Put Away Your Passport

by Michelle Gagnon

A fellow writer asked during a recent Sisters in Crime meeting if we felt it necessary to visit every location where our books are set. A debate ensued between the people who said it was absolutely critical to see a place in order to convey an accurate sense of it, and those who thought that having to visit a place in order to describe it might end up limiting the scope of your story.

Here’s an anecdote that came to mind: I attended one of Martin Cruz Smith’s readings a few years back. Someone asked how long he’d lived in Russia prior to writing Gorky Park, since he had done such an amazing job of nailing the feel of the place, from the muddied politics to the bathhouses. His response? A week.

How on earth did he manage to develop a sense of the place in a week? The person asked.

Smith shrugged, and said, “Actually, I barely saw anything when I was there. Most of it I just made up.”

That story always stuck with me, since as a writer the travel question is something I constantly grapple with. I would love to spend half the year jetting around to exotic locations (wouldn’t we all?), but pragmatically speaking there’s no way that will ever happen (and frankly, I would prefer to steer clear of some of the places where my books are set. For God’s sake, CRIME happens there).

Of course, I could make my life easier by setting stories in the Bay Area – I can’t explain why I developed such an unfortunate tendency to set my books on the east coast, or pretty much anywhere that I’m not currently living.

THE TUNNELS took place at my alma mater. I would have loved to have made a trip back while I was writing the book, but financially there was just no way (and my reunions always seem to conflict with Bouchercon).

Same with BONEYARD: I spent a summer living in the Berkshires, but that was nearly two decades ago. I still remember what the place felt like, but in terms of landmarks, much has probably changed.

For THE GATEKEEPER, which jumps from location to location across the southwest, this became particularly problematic. I’ve never been to Houston, yet a considerable portion of the book takes place there.

And the book I just started takes place almost entirely in Mexico City. While I’d love to justify a visit south of the border, it probably won’t happen this year.

So how do I handle this? I improvise. I read guidebooks. I spend hours scouting places with Google maps (special thanks to them for their satellite view option- that feature has been life changing for me). Boneyard revolved around a particular section of the Appalachian Trail, and I read online journals and blog posts by people who had hiked that section. With each book I probably end up doing as much location research as investigating how to build a dirty bomb, or neo-paganism, or whatever else gets incorporated into the story.

Of course, there are times when I wish I was Cara Black, able to write off a month-long Parisian vacation by setting my books there. But I believe that your story finds you. I’ve never once sat back and thought, “I’d really like to set the next book in the Berkshires.” Whatever germ of an idea I have, it always seems to be one that could only take place somewhere specific. And that somewhere has yet to be a place that I live (Freud would probably have a field day with that).

So my question is, do you think that passport has to get stamped in the interest of verisimilitude? Or will Google maps suffice?

14 thoughts on “Put Away Your Passport

  1. If you’ve got a good imagination and reliable reference materials the visit probably isn’t necessary unless you really, really want to.

    Some my books take place in places I’ve been such as:

    Fairbanks Ak, my birthplace
    Columbus Ohio, my childhood home
    Anchorage Ak, my current home

    And others are in:

    Iran: the Ayatollah’s Hood, woot, woot!
    Bosnia: training ground for snipers
    Sierra Leone: machete wielding rebels
    Myanmar: Landmine capital of the world

    All places I haven’t been and don’t see ever returning from if I do go…therefore don’t plan to take the trips…

    Google Maps & Wikipedia….yeah baby, that’s how I roll.


  2. The locations in the four Cotten Stone thrillers span the globe with a good portion of our last in the series, THE 731 LEGACY, taking place in North Korea. Many of our locations would be hard if not impossible to visit and still complete the book in a year. A good portion of our newest thriller, THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, takes place in Mexico City. The location details came from accounts posted on the Internet in combination with Google Earth and Maps along with tourist and guide books, and personal travel blogs. Although Lynn and I strive for accuracy in our books when it comes to location, I believe the story comes first while location details are like seasoning and should be used to taste.

  3. I like the realism of visiting the sites, plus I can take pix for my website. Plus, the reality of a scene gives me inspiration. Martin told me the same thing, but also said he visited Russia several additional times for subsequent books. You bet there’s plenty of research available online and elsewhere — and interviews are helpful — but I always learn something by visiting a site. Maybe it’s a comfort zone thing…

  4. I’m writing a series set in Las Vegas and I’ve been there a total of six days in the last thirteen years. The internet and Youtube are invaluable. And fortunately there are so many TV shows and movies set there, so I can get some of the color from those.

  5. I like to set stories in places I’ve lived in, or know well. Tat gives me a feel for the poeple, weather, and attitude of the area. After that, it’s Google maps and searches. There are sites that specialize in mentioning places only locals are aware of. These can be invaluable.

    Beyond that, if I need a specific location and Pittsburgh doesn’t have one, I make it up. It’s fiction. It’s one thing to get a real thing wrong, but making up something completely should be fine.

  6. I like to use non-familiar locations within locations. For instance when I set in New Orleans I have rarely used the French Quarter, staying to the outside edges or writing the lakefront, the CBD, the waterfronts,across the River, etc. Most residents only go into the French Quarter to do something specific. You can’t get that on the internet, it’s local color. I prefer to write places I know so I can see it as I write, but I have certainly made up places.

    I’ve lived in cities and I’ve lived in rural areas and small towns. I agree that you can get away with a lot if you use minimal detail. I’ve written scenes in the Urals without ever seeing them. I did talk to people who had been there.

  7. I’m with you Michelle – I draw upon memories of places I’ve visited sure but the story comes first and I can’t go everywhere so I research what I can from my desk. For Serpent I didn’t get to Egypt or Palestine – but I expect it all looks very different to what it did in 1912 so I got guide books from the time, photographs, memoirs etc…and made the rest up:)

  8. Yes, I definitely don’t see myself visiting Iran or Libya any time soon (although I hear Libya has some amazing ruins). North Korea is probably off the list as well.

    You raise a good point, Dana. For the Berkshires book (Boneyard) I’d say 99% of it is accurate- but for one scene, I needed a limestone quarry where no quarry existed. So I made one up- fiction is fiction, right?

  9. Timely subject for me, as I’ve just decided to visit the local horse track, an alley in downtown Red Bank, and the wide-open areas of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. It’s not the streets or landmarks I’m looking for, but the tiny little details that make fictional locations seem real — two birds chirping, a black, broken branch that snags a character’s clothing. I’ve made this stuff up before (and it sounds like it here, doesn’t it?), but I want to turn loose the old journalist, see if the real locations can provide better images than my imagination. I’ll report back …..

  10. OK, Google Maps won’t be enough — but there are many ways to meet a landscape and savor its particulars. More critical than the amount or method of research, I think, is whether the narrative carries the reader effectively. Consider this, too: For those of us narrating other time periods, there will be no instant image from which to paint. How much we bond with and can detail the “place” and its interaction with the characters becomes the measure.

  11. I hope that the future buyers for my book aren’t looking for a travel guide. If it wasn’t for Google, I’d be writing about a scenario that takes place entirely in my master bedroom! The bulk of my novel is about the protag and what happens to her… not about the town.

  12. Actually, the Berkshires has barely changed at all all, and you nailed it in Boneyard!
    I never do travel research. Then again, I usually set my books a few blocks from my apartment!
    Jason Starr

  13. I think you can get away with transposing personal experiences that have occured in simliar locations. I’ve traveled a lot and while I’ve not been in every Latin American country I know I can fudge the issue for a place I’ve not visited if I use a guide book layered on a personal adventures. šŸ™‚

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