How To Do Location Research

@jamesscottbell


It’s nice being married to your research assistant. It makes location work so much easier, especially when that location is a place like San Francisco.

A couple of weeks ago Mrs. B and I took a trip to the City by the Bay. I am working on a thriller that takes place largely in SF. This is not an easy thing for a Dodgers fan to do, but hey, this is my job. Unfortunately, during our two-day stay, the Dodgers managed to drop two games to the Giants, both by one run and after having the lead…not that I noticed, you understand. 

Anyway, these are the steps I take to do my location research: Prepare. Go. Observe. Record. Integrate.

1. Prepare

Before the trip itself, I completed the San Francisco scenes to the best of my ability. I used Google Earth and Maps, and did general research on the internet to get as many details right as I could. It’s amazing how much we can do online these days. But I’m still of the opinion that there’s nothing like being on location, walking around, taking in the vibe, the sights, the sounds and yes, even the smells.

Then I got a city map and circled in red the key locales in my story. Thus, I knew the places I wanted to go before I got there. 

2. Go

On our first full day in the city, it was a simple matter of setting out with my trusty assistant and following my map with the circles. 

We were staying at The Hotel Drisco in Pacific Heights (a key location in the book). Our  day started with us driving through The Presidio, and along the west edge of the city until we got to Golden Gate Park. Then we cut back across town.

We stopped where Van Ness meets 18th Street. This is another location in my novel. 

3. Observe

We got out and just started walking around, looking at the buildings and the storefronts, and for little passageways I hoped were there. They were. Always nice to find out a location works like you’ve seen it in your imagination. I even found a building that could serve as the one I’d made up for my story. And here it is:

Next stop, Pier 40, over on the east side of the city. This is the spot where my Lead meets a stranger who is going to take him on a nighttime boat ride. I knew from my research that you could see AT&T Park from the pier. I just didn’t realize how close. Being on the spot brought more vivid details for my eventual use. 

We next drove over to North Beach, which has three spots I’m using in my story. We parked right in front of one of them, a church, then strolled over to Columbus Avenue for a sidewalk café lunch (research assistants have to be fed). But even this was an opportunity. I like to watch people walk by, look at their faces, try to imagine what their lives are like. I jotted some notes in between bites of my prime rib panini. 

After lunch we walked around the neighborhood (which the city fathers had the unmitigated gall to place UPHILL) and took several pics. Walking around is when the magic of serendipity happens. A crucial incident in my book takes place in an alley at night. I wasn’t entirely sure one existed. But we came across the perfect alley for the story, just because we were using shoe leather:

4. Record

Of course it goes without saying that you take pictures and notes of what you observe. It’s helpful if you have a checklist of items that will remind you what to look for. Here’s mine:

Date of Visit.

Weather.

Sights.

Sounds.

Smells.

People walking by (descriptions, expressions on faces).

Buildings, architecture.

Signs, commercial establishments.

Views.

Miscellaneous notes.

5. Integrate

As soon as you get back from your trip, begin immediately to integrate your research into your WIP. Go to those scenes you pre-wrote and weave in the details. The sooner you do this, the better. You want to write while the memories are fresh.

If you are still in the planning stages of the story, write a few “practice” scenes containing your data. Doing so will preserve the vitality of the observations. You can use them later as the needs arise in your project.  

For more on location work, see Nancy’s post here


So what about you? Do you like doing research on location? Do you have a memorable experience you’d like to share with us?   

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The Most Frightening Thing. Ever.

It’s Halloween weekend. We’re writers, and we do stories. It’s story time. So tell me: what is the most frightening thing that ever happened to you?

I have a number of candidates from which to choose. When I was a kid I walked into a spider web with my mouth open when the owners were home and accidentally swallowed one. It didn’t give me spider powers but I was crawling walls for weeks. I was almost carjacked in the French Quarter a few years ago. Sobriety and a 9 mm. enabled me to put a stop to that. I was almost robbed in the French Quarter at midnight, walking toward Bourbon from North Rampart on St. Ann Street, with the same result as the attempted carjacking for the same reason. The one incident that stands head and shoulders above the others, however, occurred when I was but a wee lad of twenty-one years of age in San Francisco.

I was a FM radio DJ at the time — it was too much fun to call a “job” — and one of the perks was that it enabled me to meet any number of attractive women. One of the most attractive was a Chinese woman who we will call “Mei.” I was smitten with her, in great part, alas, because she was able to tutor my body in ways that it has not been schooled before or since. There was one problem — there is always at least one — and that was that Mei’s brother, who we will call “Max,” was the leader of one of the Tong youth auxiliaries. The fact that his sister was dating a white man did not sit well with him. This bit of information was communicated to me one afternoon when I walked out of Tower Records on Bay Street and found Max and a few of his friends waiting for me. He told me that I wasn’t able to see his sister anymore. Being young and full of myself, I told him to perform an impossible anatomical act and walked away. I mean, I was on FM radio. What was he going to do? Kick my ass?

The answer to that question was a definite “yes.” That evening, I mc’d a concert at a new, small music club on the edge of North Beach, on Columbus Avenue just off of Broadway. The concert was an unmitigated disaster, an event in itself that I may describe another time. For our purposes, let it be known that after a number of small near-riots the show concluded at 2:45 am. I stumbled out of the club and onto Columbus Avenue, took a couple of steps, and noticed Max and a somewhat larger group of friends about ten feet away. I did what anyone would do. I panicked and started running down Broadway, toward the tunnel.
I had reached the tunnel mouth and thought I was in the clear when I heard shouting behind me. I threw a glance over my shoulder without slowing down and saw a group of figures running toward me. Max. And his friends. I picked up the pace — I weighed exactly half of what I weigh now — and pounded through the tunnel on the pedestrian walkway. I frequently used the walkway to get from my apartment on Russian Hill to get to North Beach and knew that there was an emergency phone about halfway down the tunnel. This was before the days of cell phones and 911 and even cordless phones, mind you, so this emergency phone was quite innovative. Pick it up and take it off its cradle, legend had it, and police would come. I never found out. As I approached the phone, I saw the cardboard sign underneath it, bearing the professionally lettered legend “OUT OF ORDER.” An unnamed but aspiring comedian had scrawled an admonition in crayon right below those words: “RUN FAST.”

I started crying. And kept running. I thought of my parents and my friends and women that I loved and that I intended to and my dog in Ohio and knew I would never see any of them again because these guys were going to catch me and kill me. That was their reputation, something which had seemed quite remote when I saw them on Bay Street, a painting of Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin on the wall behind us. And I wasn’t quite as full of myself as I had been earlier that day, if you catch my drift. I ran faster than I ever had in my life. I came out the other end of the tunnel and turned left, ducking into an area known then and now as the Tenderloin. It was and is a colorful but horrible place, a spider’s nest of the crazed and the drugged, where pain is the chief currency and waking up intact in the morning is a victory. I ran down alleys and tripped over sleeping, God-forsaken souls and in a sudden fit of genius hid in a trash dumpster until morning. I spent three days on the streets, Turk and Eddy and Larkin and some alleys I’ve forgotten the name of. On the third day I happened to see a friend coming out of an adult book store and approached him and told him what was going on. He had a little street influence. He got to Max and communicated my apologies and assurances that I wouldn’t see his sister anymore. I was permitted to resume the life I had been living, or a semblance of it. But things had changed. And not all for the better.

I moved back to Ohio a month later and started law school. I have no idea what happened to Max or Mei, or if we would recognize each other if we were to have an accidental, casual encounter on the street. I still have dreams about running through the Broadway Tunnel, however, dreams where I can never quite reach the end of the tunnel and make that left turn.

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Learning the Hard Way

by Reece Hirsch

A few years ago, I was fortunate to read a copy of Reece Hirsch’s thriller THE INSIDER before it found a home. Now, I usually don’t read unpublished manuscripts, because my agent warned me against it. But I knew Reece from a critique group, so I made an exception. And boy, am I glad I did. THE INSIDER is a heck of a debut, everything a good thriller should be. I recommend picking up a copy before they sell out, you won’t regret it. -Michelle

My debut legal thriller The Insider was published by Berkley Books this month as a mass-market paperback, marking the end of the first phase of my education in how to, and how not to, write a thriller. While I am but a humble newbie writer, I learned a few things in my six-year struggle to complete a novel and get it published. I make no claims to the wisdom and experience of your regular Kill Zone authors – they’ve all written many more books than I have. But here are a few lessons that I think I’ve learned, most of them the hard way.

  • The All-Important First Page. I’ve been enjoying the Kill Zone’s recent series of first-page critiques because the importance of the first page, and the first chapter, cannot be overstated. Take it from someone who sent his manuscript out to agents the first time with a less-than-gripping opening. The competition for the attention of agents and, later, publishers, is so intense that if the first chapter doesn’t grab them, they often won’t read further. I tried out several different openings for my book, in response to the urging of a couple of knowledgeable readers that it needed to be “bigger” and “grabbier.” They were right.

  • Write What You Know – Then Make Stuff Up. Despite the number of legal thrillers lining the bookstore shelves, I found that, as a practicing lawyer, there were still many aspects of the legal profession and law firm life that were relatively fresh ground for the genre. If readers recognize authoritative details drawn from life (in my case, the world of lawyers and law firms), then they’re more likely to follow you when you venture into areas where you’re working from research or sheer fabrication (in my case, the Russian mob). For example, in The Insider, I touch upon the tussles over billing credit among partners that can sometimes define a legal career. In another scene, I try to show the drama that can be found in the gamesmanship of an M&A negotiation. I also drew upon my knowledge of privacy and security law in developing one of the novel’s key plot elements involving government domestic surveillance and an actual National Security Agency program from the mid-Nineties known as the Clipper Chip. However, a little legal verisimilitude goes a long way with most readers, and I soon figured out that if I painted too accurate a picture of the life of a young corporate attorney like my protagonist Will Connelly, my book would be about as exciting as a day spent reviewing contracts in a due diligence room.

  • Embrace the Process. Many of the debut authors that I’ve met recently have a first, unpublished manuscript in the drawer, their “learner book.” Instead of scrapping my first attempt and starting over on a second book, I chose, perhaps from sheer stubbornness, to laboriously rework and rework my first book until it was publishable. Whichever route you take, there seems to be no getting around the fact that, unless you are some sort of literary prodigy, writing a publishable novel often takes years of painstaking revision and refinement. Find a reader or two that you trust and listen to their comments. If you hear a suggestion that you know will make your book better, don’t fight it – even if means discarding a chapter or character that you love or doing a page-one rewrite.

  • There Are Rules. This is a corollary to my point about revisions. There are certain rules and reader expectations that apply to thrillers. For example, your protagonist can’t be passive. And it’s always nice to kill someone early on. Read widely in your genre of choice, try to get a sense of the rules, and ignore them at your peril. If you’re violating a rule, make sure that you’re doing it knowingly and for a good reason, like subverting reader expectations.

  • BlurbQuest. One thing that surprised me was how early the success of a book is evaluated by publishers. Before a single reader has purchased your book, its fate will to a certain extent be decided by how many copies are ordered by booksellers. And how do booksellers evaluate a book by a debut author? They judge the book by its cover, the blurbs and the degree of push that the publisher is giving the book, as reflected in how highly it is placed on the list in the publisher’s catalogue.As a writer, you can’t control how good your cover art is (but I was really pleased with mine) or where a publisher slots you on their list, but you can be the master of your own fate when it comes to obtaining blurbs. And if your blurbs are really good, it may influence how your publisher views your book (and thus where you end up on their list and how much effort goes into the cover art). Start your BlurbQuest early, and don’t be afraid to approach established authors. One of the great, pleasant surprises of my debut author experience has been learning how generous fellow writers, even very successful ones, can be when it comes to reading and blurbing a new writer’s work. And Kill Zone author Michelle Gagnon takes the prize because she actually read my manuscript and blurbed me before I even had an agent!
  • Reece Hirsch is a partner in the San Francisco office of Morgan, Lewis, Bockius LLP.

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“It’s Chinatown, Jake…”

by Michelle Gagnon

Promising to “bring to life the tales of San Francisco Chinatown’s supernatural past and present,” The San Francisco Chinatown Ghost Tour features a meandering walk through Chinatown’s alleyways just after nightfall. Our local Sisters in Crime chapter has been holding semi-quarterly “field trips,” and chose this as one of them, both for research and for fun. Not necessarily as much fun as holding a loaded weapon (our previous excursion was to a shooting range), but really, what can compete with that?

We met at Kan’s restaurant, where our hostess (Empress Yee) got us appropriately spooked by inviting us to share our own personal ghost stories and offering a brief discussion of Chinese astrology. She also showed us a family heirloom, a key that apparently flipped of its own accord. Whether it was just a parlor trick or not, it set the mood for the evening.

From there, we did indeed wander those alleyways. Along with a few scattered stories, some of which are local legend, others related to things her own family members experienced, we learned the origins of the term “hooker” and “Shanghied.” (Prostitutes on the upper floors of a building used fishing hooks to snag passing men’s hats. Apparently once a man has climbed three flights of stairs for his hat, he’s easily convinced to pay for sex. Perhaps because he’s worked up an appetite?)

That alone made it worth the $25 for me (plus we stopped in at the city’s own mom and pop fortune cookie factory. Very cool, and included free samples).

It was also fascinating to learn why residents of apartment buildings whose rooms face open alleyways hang eight-sided Bagua mirrors above their windows. I lived a few blocks from Chinatown for a few years, and noticed these little mirrors everywhere; at the time I simply figured it was some sort of strange decorating fad. Little did I realize it’s actually part of the practice of Feng Shui, designed to fend off bad energies from your home (and everyone knows, bad things come down alleys, both spiritually and otherwise).

I have to say, we definitely went through parts of Chinatown that I wouldn’t have been comfortable going through alone at night. Not due to any sense of heightened danger, but mainly because I wouldn’t necessarily be welcome. This is definitely a section of San Francisco where once the sun sets and the tourists have retreated to the restaurants bridging the main thoroughfares from here to North Beach, the alleys assume a life of their own. We strolled past sweatshops that afterhours converted to mah jong gambling houses, the clink of the tiles and light spilling out of open doorways. Our guide tipped us off as to which buildings housed the “real” Chinese mob, and gave us a brief history of the local family associations/tongs. She’s also a frequent consultant on films shot in San Francisco, and sprinkled the tour with everything from leftover sets from Nash Bridges (apparently the locals liked it so much, they asked that it remain after shooting) to showing us buildings set so close together the Jackie Chan happily climbed up the space between them doing stunts for one of his films. And along the way, we exploded lots of “poppers,” both to scare off any ghosts that might want to tag along and to provide some general giddy entertainment..

Good times, all. I head to Baltimore next week, and a tour of Quantico that I’m positively giddy about. I’ll tell you all about it when I return. In the meantime, a question for you: name your Chinese astrological sign, and whether or not it suits you (aka, “What’s your sign, babe?”)

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