Friday, July 24, 2020

Not Being There

As Barbara noted in her post on Wednesday, one of the challenges of writing during a pandemic is not being able to do field research. Even thought my books are set in the past or in a near-future alternate universe, I do rely on going to real places and walking through them. Last fall, I had planned to go down to Flushing Meadows in Queens, NY to tour the site of the 1939 World's Fair. Not much is left from that famous "World of Tomorrow." The 1964 World's Fair was held on the same site. But I wanted to walk the lanes and streets of the park and see the two structures that remain. I also wanted to go to the Queens Museum.

But last fall, I was busy and I couldn't decide whether to drive or to take the train down to New York City and go from there. I reserved my tour ticket after hearing a delightful podcast, and then I dithered about logistics. I decided with all of the videos available on YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet, with all the photos and descriptions I had found, there was no urgency about actually going to Flushing Meadows. I could wait until spring. Then came COVID-19. And by spring break, it was obvious it would be awhile before I could go anywhere.Hardly tragic in the larger scheme of things. But I keep thinking about the mist on a street in Chicago.

It was years ago, and I went to Chicago for a week because the first quarter of You Should Have Died on Monday (soon to be reissued) was set there. I wanted to walk through what Lizzie Stuart, my crime historian, would do if she were in Chicago looking for information about the time her mother had spent there in 1968. I had been to Chicago several times before, but this time I needed to pay attention to details. A fellow author and lawyer who lived there had offered to take me out to Cook County Jail and give me a tour of some other places that might work for my locations.

That first day, I arrived at my hotel, and then decided to go for a walk. I was walking along, when suddenly there was a refreshing mist in the air. I looked around, puzzled for a moment, until  I realized the buildings were blocking the view of the river.

On the next corner, a woman asked me to buy a small press newspaper. I bought one and dropped it in my tote bag. Then I came to the kiosk offering tickets for a river tour. Of course, Lizzie would take a river tour. She had nothing to do until she met with the private detective who was looking for her mother the next day. I bought a ticket and decided to walk some more while I was waiting for the next boat. On the next block, across the street, I saw a sports uniform display -- the store Lizzie where Lizzie would buy something for John Quinn, her baseball-loving almost fiance. I went in, bought a White Sox baseball cap because that's what Lizzie, the historian, would buy. Then I walked on until I came to the little burger place where Lizzie would have a late lunch and I noted the architecture and the open door in back. Then I walked back to the harbor for the boat tour -- where Lizzie would notice the passengers and I make notes about what the tour guide was saying about the buildings and the huge Ferris wheel.

Now, here's the thing. I was looking back to see if I had a photo of the Ferris wheel that I could post here because on that tour I had a chance to see exactly how it gleamed in the hazy afternoon sun. I mentioned that in the book. But when I was checking the Chicago Architecture Center site, I saw immediately that the gondolas that I remembered as red and had described that way are blue in the photos. It turns out this is a new Ferris wheel, installed in 2016 to replace the 1995 wheel with the red gondolas that I remembered. But if I hadn't seen the red gondolas and I were writing that novel (set in 2004) right now, I might well have gotten that detail wrong. In fact, that boat tour that was really useful in the book because of what happened on board, might have gotten only passing mention and details taken from a brochure.

From Chicago, Lizzie went to Wilmington, North Carolina. I had been there several times before. This time I went to the library and did the research Lizzie would have done -- and when I asked the questions she would have asked, a helpful patron in the local history room offered a suggestion about the neighborhood I wanted to go to. There I parked, walked over to the fish market and order lunch, then walked along the adjacent street -- where I saw a broken place in the sidewalk and the house where I knew Lizzie would find another lead. In my mind, when the door opened, the person there would be a child. I didn't know what he was going to say, but I knew it would affect the outcome of her search. That conversation sent her -- and me -- to New Orleans. I had been there several times before, but now I was in Lizzie's skin. This time, I needed to find the right hotel for Lizzie and walk her through finding Becca -- a trolley tour of the Garden District, a early morning walk on Bourbon Street with the smell of stale beer, the location of Becca's restaurant.

I'm getting nostalgic writing this. I love field research. It's like going on-location in a movie. I can only be grateful that although I wasn't ready to begin my sixth Lizzie book, I did take the opportunity I had almost two years ago to go to Santa Fe.
A friend came along and we walked through my locations -- driving from the airport to Santa Fe, walking around downtown, stopping in art galleries so that I could get details for the gallery that Quinn's sister owns. I collected maps and menus and newspapers. I have all of that in a banker's box along with my notes. I have photos. I'm ready to start writing. I plan to have that book finished by the end of the year.

I am so glad I have seen and felt Santa Fe for myself. I know even though Lizzie is going to be distracted while she is there, she will want to go back.

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