Scene Scouting: On Location or Wikipedia?

From the ITW Debut Author class of 2012-2013, TKZ welcomes Brian Andrews as our guest blogger, here to discuss one of my favorite topics, researching location. Enjoy.

By Brian Andrews

brian andrews square headshotEveryone has heard the old real estate adage, "What are the three most important factors to consider when buying property? LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION.  As a thriller writer, I spend a great deal of time mulling over location… scene location to be precise. Why? Because selecting a scene location is like deciding whether to bake brownies using oil, or substituting applesauce instead. Sure, the applesauce brownies are low fat, but they lose that authenticity that makes a brownie taste like a brownie. Wikipedia is applesauce. The queasy, weak in the knees sensation I felt leaning against the metal railing on the Key Bridge, as I imagined what it would be like to jump into the grey-green water of the Potomac River flowing eighty feet below… that’s baking brownies with oil. 

catacombs melange

When I travel for my "day job", I’m always scoping out locations for future scenes in future novels. My motto has become: Don’t force a location into the story, take the story to the location. Recently, I had a business meeting in Paris, which afforded me one free morning to play tourist. When my Parisian host asked me what I would like to do, I replied, "Take me to the creepiest place imaginable." And so he did. The Catacombs beneath Paris hold the remains of over six million Parisians. The walkways are lined with bones. Femurs and skulls are stacked 2 meters high and used to decorate this dank and disturbing underground labyrinth. It was described to me as "romantic macabre." No arguments there. When I finally stepped out of the Catacombs and back into the warm Parisian sun, I knew with certainty that characters of mine will someday find themselves in this location.

What is your favorite scene location in a novel, or in real life?

small coverMidwest born and raised, Brian is a US Navy Veteran who served as an officer aboard a 688 class nuclear submarine in the Pacific. Brian lives in Tornado Alley with is wife and daughter. His debut thriller, THE CALYPSO DIRECTIVE, was recently released. Brian is a member of the ITW debut author class of 2012/2013 and lifelong fan of the thriller genre. 

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Establishing a Strong Sense of Place

Today our first page critique raises an important aspect in making many a good mystery or thriller – a strong sense of place. I always think the challenge in creating a sense of place is to make it instantly fully realized as well as believable. A reader truly needs to ‘be there’ and to have full confidence that the author has done their research.

A strong sense of place can be a tricky prospect for a first page: too much and the reader starts to yawn; too little and the story can seem generic and bland. If the set-up seems too contrived or deliberate, a reader starts to feel awkward; if the writer gets crucial facts wrong, the reader immediately disconnects from the story.

I think the first page we are reviewing today manages to instantly capture a great sense of place. Although I might tighten it up a wee bit (see my comments after the piece) all in all this first page grabs me – in part because the place itself resonates and intrigues.
So here it is – the first page of the novel, 65 below.
Richardson Highway
East of Fairbanks
17 December 1600 hrs
“Damn! When it gets dark out here, it is dark as death.”

Eugene Wyatt drove as fast as conditions allowed down the Richardson highway in his big beige Ford F250 Crew Cab Diesel pickup, with the brown and white Tanana Valley Electric Cooperative logo emblazoned on the doors. It was only four o’clock in the afternoon but the late December sun had already long descended, leaving the land in total inky blackness. His three-year-old golden retriever Penny sat on the passenger side of the wide bench seat. She ignored her master’s Oklahoma drawl and stared out the window as they drove along. The dog’s breath shot a burst of steam onto the frigid glass a few inches away every time she exhaled. Her tongue hung limply over the teeth of her open mouth.

On any typical evening, there would have been brightly lit signs atop tall poles in front of the gas stations, or neon beer advertisements pulsing blue, red, and yellow from within the windows of busy bars as he passed through the small city of North Pole then the even smaller town of Moose Creek. Tonight though only the glow of candles and oil lamps flickered dimly between the curtains of the handful of homes along the highway. The power was out, everywhere.

Eugene looked at Penny who stared transfixed at the truck window. The frost from her breath created a ring of ice crystals on the glass that she seemed to be studying. The area had warmed up significantly in the past few days though after an unseasonal cold snap that held the land at negative fifty for several weeks. The red mercury line on the thermometer now hovered at a livable zero degrees Fahrenheit.

Eugene remembered a line a comedian had said on TV the night before.
If it is zero degrees, does that mean there is no temperature?

The humor of the line dissipated fast. There had never been an outage like it in his thirty years in Alaska’s electricity business. At first, the authorities thought it was a local failure within the Tanana Valley Cooperative area. It was not long though before they discovered it was much bigger. The phone company went out at the same time. Cellular towers failed. The whole of the Interior region of Alaska, an area the size of New York State, was thrown back into the 19th century in an instant.

My comments:

  • First off, I liked how the author started the book with dialogue – it instantly set the tone and introduced us to the character.
  • The details (car type/age of dog) on the first paragraph might (perhaps) be tightened up but I thought this and the second paragraph set the scene really well. The success I think in this first page is that it establishes the scene with a minimum of backstory and explanation – we know all we really need to know at this stage: It’s Alaska, the power is out, the main character (an outsider from Oaklahoma) is out on the highway with only his dog and there is a sense of foreboding that promises much in the way of suspense.
  • I thought the final two paragraphs set up the problem well – that there had never been a power outage like this, that Alaska was now a total ‘frontier’ land, and the reader now gets a strong sense that something awful/shocking is probably about to happen – Just what you want the first page of a good mystery/thriller to set up!

So what do you think? Did you get the immediate, visceral feel of Alaska like I did? Did you feel the set up was there and, more importantly, would you read on?

I know I would.

Bringing Characters To Life

John Ramsey Miller

To be successful storytellers, authors have to make each character in their story seem like a real person to the reader. Not just the main characters, either. Every character has to ring true and register as individuals, not cardboard cut-outs pushed into a scene to utter words, or provide some action––which could include being a dead body. Good authors pull it off because they pitch each character’s voice so the reader hears them speaking when they are in a scene, or describes them so the reader visualizes them. And it’s never about how much an author says in describing a character, but what they choose to describe, and at what point in the story they do so. What a character says, and how they say it, tells a lot about a character, but a single action can say more about a character than a page of dialog or of physical detail.

An author’s best tool for characterization is observation. Every day, everywhere you go, you see people being themselves. You see mannerisms, you hear dialog, the music and cadence of voice, along with accents, and colloquialisms. You see people reacting to other people, you see the way people dress, how they pose, how they move, how they do a million little and big things. You see body types, how each type moves, how one figure may remind you of an inverted bowling pin, or a crow, or a skeleton covered in dried skin. As you observe, you put the images away for later, and when you are writing flashes come into your mind, or should.

Talented authors watch the world and record what they see, and will later drag their brains for snippets that bring some measure of real to a character. Some authors take pictures, or make notes, for reference, and they have stacks of pictures to root through for ideas, I suppose. Others use their minds alone and file it all away.

Settings are characters too. Pictures will capture style, details, but I find the practice oddly confining. I write from my memory because time adds an ethereal element to those images in my mind. I do use pictures for reference when I need accuracy in a setting that exists, but my best locations come from impressions of places, or several places blended by smell, texture, the way light plays and shadows fall, the tastes, the temperature into a place that only exists in my imagination and on the printed page.

There are a lot of things that separate good and bad writers. Observation is one. The ability to take observations and put them into your work and make them part of your story in a way that makes real the characters and defines them is not easily accomplished. Writing well is another story and I’ll save that for another time.

So, do you watch and file, or do you take notes or pictures?