don’t have to make up as much when you use a real place, and the closer a lie is to the truth the more believable it becomes.

When it comes to setting, though, all the stay-at-home research in the world won’t provide sufficient insight into a place you’ve never visited to convince readers you know it. The little things get you, details so self-evident no one ever bothers to mention them.

A while back, I set a novel in a small West Texas city. I looked at maps and satellite images, read newspapers and travel journals. Pored over photographs and read guidebooks. I thought I had the place down cold—until I went there and discovered that what appears on maps to be the main street is actually an eastbound one-way thoroughfare. The westbound street is a block north. Something so fundamental to the geography eluded my extensive research. If I had staged a head-on car accident on that street, anyone who’d ever been there would know I hadn’t.

Neither did I appreciate the impact the Amtrak train has on the town when it rolls through every afternoon, closing gates at level crossings and backing up traffic, or from how far away you can hear the whistles blow when the freight trains pass by late at night. Or the way the mountains are visible no matter which way you look, dominating the horizon the same way the Eiffel Tower dominates Paris. I now have hours of video from a camera that I mounted on the dashboard of the car as I drove around, making observations to myself for future reference.

Unless you go to a mill town, you don’t appreciate how noxious smells permeate everything on days when the wind blows in certain directions. Spring Garden Road in Halifax looks perfectly flat on a map, but when you walk up it from Barrington Street toward the university, you discover that its gentle incline can sap your strength, especially on a brisk winter day. If you write a story set in downtown Houston on a Saturday afternoon and populate it with throngs of pedestrians, people who’ve been there will shake their heads, because you can shoot a canon ball down the sidewalk on a hot weekend afternoon and endanger no one. Even the Subway restaurant is closed.

I have cheated in the past—I had to set a story in Prague recently, so I did the research, made sure I included a handful of details to create local color, and kept as much of the plot indoors as possible to avoid egregious errors. Besides, it was a science fiction story set in the near future, so I could hand wave and make things up if I didn’t know them.

When you get location settings right, though, people familiar with your setting will nod and say, “That’s it. Exactly.” You create a connection with them. We’re members of the same club.

Other readers are our armchair tourists and we’re the virtual travel guides, showing them places they might never get to visit, or perhaps inspiring them—like I was inspired as a teenager—to want to visit these locations.

It’s an awesome power, don’t you think?

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