In March I returned from a trip to Washington, D.C. Where We Need Diverse Books was presenting its first annual Walter Dean Myers Award for literature at the Library of Congress. I was a judge so it made sense to be there. As luck would have it, the airfare into Washington’s Reagan International was inexpensive - . just about $100. The cost to fly out - almost four times higher. If I waited and took a $49 Amtrak train to Newark I could fly out a few days later for $112.
I decided to think like a starving artist and make the trip do double duty. I took the money I would have had to spend on the higher airfare and extended my discounted stay at the DC hotel (which was within walking distance of everything). I used the time to explore scenes in my book and do research.
Example: In Safe Harbor my protagonist plans to steal an diamond from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. In a previous book he’d seen his father plan the heist of a jewel from the British Museum. Armed with floor plans and virtual tours I knew the Smithsonian like the back of my hand (excuse the lazy cliché) - or so I thought.
While in D.C. I took a side trip to the International Spy Museum. If you’ve never been, it’s a fun day trip even if you’re alone. There are rooms upon rooms devoted to actual spy gadgets used in various wars. There are also simulations to try and a few puzzles sprinkled in. I failed miserably at spotting hidden aircraft from satellite data (even with hints). You can choose a fake identity (optional) and if so must learn your dossier in order to pass various checkpoints where you’ll be quizzed on who you are and where you’re going. I passed the checkpoints with no errors and no notes (which the guard hinted would be cheating if I did.) Along the way I took copious notes about objects or strategies I could stuff in my sci-fi toolbox.
The next morning was spent at the Air and Space museum. If you’re going to have a secret outpost it would make sense to look at the technology developed by government agencies. For example: what do satellites look like up close? When I arrived, the museum was showcasing a kite demonstrations. It was fascinating to see what the guests could do with flight in the absence of moving air - graceful and silent. Even when the kites were huge their handlers caused them to float and swoop gracefully to music. But kites (and possible uses for Safe Harbor) aside, I had a burning question: What do you do if you can’t install normal bathrooms in your secret hideout and have to recycle all the team's waste? Seeing the space station bathroom up close provided a lot of fun - and gross - things to add to my book's bathroom descriptions. Can't have a book without adding "gross-out the kids" items!
And then, finally, the prize. I headed to the Museum of Natural History where I quickly found the Hope Diamond. It was exactly where I knew it would be. Near the IMAX Theater I described and a room filled with dinosaurs. Only the diamond was surrounded by hundreds of people, all crowding to get a look. Literally hundreds. The problem with using virtual tours for writing “down” drafts is virtual tours rarely show people. I intentionally had my protagonist go during the day since I couldn’t just go up to a guard for research and say “So what kind of security are you using at night to protect this building if - say - a couple of clueless teens decided to break in?” I mean - years ago you might be able to, but to get into the Smithsonian now you have to be searched and go through metal detectors. So tempting fate is not a good career move. This is fiction, after all, but I called my poor long suffering editor and told her that bad news. Yes - both the publisher’s copy editor and book designer were almost finished with final layout for the Advance Reader Copy, and a press run was looming but I had to adjust the scene to account for crowds of people who might see or overhear them.
And it was a good decision, because it forced the characters to shift strategies and made for a more interesting turn of events. Luckily my editor knows how I work and is supportive. I once attended a retreat in Europe and stayed a few days extra to explore the British Museum. As with the MNH - virtual tours don’t begin to inform on the size and scope (or even urban location) of a living breathing place. I walked the same path as my characters then too. The scene ended up on the cutting room floor, but it doesn’t mean I can’t use it later. Certainly my character’s exploration of the Vatican Museum in book one (or as my children called it - the Artwork version of "Hoarders") came because of a visit there.
That being said - I’m reading a lot of manuscripts from writers who are crafting contemporary (or historical or fantastical) worlds. In many cases they’re making it up from their imagination or from their own memories. But that is not always an effective approach. When we write - we’re transporting readers to places they may never see for themselves. We have a duty to create landscapes that are living breathing characters of their own. You can’t do that from your chair.
Well, okay, there is an exception. In Safe Harbor, on the way to the Smithsonian, the characters make a few mistakes and go to the wrong places. In those cases I’m able to follow them on Google Maps and on several other World Map sites that allow me to get a glimpse of the terrain, the texture of the landscape, and determine the ambient weather conditions at that time of year. And I have the DVD set of every Nat Geo magazine from the late 1800’s. I use those tools when my pitiful travel budget fails.
But nothing . . . . NOTHING . . . is an adequate substitute for getting out of your chair and immersing in an environment that is outside of your comfort zone. That includes those in your contemporary stories. Go to those locations and smell the air. Close your eyes and listen to the ambient noise. As my editor once coached in a writing class - go to a thrift store and buy the clothes of your characters. Feel the fabric in your hands. Sip the drinks, smell the coffee, lie in the grass. If your story is historical - go to a museum and just sit. Study the exhibits - the papers, the books, even the eating utensils. Look at the tiny patterns formed in the artwork of a ceramic bowl. Or the breadth of a gigantic frieze and imagine who might have crafted it.
Be one with your environment so the details will infuse the atmosphere of your book. Your writing will be better for it. And so will your readers.
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