On Using Landmarks in Fiction

by James Scott Bell

Happy Easter! And what better time for the reappearance of America’s favorite vigilante nun, Sister Justicia Marie of the Sisters of Perpetual Justice?

Yes, it’s finally here: FORCE OF HABIT 5: HOT CROSS NUNS. I had the title first. All I needed was the story to go with it. A hot cross … hmm … a stolen cross? But how big a deal would that be?

Then it hit me. Mrs. B and I love going to the Hollywood Bowl in the summer. We bring a picnic dinner and sit in an area that gives us a view of iconic Hollywood buildings, like Capitol Records, The Roosevelt Hotel (where, it said, the ghost of Marilyn Monroe hangs out), and the old, rugged Hollywood Cross. That was it! The perfect MacGuffin for the title.

A little L.A. history is in order:

[T] cross was conceived … as a memorial to one of Hollywood’s pioneers, Christine Wetherell Stevenson, the heiress to the Pittsburgh Paint fortune who helped arrange construction of the Hollywood Bowl. She was also an aspiring playwright who wrote “The Pilgrimage Play,” a pageant about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

In 1920, Stevenson chose 29 acres across the Cahuenga Pass from the Hollywood Bowl and helped carry stones from the nearby hills to build the open-air Pilgrimage Theater. She died two years later and in 1923, her admirers memorialized her by planting the cross on the hill above the theater.

Within six years, a brush fire destroyed the original theater and in 1931 Stevenson’s drama reopened in a concrete theater designed in what was described as an “ancient Judaic style.”

For many years, the cross was lighted only at Easter and during the annual “Pilgrimage Play” season. But the public’s affection for the landmark grew and soon Sunday school children were donating money to keep the cross lit. Ultimately, Southern California Edison Co. assumed that expense and bore it until 1941, when the theater and cross were donated to the county. After the county supervisors accepted the gift, they renamed the theater after Supervisor John Anson Ford, recognizing his 24 years of service to the district in which the theater is located. The play continued its annual run until 1964, when the first in a series of lawsuits triggered by the facility’s religious uses forced an end to the performances.

The cross was damaged by fire a year later. The county replaced it with a steel and Plexiglas structure and operated it routinely for years. But the tradition came under legal fire in 1978, when a California Supreme Court ruling ended Los Angeles’ 30-year practice of lighting City Hall windows to form a cross at Christmas and Easter. Two years later, a college professor successfully argued in court that the county was violating the constitutional separation of church and state by maintaining the cross…

The cross, however, remained–dark and unguarded, abused and unused. Vandals chipped away at its foundation until a windstorm knocked it over it 1984.

Afterward, a small group of crusaders began raising funds for a new cross by doing a video documentary, recording a song, “The Ballad of the Hollywood Cross” by Mindas Masiulis, and collaborating with the Hollywood Heritage preservation group.

Almost 10 years later, with little fanfare, a new cross was erected on the small hilltop patch after the group purchased the site from the county.

So how could this landmark possibly be stolen? Who would do such a thing? And why? Find out in FORCE OF HABIT 5: HOT CROSS NUNS, on sale now for 99¢. Like the other novelettes in the series, it can be read as a stand-alone. The other entries are:





I love seeing landmarks in fiction and film. Who will ever forget the chase over Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest? Or King Kong atop the Empire State Building? Or the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man stepping on Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Ghostbusters, bringing forth Bill Murray’s classic line: “Nobody steps on a church in my town!”

The landmark doesn’t even have to be world famous. For example, there’s Top Notch Hamburgers in Austin, TX. That’s where Matthew “All right, all right, all right” McConaughey made his mark in Dazed and Confused.

So what’s a landmark in your home town? You do have one, you know. Even Takoma Park, Maryland has Roscoe the Rooster. So share yours!

29 thoughts on “On Using Landmarks in Fiction

  1. To me (and my “architectural” mind), the best landmarks aren’t built to BE landmarks, that don’t scream “HEY, LOOKIT ME,” but become landmarks by their use and integration into the community – and, typically, uniqueness (it seems EVERYBODY has a huge Ferris wheel these days…), though Seattle’s Space Needle is more recognizable than San Antonio’s Hemisfair’s Tower of the Americas (who can compete with Alamo, after all?)

    But this ain’t an architecture forum, so whar wuz I?

    Oh, yeah…

    I would say Atlanta’s Fox Theater, the potential demolition of which sparked the historic, if not hysteric, preservation movement in the ATL, ranks as the top landmark here in the land of Peachtree Streets.

    And there’s Stone Mountain, east of town, which, until this very early and coffee fueled prebreakfast moment I hadn’t considered, would make an interesting setting for a “North-By-Northwest” homage (or rip-off?).

  2. Grew up in LA, lived in Miami and Orlando, but my “home town” now is Divide, Colorado, which is a wide spot in the road. Pike’s Peak is a dominant view, but it’s not “in” Divide. Wondering if McGinty’s pub will become a landmark. Or the Wolf Rescue/Rehab Center. Will have to research further.

      • I’ve used McGinty’s (although I changed the name because the books were set in a place “like” Divide). When there are only a handful of business establishments in town, it’s a tough call. But I’ll check out the locale’s history. Sir.

  3. The novel I’m slogging away at is set in my hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington. My goal is to tread lightly but authoritatively, giving it distinction while not trying to be a Chamber of Commerce brochure. So I usually embed my island landmarks in action and dialogue that exists mainly to develop characters or advance the story, making them Easter eggs that — I hope — will build a sense of intrigue about the place without devolving into conspicuous lifestyle porn.

    Landmarks include:

    — Frog Rock, a stack of giant rocks on the corner of a secondary road painted to look like a big frog and two baby frogs. It’s a popular place for families to take their pictures. https://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/27156

    — The Halls Hill Labyrinth. Someone at their own expense created this circular rock walking path near the beach and donated the land to the public. It’s a great place to take a 20-minute shake-off-the-day break. https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g58342-d10170947-Reviews-Hall_s_Hill_Labyrinth-Bainbridge_Island_Washington.html

    — The Bloedel Reserve, an old-school island estate that was converted into a pay-to-enter retreat with lush gardens and acres of peaceful walking paths. It includes a pool famous as the place where poet Theodore Roethke drowned in 1963. https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g58342-d288043-Reviews-Bloedel_Reserve-Bainbridge_Island_Washington.html

    — The underground bunkers at Fort Ward. This military installation overlooking Puget Sound was closed shortly after World War II and was turned into a park. But if you go way off the beaten paths, you can find some creepy concrete bunkers that look for all the world like that spooky “Free Hugs” clown-picture meme. A popular place for teens to get drunk and high and bring cans of spray paint (which I might have done back in the day). http://pacificnw.cityvoter.com/the-fort-ward-bunkers/biz/179039

    Basically, my approach is to find the sinister, the noir, in what is, or was, accessible to me every day. To take Pleasantville and look deeply into the shadows behind the sunshine.

    • So I usually embed my island landmarks in action and dialogue that exists mainly to develop characters or advance the story

      That’s a writing tip of the day, Jim.

      And I’m with you on the sinister underneath!

  4. In Berlin, the setting of my WIP, there is a beautiful, old—turn of the last century—Sankt Oberholz building, which has become a work source cafe. Outside, two old, beach life guard chairs are chained to the wall. Why? Berlin kitsch, I guess. Had to use them as part of the great escape.

    • Those little details, like the chained chairs, really add a nice bit of spice to a scene. Even if you don’t explain it, it creates a certain verisimilitude readers always enjoy.

  5. New Hampshire is probably best known for the Old Man on the Mountain, the rock face of a man jutted out from a mountainside. A few years ago, the “old man” broke off but there are rumors of a reconstruction plan. It won’t be the same, since the original “old man” occurred naturally, but perhaps it won’t be as sad to drive by where he once watched over us.

    I try to include at least one local landmark in every Grafton County book. The locals love it. In Book 4, I used the Breck-Plankey well, which has a crazy history.

    In 1940, Mr. Plankey drilled the well and one of his men climbed down into it to set the pump and fire it up. He never climbed out. Another man went in after him. He didn’t climb out either. The fire department rushed to the scene. Two firemen climbed into the well, and neither of them resurfaced.

    Toxic gases enveloped the well, but since no one could smell it, they had no idea of the danger. Several men — both well-workers and rescuers — lost their lives that day. The family who owned the land filled in the well. They later donated a new water shed to the town in remembrance of this sad historical event. We fill our bottles from the spring every week, so of course I had to dump a fictional body in there. 🙂

    • That is some creepy (and therefore totally interesting) history there. Great illustration, Sue. Every local landmark has some sort of story behind it. Readers love it.

  6. Jim, here’s a landmark suggestion for your next Sister Justicia mystery: St. Ignatius Mission church in Montana, built in the 1890s with 58 exquisite frescoes painted by Brother Carignano, the mission’s cook and handyman who was especially handy with a paintbrush.

    The 564-foot-high Hungry Horse Dam in Montana played a major role in my thriller Instrument of the Devil about a terrorist cyberattack on the electric grid, plus it made a spooky location for the final showdown.

    Consider this your open invitation, Jim, to take a location scouting trip to Montana.

  7. Good morning, Jim, and Happy Easter.

    Wow! Force of Habit #5 – Hot Cross Nuns. I just bought it. I look forward to reading it tonight. Thanks for the Easter present.

    Landmarks: My little town of Bellefontaine, in rural western Ohio, has the first concrete street in the U.S., the shortest street in the U.S., and High Point – the highest point between the Rockies and the Appalachians on the east side of the Mississippi. Yes, I know, yawn.

    Our county, Logan County, has two castles (Piatt Castles) which date back to the Civil War days. And yes, Paul Harvey said that if you wanted to commit a crime and not face justice, do it in Logan County.

    So, with my head hung in shame, I wish you a Happy Easter. And thanks for writing Sister Justicia’s Fifth.

    • Sad to say I had not heard of Bellefontaine until today, Steve. Being a city boy all my life, I don’t get out to the country much. For some reason, I love that you have “the shortest street in the U.S.” That would be a great setting for a chase scene!

  8. I was born and raised in Savannah, GA, and some of the local landmarks were noted in :”Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” The one that comes to mind is Bonaventure Cemetery, a beautifully serene and spooky location. Even on bright, sunny days, the cemetery is darkened by an abundance of moss-covered oaks. My paternal grandparents are buried there, and visits to their graves are always a little eerie. I would never consider going after dark.

    My favorite Savannah landmark is Fort Pulaski, a mid-nineteenth century fort at the mouth of the Savannah River. It has a labyrinth of tunnels that would be a great backdrop for a mystery. Now you’ve got me thinking of placing a future novel there.

    Just downloaded my copy of “Hot Cross Nuns.” Looking forward to reading it!

  9. I live in the Furniture Capital of the World. In High Point, NC, there’s a building shaped like a giant chest of drawers with a giant sock hanging out in honor of the former textile industry, a giant tallboy dresser building is in Jamestown, and a giant chair is in Thomasville. We also have a furniture showroom for Natuzzi Americas that’s shaped like the prow of a giant ship. It’s like being in an episode of LAND OF THE GIANTS, sometimes.

    Margaret Maron set one of her Deborah Knott novels, KILLER MARKET, during High Point’s twice annual Furniture Market which is the biggest trade show in the world.

    Then there’s the very first Krispy Kreme donut shop in Winston, a truly sacred place for donut worshippers.

    Just to the north west is the original Mayberry Mt. Airy, Andy Griffith’s birthplace, where the annual Mayberry Festival and all the duplicated or original buildings from the show are. (And, yes, you can get a pork chop sandwich if you want one. And, yes, I do live right in the middle of a kitschy Americana paradise.)

    • Furniture Capital of the World

      Love it! I never knew such a place existed. The structures you describe are Priceless.

      Reminded me of little Castroville in California, the Artichoke Capital of the World. It takes two minutes to drive through town. But there is a place called the Giant Artichoke, which is the only joint I know of that serves incredibly wonderful deep-fried artichokes. I stop there whenever I’m up that way. You can’t miss it. There is a Giant Artichoke statue right out in front.

      • The International Home Furnishings Market is not exactly quaint. Over 75,000 people from 100 countries show up twice a year to buy and sell furniture with 2000 sellers and 180 buildings. It makes the Super Bowl and the political party conventions look like backyard parties in comparison.

  10. People say I have bigfoot on the brain.

    One of our landmarks in Phoenix is Camelback Mountain, located 12 miles northeast of downtown. People have always insisted it looks like a camel lying down for sleep. (A camel lying in that position would have a difficult time sleeping as the head–located on the northwest side of the mountain–would be lying flat on the ground.)

    But to me–here we go–it looks a bigfoot lying on its back, arms folded on its chest, face (on the northwest side of the mountain) up.

    You know, no one pays any attention to me when I say, “Let’s go run Bigfoot Mountain.” (Actually, I’ve never said that. I do say, “I’m going to go down and sit on my walker and looked at Camelback Mountain.)

  11. Here in Orlando you can’t spit without hitting a theme park (I’ve worked at the top 3). I wrote The Theme Park Murders in the break room between sets during Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios. (I should probably do something with that). Gatorland (which I’ve never worked at) is a great place to dump a body – at least it used to be.

    Back home the landmarks are The Big Pier in Fairhope where the whole town gathers after supper to fish, chat, and stroll and further down Mobile Bay, Fort Morgan which was a great place to play hide and seek as a kid.

  12. Yaaay! I love that series. Definitely getting #5 😀 Just did a review of Force of Habit on my blog last month.

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