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?