Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Writing About Places We've Never Been

For most of my fiction writing career, I have stuck with the idea of only taking my characters to locations I have visited. Even that can be problematic if you aren't careful. When I wrote my first Post-Cold War thriller in 1990-91, I had visited Hong Kong. But when I revised Beware the Jabberwock for publication recently, I discovered I had used a hospital that was too far from where my character had an accident.

While revising the second book in the trilogy set just after the Cold War, The Poksu Conspiracy, due for publication soon, I realized I had broken the familiarization rule. I had a few scenes set in Berlin and Budapest. These are places I've never been. I depended on some maps of Berlin and online information for the German capital, but not much was required since it only involved a drive in from the airport to a downtown office.
The Hungarian part was a bit more complicated. I had Burke and Lori Hill spending several days there. Budapest was Lori's birthplace. Luckily, National Geographic Traveler ran a feature on the city around this time. It included great pictures of various sites and an article that provided lots of information. I also read a book by someone who had lived there several years that gave an inside look at the area.

Among the places described in the magazine was a restaurant that had been restored to its pre-Soviet satellite name, the Cafe New York. It occupied two levels of the old New York Insurance Company building, and the Communists had renamed it Cafe Hungaria. The lavishly decorated upper level was a balcony that looked down on the lower level called Melyviz, or Deep Water. In the old days, the affluent gathered on the upper level to peer down disdainfully on the writers and artists who subsisted on the cheaper fare of Deep Water. Burke and Lori made an important contact there.

My work was validated when I submitted those chapters to my writers group. Turns out one of my colleagues had lived in Budapest while her husband was there with the U.S. military. She said my descriptions were right on.

I haven't begun revising the third book, which was originally written around 1993. Titled Overture to Disaster, it is the longest of the three, currently clocking in at 165,000 words. And much of it is set in locations that I've never visited. I was well versed in the activities of the CIA and KGB back in those days, and I did a great deal of research on areas where the story is set. In the early part of the book, I have scenes in Minsk and Kiev, capitals of two of the new countries that were formerly Soviet republics.

It was only later in my fiction career that I decided to stick with locations I've visited. I'm pleased with what I did in these first three books. I'll be surprised if any of my readers takes me to task for the way I described these places nearly a quarter of a century ago.

1 comment:

Jaden Terrell said...

Chester, I've read Jabberwocky, and I think you did a great job with the settings. It's a challenge to get it right when you've never been there. My third book takes place in Nashville, with which I'm very familiar, but there is a character who has newly arrived from Vietnam, so I've had to do a lot of research about the history and customs of her home country. In a way, it's like setting a scene there, but the reader never sees those scenes, except in how they've shaped the character.