Location, Location, Location! And I’m Not Talking Real Estate
Today, something a little different: a guest blogger! A few weeks ago, I reviewed The Gutenberg Rubric by Nathan Everett. Nathan is currently crisscrossing the United States on a book tour, while simultaneously crisscrossing the blog-o-sphere doing a blog tour. Today, Nathan drops by my little corner of the internet, and talks about the ‘where things happen’ of story telling. Enjoy!
Some 30 years ago, my mother was my only fan. She read everything I wrote, which kept me on the straight and narrow, though she never complained if I had a moderately erotic scene. It was when she read my description of the Meteora in Greece, however, that I got my most sincere compliment from her. She had visited the site a few years before and could not believe that I could describe it so well that she “felt like she was walking between the peaks” as she read, even though I’d never been there.
That’s what location is supposed to do for the reader. It grounds you with a sense of stability while the action takes place around you. It gives you reference points, distances, landmarks.
But my mother was right. I’d never been there.
Most of the locations I’ve used in my books are real places that I’ve walked through or visited. But like the Meteora, or Mount Nemrud in The Gutenberg Rubric, sometimes I have to write about places that are out of my reach for primary research. How do you make a location real and believable even if you haven’t been there?
I certainly don’t have an answer for every situation, but there are some things I do to make locations believable. And I have to admit that some of them make me look pretty ridiculous at times.
When possible, I use real locations that I can visit and observe. In For Blood or Money, I set the story on the Seattle Waterfront. I walked the streets downtown and climbed the steps from the Waterfront to the Market taking lots of photos. I had once visited a downtown penthouse condo where action could take place. I scouted how long it would take to walk from Lower Queen Anne down to the Pier. The location was very real. In fact, even the cover photo, was taken by my daughter a block off the Seattle Waterfront.
I often use places that are amalgams of several places I’ve been. For example, the library in the first chapter of The Gutenberg Rubric is a combination of a library I once visited in Vancouver, a picture of a library I found on-line, and the Rarig Center for the Performing Arts on the University of Minnesota campus. The prestigious university where the book’s Kane Memorial Library is located went unspecified, though there were details based on places that I knew—how far from the bridge to the library, an interesting reflecting pool, even an apartment where I once lived. There was no reason to indicate at what university or where in the country this library was located. What was necessary was to make it believable and real so that as Keith crossed the campus to the library, the reader could walk with him.
Finally, when the location is a real place that I cannot physically visit, I do research. Of course, I do online research, often letting the links that appear on pages lead me miles from the search page that got me started. In the library—a real physical place—I am one of those who uses the card catalog (or computer lookup) to get a starting point and then browse the shelves all along the aisle where a single reference work might be located. I pull book after book off the shelves, scan through it, and carefully re-shelve it. I carry a notepad and jot down references, occasionally checking a book out of the library if I believe it has material beyond a sentence or two or a photo. My first task is to make the location real to me.
The biggest pitfall for me in doing location work is attempting to “tell” the readers about the location instead of “showing” it to them. Showing the location requires action and action can make you look funny.
There is a 2-acre park next door to my house. When I am getting ready to write a scene in which the location is important (almost all of them), I go to the park and visualize where the action occurs. I don’t attempt to describe the height of the buildings and the width of the street. I focus on how winded I am when I climb the hill, how fast I can get from one location to another, what I have to go around in order to go forward. Obstacles are a great way to put the reader in the location where the action is. Take this example: “The crowd forced him to the edge of the sidewalk and he jammed his knee painfully against a fire hydrant as he fell off the curb.” There is no need to tell how many people were in the crowd, how wide the sidewalk, or what color the fire hydrant. We fill those details in from our own experience.
Location is as important in story-telling as it is in real estate. Like my mother, the reader needs to feel like she is walking between the peaks.
The Gutenberg Rubric: http://www.gutenbergrubric.com
The Rubricant Blog: http://www.gutenbergrubric.com/blog
Author Central: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B004QVVE1S