Tuesday, June 21, 2011

You Had to Be There

By Bob Sanchez

My first foray into fiction began out of my experiences with the Cambodian community in Lowell, Massachusetts. The idea was to tell the tale of a young Cambodian woman’s odyssey, with emphasis on the Khmer Rouge atrocities and the Thai refugee camps. I read almost a dozen gripping memoirs and talked to a few of the refugees, although the language barrier created a serious problem. Overall, I’d accumulated enough detail to flesh out a decent mainstream novel.

Or so it seemed. What were the sights and smells like? The bugs, the plants, the animals? What was it like to have your feet in the rice paddy or to pedal a bicycle barefoot on a bumpy road? What did the inside of a home look like? I could pick up some of these details from books, but my novel may have suffered most of all because I’d never been to Cambodia or Thailand and could never convey the rich detail the story deserved.

So what to do with my ton of research? Write a mystery about the Cambodian community in Lowell, where I’d been a thousand times. Then I could get away without the same level of detail about Southeast Asia, because that’s not where the story’s action is. One of my readers of Little Mountain told me she’d lived in Thailand and said my details were accurate.

In writing my noir detective novel, Getting Lucky, I spent many hours haunting Lowell’s mills and canals. My novel doesn’t have porn in it, but a tacky little smut shop is part of the story. My writers’ group, especially the ladies, goaded me to do research and teased me without mercy when I took their advice. It helped the story, though.

How important is it to know the location in your story? That depends. Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct procedurals were set in the city of Isola, which everyone took to be New York City. But he could describe the burg any way he wanted. My good friend and mystery writer, David Daniel, received a fan letter from a Lowell cop saying that his story was good, but his character couldn’t have taken a left from Merrimack Street onto Dutton Street because Dutton is one way in the other direction. That one detail wasn’t such a big deal, but if you’re writing about a real place, you might want to be careful about the liberties you take.

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  1. That's a fact, Bob ... I feel like I'm treading on thin ice when I include a local that I've never been to in one of my stories ... haven't broken though yet, but that's probably more about folks from those places never reading one, then my impeccable research.

  2. What's the saying? The devil is in the details? Never is that more true than in fiction writing. Our readers come from all walks of life, and they will call us on the tiniest infraction. They may even tell their friends who read that we didn't get it right. And there goes our credibility.

    Excellent reminder, Bob. And welcome to BRP!

  3. Good morning, Dani and Christopher! The importance of research depends a lot on the story. If all you want to do is send your character off to Reno for a quickie divorce, you don't need deep knowledge of the place.

  4. Great article Bob, I hope to see more from you in the future.

    I've been through something very similar. My first novel was set in Jerusalem and a few areas of Southern Turkey. I did an exhaustive amount of research but not being well traveled, I didn't feel like I could get a firm grasp on it.

    So in the end I ended up turning it from a Historical Fiction piece (heavy on the fiction) to a Fantasy novel (light on the fantasy elements).

    Oddly enough where I couldn't craft a 100% authentic feeling Jerusalem, the research I did helped me bring my fictional city to life in a way that I don't think would have happened otherwise.

  5. I agree about those details, which is why I like to scout locations for scenes as if I was doing a film. That way I get the street names right and make sure they aren't one-way.

  6. My upcoming release is set mainly in Scottsdale, Arizona. I visited there a few times, but still have taken the liberty of making up streets and places. However, I've added details common to the area so people from there can related.

    My first book, Two Wrongs, had Marshall Field's in the story. I described the Big Tree and Walnut Room, which are very popular, and which I was familiar with. Now it's no longer Field's but Macy's. Still, the story stays true to what was there at the time. By the way, I even went to their office and received permission to use the store in the book, though I'm not sure that permission counts any more since they're owned by Macy's now.

    Morgan Mandel

  7. I've visited the central city in all of my books several times. With one, I lived there for four years - Albuquerque.

  8. Over the years I've been writing and revising my novel so many details have changed, as per Morgan's comment. I want it to be "current" when it comes out but famous people keep dying, businesses go bust, etc. Frustrating!

  9. Sometimes just visiting isn't enough though. If you want to write about rural America, and the dynamics of a small town, you don't really "get" all the nuances just visiting. Sometimes it takes years to plumb the depths of a society. Well, it's fiction... you can make up stories. But having lived in a rural town for five years now, I'm telling you, the truth can be a lot stranger than fiction! Small, closed societies are fascinating things to observe.

  10. The details are indeed important. I agree, Bob. That's why a lot of people prefer making up locations. Not only do they not have to worry about getting things wrong, they can create a new world.

  11. In a fiction story, I expect many of the details to be fictitious as well. It is nice when you know an area to read about places and things that you can relate to though. Nice post, Bob. Thanks for sharing, Dani.

  12. When I set When Pigs Fly in the Southwest, I had only visited the area a couple of times. Luckily, I have two online friends from Arizona who were able to vet my descriptions.

  13. Great topic today, Bob. How right you are about taking liberties when discussing actual places. Research is very important. I use Google Earth a lot along with customer reviews of establishments. Using their likes and dislikes about a hotel room, food from a restaurant, or customer service is gold to use in a story.

  14. Steve, you bring up a good point about Google Earth and all the online resources we have nowadays.

  15. Good point! Maybe I need to write a mystery about the Amazon jungle. That's the place I know best! And not too many people would know anything about any of my details. LOL

  16. Location can be iffy. Sometimes it is actually a character in the story and at other times it is just a segment of a book to breeze over and not read. Directions like turning left to get to right in order to be at tween smacks of needing word count. I rarely read it.
    But that all depends on the readers and their preferences, so who knows. My book takes place in a travel agency. I wanted to convey the feelings of people facing downsizing, layoffs and working with upper management in the face of murder, but I'm frequently asked why my 'agent' isn't leading a tour to some exotic place.

  17. Sharon, a mystery set in the Amazon would certainly catch my attention. I doubt anyone could find fault with any of your details.

    Patg, the trick with location, I think, is to provide just enough detail to convey a sense of the place. In some stories, it may not matter much; in others, it's integral to the story.

  18. Very interesting post, Bob, and welcome to BRP! Setting and research are extremely important to fiction. Someone familiar with an area will spot the mistakes immediately and may not want to read the rest of the book, just because of one minor error.


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