Monday, October 12, 2015

Writing: On Location

When a writer sends their protagonist out to some exotic part of the world, sometimes all they give you is a list of place names.

You can do this. It isn't too hard to find good names, either. Some time with a good atlas or in Google Maps may work. Other things may require deeper regional sources. The Harvard "Let's Go" series (and of course similar travel books) have a wealth of recommended hotels and eating places and enough minutia about transit arrangements to suit even LaHaye and Jenkins.

I've been writing a Tomb Raider/SG1 cross-over fanfic, and for several of the chapters I made use of various online travel services to plan flights, locate hotels; basically those parts of her trips I planned the way I would plan my own (if I had her budget, of course!)

And place names by themselves are not all bad. They may be familiar to your reader. That gives them an extra layer of association, emotional resonance and detail, that they can bring to the story. They may be unfamiliar; but if the reader is intrigued by mention of real-world places, giving them names will aid them in looking up more about them on their own. And if all else fails, place names give a sense of the language, as well as the geography (are most of the names "this crag" and "that falls?" That describes a dramatic mountainous region) And they can give a glimpse of other elements below the surface; the American Southwest, for instance, with names that show clear origin in both Native American and Spanish sources.

I tend to aim towards place names that speak of a little back story; "Old Church" or "Millennium Bridge" or "Grant's Tomb." Barring that, it helps to use place names that can be given (or customarily include) a descriptive marker; "Highway 17" or "Owl Creek Bridge." 

Which begins to hint at the real trick. First, just as in naming characters, you need to add attributes to ensure reader recognition. If she hasn't been seen for several chapters, I'm not going to write "Janet Frasier" or even "Doctor Frasier." It is going to be "...the Chief Medical Officer of Stargate Command." As important as position and relation to other characters is, it is also nice to put in a little look and feel; "The petite, serious brunette" or, "With a white lab coat over her Air Force Blues." This will bring the visual impression back into the reader's mind as well.

And this is necessary for places. I set several chapters in Prague. Prague is many things; a modern and cosmopolitan capitol, but also, an ancient city in the heart of Old Europe. It is famed for the flowers in Spring, but for my purposes I also wanted to show the narrow medieval alleys of certain districts of this ghost (and golem) haunted town. So each time the city is brought anew into the text, "Prague" is accompanied by a brief attribution or descriptive phrase; as brief as "the old city" or as extensive as a little recap description.

Which brings us around to the importance of going beyond just a list of names. You want to bring places to life. First that means appealing to the five senses; the heat, dust, and traffic noise of Cairo, or the leaf-shaded yet somehow expectant quiet of Arlington (another ghost-haunted town, at that, with ghosts that range from Revolutionary and Civil wars that sometimes seem a mere generation ago, to the bodies of more recent war dead, to the in a certain sense more literal spooks inhabiting the various agencies headquartered not far away).

Think of weather (which is actually pretty easy to look up), the sights (Google Street View is but one of many options) -- but even more than how the Eiffel Tower looks against the sky, look to the full setting and the smaller pictures, whether it is stick-like trees wintering in the Tuileries or the surprisingly antiquarian-looking books in the ramshackle stalls set up along the banks of the Seine. 

Especially look to the people, the dress, the behavior. And here is where the real fun begins. Because every place is a thousand on-going stories often coming out of generation upon generation of tangled histories. Think of the way the American Civil War is always lurking beneath everything else in certain places in the South, combining with the evolving but still quite extant racial divide and the politics of statehood to color everything from window displays to who habitually uses "sir" or "boss" to address whom.

Every place has these current prides and these old wounds and these patterns you won't understand without delving deep into their evolution. Every place has a pace, a meter, a music of its own both in tempo and in the subtle subdivisions of rhythm. Fortunately for the purposes of fiction you can simplify! Look for primary emotions, strong visuals, a color, a temperature, a sound; "busy, grey streets" or "softly-lit, almost melancholic woods" or "sweltering, muggy nights filled with cigarette smoke and jazz."

(And, yes -- if you are going to be jumping around between various locations, use every color grading trick you can; emphasize the different color pallet, the different weather, bits of language; everything you can highlight and thus contrast to help the reader re-locate along with the text each time you jump.)

Nothing really replaces going (but as a Berliner told me on the train, you can be in a city for seventy years and it will still surprise you.) For me, watching video helps more than anything else. I also had some good luck with blog entries by tourists -- although blogs by ex-pats with extended stays go into a lot more helpful detail. Listening to local music also helps -- during the Cairo sections of my Tomb Raider fanfic I set iTunes to various modern Egyptian streams and listened mostly to those while I wrote.

And look especially for specifics. One concrete will outweigh thirty adjectives when it comes to making a place stand out in your reader's mind. These are of course the hardest of all to find, of course. It takes every thread of research you can pull on; reading biographies, watching movies, talking to people who know the place, whatever you can to find those things that are so characteristic and quirky of that particular place that once you've learned them, you question why you'd never heard of them before.

A last note. If you are going to be globe-trotting in your story, then at the start of every chapter that is in a different location than the previous (and that doesn't have some other over-riding material that needs to lead, such as resolving a cliff-hanger), lead with a recap of where you are. Don't open with your characters talking and let it become slowly obvious they are still in Boston. Start with them on that red brick made slick with the dirty slush of last weekend's snow, have them leaving Quincy Market well-fed on pastromi on rye and cold Sam Adams, or (if you must) parking the car in Harvard Yard. (And, yes, it is pastromi in that little corner of the universe. And never with mayo, either.)

It's the same rule as working with a POV character or your main protagonist. Name them in the first paragraph. Let the reader find their feet before you start throwing action verbs at them.

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