“Real World” Problems

imgresToday we welcome Barbara Nickless as a guest blogger. Her new novel, Blood on the Tracks, has just been released and today she talks about some of the real problems involved in researching this great book. I’ll be on the airplane home to Denver after cheering my husband on in the NYC marathon so I hope you give Barbara a great TKZ welcome and lots of comments!

“Real World” Problems

As soon as I decided to write a police procedural about a modern-day railroad cop in Colorado, I knew I had to set my thriller in the very real city of Denver. Denver is a major hub for western railroads, which have large operations there. As a railroad cop, my protagonist’s territory would cover 35,000 miles. But she—like her railroad—would be based out of Denver.

The problem? Even though I live only 60 miles away, Denver might as well be on the other side of the world for all I knew about it. To write a believable book, I had to go beyond geography. I needed to understand the workings of the Denver Police Department, the ins and outs of the railroads operating out of Denver, and Denver’s history, demographics, economy, and government. I had to get a feel for where my heroes would dine, work, study and live. Just as important, I had to know where my villains would lie, cheat, steal and murder.

Unsure whether to use actual settings for your novel? Here are some dos and don’ts if you decide to play it real.

Do get your facts straight. Errors will jolt your readers out of their willing suspension of disbelief. Start by learning as much as you can about your locale upfront. Online resources like Wikipedia and Google Earth provide everything from weather conditions to street views. There are websites for businesses and institutions where your characters might work, as well as information on museums and restaurants where they can conduct meetings or relax. Additional digging can turn up articles written by the locals, which will give you a feel for the local lingo and tell you what about their city makes them proud (or ashamed). Look at online magazines and newspapers, too, and consider subscribing. When I needed a swanky home in a swanky neighborhood for one of my characters, the Denver magazine 5280 told me the best areas of town, while Zillow offered maps, prices and photographs. And speaking of maps! I bought a large city map, a Denver street guide, a railroad map and a police precinct map. Hang them on your wall and add satellite or street-level photos. Or use pushpins to mark where the bodies are buried.

Don’t think everything has to be real-world. Feel free to make up some locales, especially if bad things happen there and you want to avoid a lawsuit. For my thriller, I took real neighborhoods, gave them the twist I needed, then sometimes renamed them. Denverites who’ve read my novel tell me it’s been fun trying to pinpoint neighborhoods and separate fact from fiction. Another huge part of my setting is the railroad my cop works for. Since railroads are privately owned and I didn’t want to risk offending the actual businesses, I created my own. While I’ve done my best to get general railroading facts straight, I’m free to make up the details.

Do travel there if you can. Nothing beats on-the-street research. For my novel, I was fortunate to find a retired Denver PD detective who also loves trains. Not only did he take me on tours of the Denver Crime Lab and police headquarters, he helped me pinpoint train track locations and find hobo camps. The railway cop who provided invaluable information for my book told me where hobos “catch out” (hop a freight train) and gave me a tour of the yards. He also banished my preconceived notion that railway police, like a lot of traditional police, have partners to help shoulder the load.

Don’t worry about getting it perfect. In Blood on the Tracks, I added a disclaimer at the end of the book stating that I’d taken a few liberties not only in the layout of my settings, but also in the institutions I portrayed such as the Denver police and the U.S. Marines.

What about you? Does your book take place in a real setting or a fictional one? And what are some of your tricks for handling either situation?

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22 thoughts on ““Real World” Problems

  1. I’ve bookmarked this page to come back to again. My stories take place in both fictional and real places. I believe if you set it up right, a reader will go with you wherever. Great post!

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  2. First, LOVED the book.
    My ‘tricks’ for adjusting settings are very much like yours. Readers, I believe, will accept a lot if the roots are grounded in reality. I did have one reader ‘complain’ that there weren’t any towns at 6000 feet in the area (also near Denver) where I’d set my Mapleton Mystery series. I merely smiled and said, “Yes, there is one. It’s Mapleton.” Most readers aren’t that finicky.

    I only set one book in a real town. I lived in Orlando and thought it would be easier to research locations, seasonal weather, flora and fauna, etc., since I wouldn’t have to travel, but it was harder making sure I got things right when I had my character going into the Sheriff’s Office building, etc.

    And there’s always the issue of dealing with change. Between writing and publishing, the Orlando restaurant I’d carefully researched for a scene closed, so that one looks made up, too.

    After that book, I went back to, and stuck with, “based on” settings.

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    • Terry, it’s so good to hear from you!

      You hit the nail on the head with the difficulty in real world settings: it seems easier, but there are so many details. Maybe one reader in a thousand (if that) will know what the homicide division at the Denver PD headquarters looks like–but I still want to get it right.

      I really like the words “based on.”

      And I’m pretty sure I’ve been to Mapleton … 😉

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      • When I called my contact at the Orlando Sheriff’s Office to ask him questions about the building, like “what color are the walls, the carpet, etc.?” he said (although he’d worked there over 10 years) he had no clue. But he invited me down for a tour. GOLDEN!

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  3. Good post, Barbara, and great suggestions all. I especially agree with your idea about hanging up a big map of your area. My series takes place in Southwest coastal Florida and Michigan. I was born and raised in Michigan and visit often (am up here now!) but the aging brain can’t always be reliable for giving you the accuracy you need. So, yeah, I have big Michigan maps in my office and for my WIP, I have traveled many a Google Streetview highway up here, especially in the remote Upper Peninsula. Ditto The Fort Myers area. I sort of “know” it but I make the three-hour drive over there from Fort Lauderdale often for research. Nothing subs for real contact! And I found my victim’s special house on Zillow!

    You made me remember my early publishing days when I wrote a historical family saga set in San Francisco. The book went from 1904 to 1980s, so I had to do a ton of research. I had been to the city many times but I rented a tiny apartment there for 3 weeks just to do heavy research. (hey, it was a good tax deduction!) And I subscribed to the Chronicle for 6 months. (Back then, newspapers were a richer source of local color then they now are).

    One thing I would add is that if you are writing about an iconic location — New York, Paris, San Francisco — anyplace that looms large in the reader’s imagination, you have to be doubly careful. You almost have to go at the location obliquely, like your characters are seeing it from the corners of their eyes rather than dead-on, like a tourist. You need to not only find a way to capture the aura of the place but also find areas of those special cities that the average person does not know about.

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    • PJ, thanks so much!

      Wow, a historical! Now that’s a lot of research. But what fun to rent an apartment in the city where your book takes place. It’s kind of magical, isn’t it? A way of immersing yourself fully in the story.

      And you are so right about iconic locations. Thanks for bringing that up. Even if people have never traveled there, they probably have ideas about the place that they’d like to leave intact. Finding little-known areas in these famous cities sounds like a challenge–and a great reason to visit.

      And a question, if I may: when you visit a place that will appear in your book, do you take notes? Photographs? Drink in the ambiance?

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  4. My series is set in a fictional town in south central Oklahoma. Not only that, a fictional Indian community is set southeast of downtown, west of the airport. An old, abandoned sewage plant sits across the river (a fictional fork of the real Canadian River that flows through Oklahoma City from the northwest). All three are essential for my story to come together.

    What was fun was the main character, who has been a military police officer in Afghanistan, was gone for five years. When she returns home, she realizes that all of the restaurants and many of the stores of what she and her schoolmates used to call The Strip, are gone. So NOW where do you get a bowl of good ole greasy Oklahoma Chili? And, for pete’s sake, where is Washington’s Bar-b-que? One cannot exist without Washington’s Bar-b-que.

    Though the First Baptist Church looks the same, where is the police station? And what the dickens in this covered shopping mall doing where Washington’ Bar-b-que once stood?

    But one very important new thing, that has to do with the reunion with her twin sister, is that the tribe now has a casino and a large hotel where much of the impoverished little Indian community use to be. Where is the tribal museum. She had sent her Silver Star and her Dress Blues to the little building. Actually, it was less a museum as it was the front room of the house of the last Indian agents that essentially ceased to exist some 70 years ago.

    Loved making all that up. Thank you for sharing your experience about creating your own vision of Denver. I used to work in downtown Denver. The street of the office building where our office was located doesn’t even exist anymore. It is now blocked to traffic and is a pedestrian mall. Used to get great orange sherbet on that street. Denver without orange sherbet seems a little sad.

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    • Wow, Jim, your series sounds great! Although I’m guessing you tell your stories with plenty of humor, what a disconnect it must have been for your POC to come home from Iraq and find her favorite places gone. It’s a hard enough transition as it is, returning stateside.

      And your point about that street in Denver disappearing touches on what Terry Odell mentioned (see comment above). Real world settings change all the time. Our books become historical as soon as we send them out into the world.

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  5. “For my thriller, I took real neighborhoods, gave them the twist I needed”

    That’s what I do. I believe the real value of research is to give you the confidence to make it “feel real” while taking the liberties you need to propel the story. The Cuernavaca of my book Aztec Midnight is such a hybrid.

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    • Mike, you said it perfectly. As writers, we need a lot of confidence to face the blank page (at least this writer does). Doing a solid job on our research (whether it’s for setting or for some other aspect of the story) helps give us that confidence. And you are right, too, that taking some liberties can help move the story where we need it to go. Writers should never get bogged down in thinking everything has to be perfectly true. As I said to the railroad cop who has been helping me with research details: “It doesn’t have to be probable. Just possible.”

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  6. Welcome to the Zone, Barbara! Great advice in your post. I love the idea that there are still hobo camps, and that you sought them out (are they still called “hobos”? Love that too!) I just ordered your book and am reading it right now–it’s a fantastic read, everyone should check it out!

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    • Oh, thank you, Kathryn! I’m so happy that you are enjoying the book!

      Hobos are a fascinating culture with a great history. They are indeed still called hobos, although the railway cop who is helping me refers to them as tramps. The difference? Hobos are traveling workers. Tramps are bums who would prefer not to work (there are days when I get that whole tramp thing! 😉 ). A lot of people use the words interchangeably.

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