Wednesday, April 10, 2013

I recently did something I've wanted (needed) to do for some time now: I took a research trip to Seattle!

My YA novel manuscript, Potholes on the Road to Nirvana, is a contemporary road-trip adventure with a rock-and-roll twist. The story takes place primarily in Seattle, LA, and Burnt Creek (a fictional small town outside of Flagstaff, Arizona).

Writing scenes for Burnt Creek wasn't difficult.  I did a little research into the climate and terrain of Flagstaff and its surrounding areas and then went from there. I did find it necessary to return to research mode from time to time to make certain some of my details were believable. Like for instance, are squirrels abundant in the Flagstaff area, or would a squirrel feeder in one of the character's yards be a complete oddity? But otherwise, I find fictional towns to be fairly easy to move around in. I simply make up whatever I need, whenever I need it, and as long as I stick to the laws of physics and modern society it's all good.

LA was a little more problematic. LA is a real place, or so I've heard, and one that I've never been to at that. Once more I dug around into the climate for the time of year my characters would be there. I looked into the traffic patterns for the area. I got a feel for the general terrain (Google's Street View is a Godsend!), but by and large, the scenes that take place in LA all happen in fictional homes and fictional motels on fictional streets. So again,whatever I needed, whenever I needed it.

Seattle, on the other hand, was downright tricky. I've been to Seattle before. A couple of times. And I love the place. So the general feel and the climate weren't an issue. Some of the scenes take place in fictional coffee shops, etc, and those were all easy as well for the reasons already mentioned. But this one scene...

This one scene in particular comes at a pivotal point in the story and is absolutely essential. It unfolds at a very real place where real people have been and can still go. I wasn't really sure how to approach a real place like this in my writing when I hadn't visited it myself. How could my characters move around freely in a space I knew nothing about? But I did my research the same as I did for LA and Flagstaff, and then I jumped in and wrote anyway.

When finished, I liked the scene, and I felt that it worked well for the story. Yet, a chronic doubt gnawed away at me. What if I'd gotten any of the little details wrong about this place? Or any of the major details for that matter? Would I be exposed for the total writing poser my subconscious sometimes fears I am!

The fear and the doubt were paralyzing. They kept me from feeling that the manuscript was finished to the point of being ready to actively submit to agents. What if I sent it out to someone who knew the scene location? Would it ruin my credibility? Blow my chances with them not only with this manuscript, but with all future manuscripts as well?  Or worse: what if the agent didn't catch my mistakes and I got an offer for representation followed by a book deal? (Stranger things have happened. Right?) What if NO ONE caught my glaring inaccuracies before the book became published? And then readers actually read it; readers who knew the place I'd gotten so horribly wrong. 

I could see it clearly in my mind's eye: readers openly mocking my fraudulence in their Goodreads reviews. 

Talk about embarrassing! 

 Writing real places is SCARY!

So I did what any public-humiliation-fearing writer who is blessed enough to be able to do it would do: I got my butt on a plane and I went to the scene's location in person. I felt the ground beneath my feet. I smelled the smells, and heard the sounds. I felt the energy and the vibe. I took it all in...

...and I was really surprised by how much of it I'd actually gotten right. What on earth did writer's do before the internet? Before Google Street view? Because I sure as heck don't know.

Even though I had mostly/thankfully/miraculously written the area in a fairly accurate way, I had still reined myself in while writing it. My fear had prevented me from losing myself in the scene completely. Now that I've been there though, now that I have tangible experience to draw from, I'm incredibly excited to revisit the scene, and I can't wait to see how it changes.

In addition to the direct benefits to my writing, the trip was also an emotionally satisfying, all around good time. Below are a few images from my favorite places visited while there. I won't tell you which of these places appears in that pivotal scene, because I don't do spoilers, but I will tell you that it is one of them!

         Volunteer Park: This sculpture, Black Sun by Isamn Noguchi, was the inspiration for the Soundgarden hit, Blackhole Sun. How cool is that?!

The first ever Starbucks.

The Seattle Aquarium: where this creepy/funny/cute(?) little guy lives.

Kurt Cobain's house! His actual freaking house!!!

 Viretta Park: The last place Cobain was reportedly seen alive. It has become a memorial of sorts for him. 
The young guy in the green Cobain-sweater (center) was one of the many people at the park on a normal Monday morning paying their respects. I was delighted to see how much resonance Cobain still has with this younger generation!

 Pikes Place Market: I can't even express how much I love this place! If it smelled more like the flowers and less like the fish, I do believe I could live right in the market.

 EMP: Taking Punk to the Masses
An entire exhibit dedicated to Nirvana!

The Elliot Bay Book Company: An amazing independent bookstore where I got to visit one of my friend Rose Cooper's books, and where we scored an autographed copy of Indian Killer by "local author" Sherman Alexie!

For all you writers out there, how do you handle scenes that take place in real places you've never been? Do you have favorite research tools to help you with this?

And for all you readers, have you ever caught any glaring inaccuracies while reading a scene that takes place in a location you're familiar with? If so, did it affect the way you felt about the story or the author?
Leave a comment below!

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