Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Meanwhile, back in Portola

Blechta writing.

One of my most favorite parts of writing a novel is the setting and how my characters interact with that setting. Two blog entries back, I spoke about my recent research trip to Portola, California. (Was it really a month ago already?) This is just the latest in a number of research junkets I've been on. Previous books have sent me to Vienna (twice!), and to Scotland and England, as well as more mundane trips around the area I live in. This time, though, I'd already written the novel, so I at least knew EXACTLY what I did and did not need.

With my "Vienna book", _Cemetery of the Nameless_, the location certainly had a large impact on the story. The two protagonists are American, and even though they have travelled a lot, they are basically out of their depths in the capitol of Austria, so they were the same as me. I could write that sense of my own discovery of this city into their stories. More recently, _When Hell Freezes Over_, has one protagonist who's from the UK and the other is from Canada. That forced me to wear two different hats and was a bit more tricky. How did it all work out?

Well, Vienna is a magical city, not very large -- especially the First District, which is the oldest part -- and it's easy to get to know the place as far as the nuts and bolts go: where the landmarks are, how to get around, what the locals eat (pizza with niblets corn as a topping???), what the place looks like. Of course, if you use these correctly, they add a lot of colour to your story. But to really make a place come alive, you have to know what its people are like. That means getting out and talking with them, interacting with them and just observing them. You can ONLY do this on site and on the ground. I have several Viennese friends here in Toronto, and they'll tell you any number of useful things. If they're back in their native city, though, they are completely different. They become more Viennese.

The UK is even more skewed in this regard. I think they have more eccentrics per square metre than any other place on earth. Would I populate a book with all the "characters" I've met on several trips over there? No (although some authors seem to delight in this). I want to have background players in my stories who speak and think and react like the actual locals, but I DON'T want readers to think I've populated my story with a bunch of oddballs. (I've read too many books where the author has done that and it rings false, and they're a big turn-off.) Getting that sort of thing takes a lot of work: the speech patterns and word choice have to be just right. Taping people helps. Is it worth the effort? To my mind, absolutely -- and the reviews and readers' comments about my novels bring up that aspect of my writing again and again. I want a local to read my book and feel afterwards that I got it right.

Now I'm working with Portola and its population. I only had 3 days there and needed to soak up as much as I could in a limited time period. I must have wandered through town and talked with 100 people (and in a town the size of Portola, that's a sizeable chunk of the population. Even though I won't use a tenth of what I learned, I will be able to draw my bit players accurately -- and fairly. The woman who runs the cafe I use in my story will owe a lot to the woman who owns the actual cafe in Portola. To anyone who's been through that town, she'll hopefully ring true. To those who haven't been anywhere near California, let alone this Portola, the bit of colour my Portolians add will give the story veracity it might not otherwise have.

I was on a panel at a mystery convention with someone who has written a novel that concerns the Vatican quite heavily. She proudly told those in attendance that she loves writing about places she's never been to because she learns so much about those places. I had a moment of real disconnection there and said so. If I had never gone to Vienna, _Cemetery_ wouldn't be half the book it was. It wouldn't even have had the same title (and I think _Cemetery of the Nameless_ is a damn good title). If I hadn't been talking to two Viennese gendarmes, I wouldn't have known this place actually exists, let alone that it had such a colourful name. When my wife and I actually visited the Friedhof der Namenlosen on a blustery, cloudy day in early March, I stood in the middle of this eerie place and told her, "If I wrote for the next 10 years, I could never come up with a place as perfect as this for the start of my story."

And you know what? As an author, I can even write my research trips off!

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