Location, Location, Location

I fell in love with New Orleans before I ever stepped a foot into the city. James Lee Burke was the matchmaker, and all it took was THE NEON RAIN. Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January novels, as well as Burke’s subsequent Dave Robicheaux novels (Right up to and including CREOLE BELLE) sealed the deal. I lost my heart, probably forever. I had of course been exposed to New Orleans through literature and other media well before I read those books. When I was a wee tad there was a police drama entitled Bourbon Street Beat that I watched religiously; and I studied the plays of Tennessee Williams in high school. But it was that Burke book caused me to lose my heart, probably forever.
I was thinking about this today because I started reading Linwood Barclay’s new novel, TRUST YOUR EYES. This is a very different book for Linwood, one that I would strongly recommend to both old fans of his and new readers based just on the first few chapters which I’ve read so far. One of the primary characters is a gentleman who is obsessed with maps, to the extent that he spends hours and days and weeks visiting cities through the magic of a Google Street View- type tool. When offered the opportunity to actually physically visit one of the cities that he treads in cyberspace, he declines. There are reasons for this — read the book, please — but my reason for bringing this up is that there have been any number of novels that, unlike Linwood’s character, have made me want to trace the footsteps and tire tracks of the characters, to experience the sights and smells and sounds in real time and real place. I will be in Louisiana in a month or so and plan to make a quick trip to New Iberia to do just that — Burke and Robicheaux, once again — and on the way back I’m going to try to stop in Nashville just long enough to drive past some of the haunts which J.T. Ellison features in her novels. And who could read DRIVE or DRIVEN by James Sallis and not tempted to visit — with the windows rolled up, of course — some of the dustier sides of Phoenix?
So I’m curious. Have you read novels that have affected you in the manner? Has a particular book or author motivated you to visit a particular city or place and undertake a self-guided tour, using a story as a guide? Has a fictitious character or account actually prompted you to pull up stakes and move? And if you’ve had an experience such as this was it everything that you hoped it would be? Or were you disappointed?

14 thoughts on “Location, Location, Location

  1. Joe, I often use the street view feature of Google Maps to check out an area that will be used in a scene. I recently took a virtual “drive” in and around New Castle, Indiana searching for the perfect location of a series of scenes in THE GATE, my current WIP. And I used realty.com to choose the exact farmhouse where the event takes place. It even included a virtual tour of the house, room by room.

    As far as being drawn into a location in a book, in my much younger years, I dreamed of being a resident in the giant castle in Mervyn Peake’s trilogy: TITUS GROAN, GORMENGHAST, and TITUS ALONE.

  2. Joe, I think it was Tin Roof Blowdown that had one line, somewhere in the middle stating ‘New Iberia has the prettiest Main Street in the South’, or something to that effect. I carried around that line scribbled on a post-it for 6 months before I finally convinced my husband to drive to New Iberia to check it out.
    I now use James Lee Burke’s books as guide books to the whole area. Dave Robicheaux is an excelled tour guide!
    Let me know when you are back in New Orleans. I’d love to meet up for a drink and talk writing…I think there is a bar or two there we could find.

    Victoria Allman
    author of: SEAsoned: A Chef’s Journey with Her Captain


  3. Great post, Joe. Good morning. I’m reading JT Ellison now, her latest A DEEPER DARKNESS, and LOVING it. Wonderful writer with a sparse efficient style that I love. She definitely draws you to her city.

    I LOVE New Orleans, have for years from books, but seeing it is an incredibly rich experience. Stories ooze from every corner & you feel the history & diverse cultures everywhere. I use the tools that you & Joe do, but some places demand a visit.

    Right now I’m working a proposal set in Terlingua, TX, an old miner’s ghost town outside Big Bend national park. Think desert sunsets, stone ruins & historical cemeteries in a now artist community with colorful people who refuse to leave. It’s calling me. Gotta go.

  4. Isn’t Google street view absolutely amazing? I mean, if you think about it, think of where we were 10 years ago. I just mapped out a complete surveillance scene in my WIP, going through street after street in LA. I even found some details in a little shop in Chinatown, just by zooming in. Incredible. So Linwood’s premise is awesome. Since it’s on the cover dopy, there’s no spoiler: the map obsessed young man sees one capture of a window that appears to have a murder happening.

    As for locations….I’ve always been a city boy, and my curse is that I love my hometown. So almost all my novels, even the zombie legal thrillers, have authentic LA locations. I would say the novels of Raymond Chandler, and later John Fante, kept me “coming home.”

  5. James Lee Burke’s writing abilities have amazed and entertained me through dozens of books and a few decades.
    IMO no one does description(or much else) better.

    I’ve never been to Loisiana but I’ve felt a sheen of sweat and smelled the richness of the moss-draped vegetation along the bayou as bream popped at the water’s surface.

    His characters deeply and inimitably imprint in two or three brilliant lines.

    Cletus Pucell may be the most vivid and engaging secondary character in any genre.

    Great post, Joe!
    I’m going to use the Google street view – thanks.

    Incidentally – I am rather fond of JLB as a writer. Prior to the Google street tchnology no one puts you in the scene better.

  6. Place is probably more important to me than the average reader. A writer’s sense of place quite literally moved me. I grew up reading Zane Grey and his Arizona based novels guaranteed it would become my future home.

    I hope when I’m published that strong sense of place will show through too.

  7. The key to using a location is to create ambience, the special atmosphere or mood created by a particular environment. Right now, I’m reading A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth. The George Clooney movie, The American, was based on the book. Booth, a poet, does a masteful job of creating the ambiance of a small Italian village. The movie was promoted as a thriller, but the book is more than that.

  8. SMILA’S SENSE OF SNOW gave me a temporary Copenhagen obsession. I went about a year after I read the book and tried to hunt down the apartment building where the boy is shoved off the roof. It was hard to find and I went into a scientific building that specializes in ice (forget the name, but it’s also in the book) and a professor there drew me a map. The building felt exactly how I’d imagined it.

  9. Victoria, I’ll be in Louisiana from 9/23-9/30 and I’ll be sending you a separate e-mail. I’d love to talk and visit!

    Jordan, good afternoon!I’m familiar with Terlingua via a singer named Jerry Jeff Walker who, interestingly enough, was arrested at the Cafe du Monde in New Orleans for dancing drunkenly on a table. He used the experience to write the hit song, “Mr. Bojangles” Funny how it all circles around, isn’t it? I’ll look forward to your book.

    Google street view is a time bandit, Jim. I visited my old apartment building in San Francisco, places I’ve lived in before and since, and watched a friend of mine who will be mowing the lawn in front of his house for all eternity, apparently. Ironically, my own current street has not been recorded. Just as well.

    Thank you tjc. Interestingly enough, I have had some folks tell me that I put them in the mind of Clete. I know longer drink, but I share a number of his traits physically and emotionally, for better and worse.

    BK, I know what you mean about Zane Grey. When I drove out to Phoenix several years’ ago I could actually see the ghosts of cowboys and horses and it was due in large part to Gray’s books. I’ll look forward to your own take on the local scenery in the future.

    RG…agreed, for sure. I actually think it’s more difficult for an author to get in to the nooks and crannies of a small setting than a bigger one. It is for me, anyway.

    I know just what you mean about SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW. I have done that so many times in New Orleans, particularly with Barbara Hambly’s novels. BTW, I think that SMILLA should have been the book that sparked the now-current interest in Nordic noir.

  10. My husband and I visited New Orleans this summer. I’ve always wanted to go there, but I didn’t develop the desire from a novel, more from hearing about Mardi Gras and Cajun Food. So, we made a trip as part of our anniversary. I wrote a review and posted some photos taken while there.

    If you’d like to check it out, here’s a link.

    I really loved New Orleans. There is one place that I visited first and then read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Love it! Try Savannah, GA!

  11. Thanks for sharing, Diana! I’ve taken that tour of St. Louis Cemetery I a couple of times. I still visit the nearby mortuary chapel every time I go.

  12. Crusing the Nile on a dahabiya is on my bucket list, thanks to Elizabeth Peters’ books.

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