When I first started writing, I limited my settings to places I’d visited or lived, starting with the most exotic St. Barts (TROPICAL GETAWAY) and moving to another vacation favorite, France (FRENCH TWIST), and then trying a locale just up the road, Daytona Beach (KILLER CURVES). I set books in Miami, a former address of mine, then Boston, another place I called home. Then California and back to the Caribbean, a few in New York, and a couple of repeats, then I took a few research trips to Charleston and the Keys as I wrote more and more books.
After a while I ran out of places I’ve lived or toured. I wanted to send my characters to Venezuela and the Azores and Malaysia and other places I’ve yet to see and couldn’t afford to visit. One day, I was listening to Nora Roberts answering a question about her research on her many and varied settings. I think she was referencing Alaska (but it might have been wine country) when she said, “Nope, I’ve never stepped foot in that place. But I’ve traveled, and I read, and I know people, and, God knows, I have an imagination.”
Lightbulb!! I really don’t have to visit every place I write about? The answer is no…but I do have to read, know people, and use my God-given imagination. These days, I do all of those, and sometimes I write about places I’ve never been, and other times I call upon my life experiences.
In the two books I have releasing back-to-back this month, there is one of each. SHIVER OF FEAR is set primarily in Northern Ireland, a country I’ve never visited. The plot dictated the setting, and when I learned that my editor had been to many of the places I describe in the book, I admit to gulping a little worry. However, when she read the first draft, she assured me I’d nailed it, and the many reader letters thanking for taking them on a trip to Ireland confirms that the research, videos, books, and one really awesome friend who lives in Belfast all worked.
The trick, for me, is to educate myself about the locale, the culture, the “sense of place” and then use research to get the details right. Once I have a local source, I have no qualms about sending an email that asks some strange questions, like where cobblestone streets begin and end, what color lights flash on a police car, and does the hotel use card keys or metal? Then, when I’m writing, I drop in a detail or two, and use YouTube videos and books to give me an overall feel for the place. (You can find anything on YouTube. Need to get into a belltower in Enniskillen? Check. Walk the length of the shipyards in Belfast? Check. Tour the Europa Hotel? Check.)
Of course, I add my imagination, using sensory memories of other places. I’ve never been to Ireland, but I have been to England several times. I remember beer-laden smell of a pub, the timelessness of a stone church, the endless lavender on rolling hillsides, and the terror of careening through narrow country roads…on the wrong side of the street. I hope I brought all of that to the writing to enrich the reading experience.
Right after I finished the exhaustive research and writing of SHIVER, I launched into the next book, FACE OF DANGER. This time, I not only had visited or lived in every single setting in the book, I had strong personal connections to many of them. That made the writing the setting easier, but still I focused on details, and this time, they came from my memory. For example, one of the earliest scenes in FACE OF DANGER takes place on the backlot of Paramount Studios in Los Angeles, when the heroine convinces a movie star to use a body double because of the threat of a serial killer. Many years ago (too many!), I had small roles in two television shows filmed on the Paramount lot – Laverne & Shirley and Bosom Buddies. My TV career was shortlived, but the details of that studio setting were never forgotten.
Later in the book, there are scenes set at a home in Sudbury, Massachusetts, which is based on the house where my husband and I lived when we were first married. Set on a hill overlooking a pond, this Wedgewood blue colonial home holds some of my most blissful memories, so it’s no wonder the house is featured in the happiest scenes. And then there are the dark streets of the industrial town of Lowell, Massachusetts. Years ago, I had a public relations client with offices in Lowell, and I had to go there regularly for meetings…before GPS was invented. Once I got lost and ended up in a less-than-completely-safe dead-end street, petrified for my life. That street plays a major role in the book, the sensation of life-threatening danger still quite real to me.
I feel liberated by the fact that I can write about places I’ve never been as well as locations I know intimately. What about you? Do you prefer to read a book set somewhere you know…or take a trip to an entirely new destination?
I’m giving away a full set of The Guardian Angelinos: EDGE OF SIGHT, SHIVER OF FEAR and FACE OF DANGER, all signed and sent with a $15 Starbucks Gift Card, so you can read, sip, fall madly in love…and take a trip to somewhere you’ve never been. Leave a comment to enter the drawing!!