Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Shoe Leather

In my first novel I had several scenes in the San Francisco Bay area, someplace I've never been. I also had several scenes in Washington, DC, someplace where I lived for a few years after grad school. The scenes in DC were easier to write and they read better, too.

I've found that when I write a scene where I've been, I can remember details of the place, things like the greasy scent of coal-smoke can add a lot of verisimilitude to a narrative. Despite watching a lot of TV and movies, your readers should appreciate descriptions of senses beyond just sight and sound. The easiest way I know to pick up those associations is to put myself in the space.

Agreed? Great, tell me when you get back from Talos IV. Oh, you're not writing Science Fiction, call when you get back from Regency Cornwall.

Even if your story is set in someplace on this planet in this century, you may not have the money for an airline ticket, or the time away from your day job.

I've never been inside a starship, but I have toured the USS Silversides and U-505. I figured a submarine is as close to a spaceship as I'm likely to see in the next century or so. Beyond that, I figure they'll be a bit more like a commercial airliner. When Sid Feynman is aboard the starship Fat Chance, the narrative is an extrapolation from the submarines I've been aboard.

Though I've never been aboard a train pulled by a Victorian coal-fired steam locomotive. I have waited in the train station at Great Malvern. And I have ridden the coal-fired automobile ferry operating on Lake Michigan. 

I suppose Mycroft Holmes would experience the same permeating odor. So, I mixed the two together.

Working within your budget and schedule find the place that seems closest to your story's setting. And be creative. What is like-unto that is close enough?

I've noticed a fair number of science fiction novels have a lot of meetings in restaurants. There was a wonderful restaurant in downtown Grand Rapids that was located in the basement of a much larger building. It was dark and Germanic with decor that made me think the Reformation had been worked out in similar pubs across northern Europe. A thoroughly civilized place, I believe it deserves a spot in one of my stories.

The trick is to get close enough and then fake the rest. You MUST get close enough that nobody knows where you faked it.

If your budget lets you take a day-trip a few hours away, that might be a worthy research activity. If your day job takes you someplace you don't usually go, look for the spots along the way that'll fit into your work in progress.

Sure, you can use the Internet, Google street view, books, and movies to help with research, but nothing can match being there and writing down that experience.

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