by Pari Noskin Taichert
Near the southern edge of New Mexico sits the state’s second largest city. Las Cruces — "The Crosses" — is a solid four hours from Albuquerque even if your foot hits the acclerator too hard for most of the time.
I went down there a few weeks ago with my two school-age children to do more research for my fourth book in the Sasha Solomon series. I’d been in the area earlier in the year to attend an international chile pepper conference, but that trip had been limited to sessions about plant DNA, pesticides and fertilizers, and how the local industry was faring against competitors in South America and China.
This time, I didn’t expect to accomplish much with kids in tow. I wouldn’t have the freedom of spontaneity.
It just goes to show how wrong a person can be.
My trip was one of those blessed adventures when everything comes together. I met the right people — the ones who read mysteries, who work at the library, who offered to be my eyes and ears in the town after I left. They told me about great restaurants and marvelous blue highways. I went to the farmers’ market and talked with an old woman who grew and sold medicinal herbs. I met a food processor who allowed me to come back to his business and see how his family makes their products (highly proprietary information). His wife opened their business files so that I could see what the EPA and FDA demand during their annual inspections. For more than an hour, his wife answered every one of my questions.
I got to see the New Mexico Chile Pepper Institute and its demonstration garden in full fruit.
I love doing on-site research. I adore having an excuse to be an observer in a different location, to be able to take notes and veer off the road well traveled. It’s part of the joy of writing my New Mexico series.
But what am I going to do for my new series? How will I reconcile myself with being forced to depend on the internet and my imagination rather than on-site visits? It’s going to be frustrating as hell. Believe me, if I could spend weeks away from home in places like Malibu, Tahiti and Saint-Jean Cap Ferrat, I would.
I keep telling myself that it’s going to be all right. For my first book in series #2, I’ve met some people who live in Houston and who are sending me pictures of River Oaks detailing the plants and animals a person might find there. They’re and telling me about restaurants and stores that the wealthy residents of that area might patronize, what they might wear on a July day there.
Still, a part of me screams. How will I get the details that I notice — the smells, the exact color of the heavy humid sky, my first sighting of a palmetto bug — when I’m not there to experience them myself? What if I don’t ask these people the right questions? Will I ever be able to make the places believable to my readers?
So here’s what I want to know from writers: How do you handle putting your books in locations away from home? Have you ever completed a manuscript without visiting the places you mention? How do you get the feel and details that make these descriptive sections real?
And, for readers, what interests you most about the locations where mysteries are set? Of course, I’m talking about real places — not made up towns or villages — the ones you might actually visit some day.
I have had to write about places I have not been and it is very difficult. Fortunately, there always people who have lived in those areas willing to blog, post, write, speak or communicate in other ways (I don’t know what those would be) willing to share. I gave them a list of questions and then they notice what I notice.
Pari, there are some sections in Afghanistan in my second book, and I haven’t been there, nor will I likely go there anytime soon.
I’ve been reading travelogues and one thing I did that really helped was Google Afghanistan photography – that pulled up a number of photographers and their work, and I was even able to sort it out by time, so I could see the Afghanistan that my character sees.
Your Las Cruces photos are gorgious!!
As reader, it’s the story that matters most and settings only need to be accurate IF I know the place. I drove through Arizona once enroute to Vegas and I’ll believe anything you say about it. But if your setting is New England, the descriptions of setting for me need to be accurate enough to not stop the flow of the story by being too different from what I know it’s like.
As a reader, I just want place names to be accurate. I don’t notice the description too much, unless it is TOO MUCH, and then I don’t like it. An example is Rick Riordan’s Tres Navarre series. I grew up in San Antonio, and Tres drives on streets I’ve driven on, and eats in restaurants I’ve eaten in. I like reading that, and will pull out his books when I’m feeling homesick. If there is description of the city there, it just goes right by me. Could be because he does it so well that nothing seems wrong 🙂
Candace and Billie,Thanks for suggestions I hadn’t yet considered: blogs and travelogues. One problem I have with using local sources is that I’m usually writing the book as I go and often am unsure *what* to ask. I guess the more I use this method, the better I’ll get at those kinds of details.
Lorraine and Lois,I think I read the same way. If it’s a place I know, I want more detail and I expect it to be right. Nothing turns me off more than when an author gets it wrong.
That said, if it’s a place I don’t know well, I want to learn but am much less discriminating or critical if I find out something is inaccurate later.
Another thought about this: My NM series is considered regional and I think it’s because I describe the places Sasha visits in some detail. So readers feel like they’re there.
I wonder if my new series will have the same kind of pigeon-holing given that my protag will be traveling all over.
Maybe this is why I’ve set all my writing in Tucson so far — a place I know as well as my own stale breath.
But Google Images and Google Earth are my eyes when I can’t be there.
As a reader, I’m always tickled when a book is set someplace I know well, like San Francisco. I love reading other peoples’ viewpoints of my ‘hometown’.
When a book is set someplace I haven’t been, it’s interesting to compare the impressions created by the sense of place in the story, to my impressions when I’m able to actually visit. New York is an example. By the time I finally got there, I’d read Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder series, plus Small Town (one of my all time faves), and I kept thinking, wow, Block really nailed it.
Louise,Do you feel that way about all of Arizona? Just curious. I feel like I can nail most of NM even if I can’t get to the small towns. But, I adore the excuse to travel anyway.
Rae,I know exactly what you mean; I love reading about NM through other people’s POVs. And, I always depend on authors in other places to “get it right.”
What happens when someone misses it? Do obvious mistakes knock you out of the story?
Pari, nice post!!! Love those photos.
I have a section set in New York in book 2. I wanted the characters having breakfast at the W Hotel. I did the research online, wrote the scene, but decided I needed to go and see for myself. Thank goodness I did, it was much different in person. I hope I did it justice (The W AND New York).
So I fall into the experience is best camp.
Pictures of home! I know where you were, Pari, I can almost smell the dusty hot air, feel the weight of the sun in the palm of my hand, see the slight shimmer of heat rising of the softening asphalt.
Sometimes I miss it so badly, and sometimes I’m glad I’m gone. I can’t wait to read this new one! I know you’ll capture it beautifully.
To answer you as best I can, when I’m reading about a place I’ve never been, I like to be able to picture it, at least a bit. Like Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series. I can smell the muggy Louisiana air in her writing. But the story has to come first, the setting can’t override it.
I loved going through Minneapolis after reading the Lucas Davenport novels. Sometimes place can be a character in the story too.
Regarding obvious mistakes, geographical or otherwise: they will occasionally make me pause for a moment, but they don’t spoil the story for me, as long as it all makes sense in context. My favorite analogy is the car chase in “Bullitt”. If you know San Francisco at all, you can see how the filmmakers monkeyed around with the city’s geography. But who cares? It’s still the greatest chase scene of all time – it worked in context.
Same thing with literature – I am simply delighted to suspend my disbelief, as long as the story contains no glaring errors of continuity.
You know, JT, I’d love to go to Saint-Jean Cap Ferrat. I think I need a wealthy patron.
About that place as character, Fran . . .Yep, it’s true. I love reading books where a writer is able to pull that off without the reader even noticing she’s falling in love with a locale.
I hope, by the time I write LAS CRUCES, I really will have it down.
For now, I’m awaiting the cover for THE SOCORRO BLAST. I love this time in the publishing of a book.
Hey, Rae,Thanks for that. It makes me feel a little better about the challenge of writing about a place I might not be able to visit.
You’re right about “Bullitt.” Just saw it recently and it is the best car chase ever. (And I’m assuming that Steve McQueen did his own stunts.) I also loved the atmospheric shots of San Francisco and didn’t mind how the movie cut together the City in its own unique way. (The same goes for “The Fast and the Furious”–it’s an awful movie but you get to see parts of L.A. that are not usually portrayed in movie. Different spots miles apart are edited as if they are right next to each other.)
I think there’s more leeway in movies than books. But we are writing fiction, so that needs to be taken in account. I don’t do a tremendous amount of research to make sure that a locale is perfectly correct. It’s more important that I capture the essence of a place and how it relates to my characters. I have statues whose arms are up rather than down, streets that go beyond their geographical limits. But that’s in my character’s world, so that’s okay.
Kafka wrote his book AMERIKA without stepping foot in the United States. Sometimes the imagined is as telling as the fact-based.
Great to see you here, Naomi.
You know, even if you research and get all the details right, they can change.
On the way home from Las Cruces, I stopped in some of the places mentioned in Socorro. Two restaurants have already closed; it made me so sad to think that these wonderful places won’t be experienced by my readers who might come to visit.
It sure is easier to write about someplace you’ve lived.
But I seem to be obsessed with writing about Boston, these last two novels, so I go there when I can, subscribe to the Globe, and read and watch anything set in Boston I can get my hands on.
A critique partner asked me the other day – “What is it with you and Boston?”
I don’t KNOW – I wish I could stop! But in the meantime, thank God for the Internet.
Now, there’s an idea that might help me — to subscribe to the paper and see what’s going on. I wonder if some of these upscale places have their own daily or weekly rags. It’d sure be a wonderful way to get a feel for the place.
Yes, it’s tough getting those telling details from a place one has never been. Virginia and I are facing this problem with our next book set in World War I. There are lots of historical resources (an overwhelming amount), but one thing we’ve found helpful for details is letters and diaries (preferably anthologies to save time).
As for Houston, I grew up in southcentral TX not far from that awful city. My family still lives there, and I just got back from a wedding two weeks ago. I never heard the term Palmetto bug until I met a Floridian. We just called ’em roaches. Lots of bugs there though; summer nights filled with lighting bugs (fireflies), hordes of June bugs (in June, duh), and mud daubers (or dirt daubers): mild-mannered wasps that build adobe houses just about anywhere, like in my father’s work boots he left outside. After living in New Mexico, the Texas humidity feels like a suffocating shroud when one steps outside. There’s about a quarter-inch of dew every summer morning. And a “clear” sky is not blue, it’s a leaden pall, low and Venusian. Ah, memories!
Unless something strikes me as truly fascinating, I probably won’t remember much about the location’s description for very long after I’ve finished a book. To me, it serves as backdrop to the characters and their relationships. Yes, descriptions set the tone of a place and that feeling can linger, but whether a town square with monument, blinking light crossroads or Walmart occupies its center seldom interests me. Books with paragraph after paragraph of local ‘color’ will find me skimming them to get back to the good stuff.
I exploit everyone who will communicate with me for information about the sights, sounds, and the feeling of a particular place. Even my family (or perhaps, especially my family) is not immune. My daughter is a budding botanist who has done research in the Great Smokies during a time of year that is featured in one of my books. Recently, I peppered her with emails (perhaps “pestered” would be a better word): What does the air smell like in April? How hot, how cold? What exactly can you see? What’s it *like*, gosh darnit?
She puts up with it.
Hah!Starley, I know Houston from signings at Murder by the Book. I couldn’t believe the humidity. Thanks for the heads-up about the bugs.
What’s happening with the first book?
B.G.,I always appreciate when you comment; it’s concise and insightful. I, too, find myself skimming with too much detail.
Kathryn,I think it’ll be easier to do my work when my kids have moved out of the house and can do my research for me . . .
Actually, I think I need to have more faith in all of my sources and my ability to ask the right questions.
I love it when authors sneak in little details that add so much to the setting: foods, smells, textures — the stuff you only notice when you’re there. For example, when I live at home in Salt Lake City, I rarely think about the crickets that chirp all night in the summer or the sparrows that wake me up. But when I lived in Scotland, one of the first things I noticed was the complete absence of crickets!!! And then I noticed that the birds outside my window in the morning were not cute, little chirping sparrows, but a cacophony of pigeons, crows, and seagulls.That’s the kind of detail that takes a book (for me) out of “cardboard cut-out” stages and into “real.”
I love the discovery about the birds, Oh Paperback Writer.
Like you, I enjoy the little things that make a location distinct and appreciate a writer who can slip in the details without stopping the storytelling.