Sunday, January 01, 2006

Places Never Seen

For some writers, place is as central to their work as any character. I have faced that challenge in the past, but in the young-adult novel I am currently writing, place is simply a means to an end - it is a stage set for my characters, derived from calculated convenience but with certain unintended consequences for what unfolds in it. When dealing with local culture, I am usually happy to approximate and remix for the sake of fiction; but I always feel explicitly beholden to the details of place, which requires me to do a lot of research for my writing. The burden of those details can also lead to some drastic decisions. The other day, for example, after some thought and research I moved my protagonist's hometown (and starting point for an international journey) from San Francisco to Washington, D.C.

I did this for three reasons.

First, the protagonist has special powers which he must explore in secret and near the ocean, for reasons that are made clear in the book. That cuts out everything but the coasts, assuming that I intend for this to be an American story, which I do.

Second, he will be journeying from there by boat to Madagascar, a fact I had not thought through when I first located him in San Francisco. After researching the routes and travel times of container ships across the Atlantic, through the Mediterranean and into the Indian Ocean, I realized that leaving from the East Coast cuts weeks off the journey, which still stands at roughly a month at sea, while heading East across the Pacific offered no time savings at all. Since I was already committed to a relatively straightforward narrative clock and intended to color the journey with a couple of dramatic incidents, I had no interest in doubling it, and since the protagonist spends much of that time underfed and living in a cage, I am concerned not to put him through so much that he is hopelessly demoralized even before his journey has really begun.

The third reason is that when I originally had the story open in San Francisco, I wrote a pivotal scene which takes place in a paddleboat on the pleasure pond in Golden Gate Park. I didn't want to completely rewrite it - the paddleboating insinuated itself into the scene pretty well - so I looked at maps and websites until I located another walkable urban center with access to a pond that rented paddleboats, and which also had a major zoo that was fairly accessible to the city center (another important plot point relied on that). According to maps (which means it was true within the last several years, which is good enough for me) you can rent paddleboats for use in the Tidal Basin just south of the Mall in Washington, D.C., the body of water that gracefully surrounds the Jefferson Memorial and backs up against a large stand of cherry trees. The National Zoo is a quick subway ride away. So D.C. it was.

But my real challenge was in identifying a water-based location for the protagonist's first experiments with his unusual powers. These powers can have fairly unpredictable and potentially dramatic effects, so isolation was important, as was the ability to contain a potential problem while trying to decide what to do about it. I used Google Maps to venture down the Potomac from D.C. in search of a place he and his companions could get to within a few hours at most and spend the day at in relative secrecy.

There is nothing of this kind on the Potomac, but once you reach the Chesapeake Bay there are quite a few islands in what is a rapidly submerging ecosystem. Erosion and sea level rise have been active there for hundreds of years and have turned many land masses into tiny islands as the water takes them apart. Once I had discovered the great many uninhabited islands that dot the bay, and that there was a far more intelligent landward route to them via causeway to the small fishing and beach towns perched on the edge of the mainland's peninsula, it was just a matter of finding the right island.

I chose James Island, a chain of three tiny, once-inhabited but now abandoned islands in the middle of the bay, and based the locations I needed for the story on what I could see on the map. I am happy with the way it worked out, and have a more interesting (to me) setting for that part of my story, in part because I don't know what it's like. I lived in San Francisco, and found it a little hard writing about it five years after leaving, having lived there for three years and visited the locations I was trying to write about maybe two or three times, and never as an author mining it for material. I tend to get a lot of psychological work done when I am deliberately working with a place to write about it but store very little for rainy-day writing needs. In this case, it was easier to write about places I had never seen.