Sometimes you just have to go there

In the novel I’m writing, my character lived in Missoula, Montana before and now she’s going back to take care of some things. I personally had never been to Missoula, hadn’t been to Montana at all since 1974. I did what I could on the Internet. I studied all the photos and information I could Google. I downloaded maps and picked out streets where she might live and work. I thought I had a pretty clear idea of what it was like, but I was wrong. When the Fishtrap writing workshop I attended in early July took me close to Oregon’s eastern border, just a jump over Idaho to Montana, I decided to go see Missoula for myself. I’m so glad I did.

Instead of getting a vague picture from what I could find on the Internet, I actually went to the place where she worked, saw the house where she lived, and knelt in the church where she worshipped. I stayed in a motel where she might have stayed, ate at a restaurant where she probably ate. I shopped at the Book Exchange, where she might have bought books. I took pictures and lots of notes, not only in Missoula but on the way there and back.

I could have gotten by with just my online research. I had the general idea. I had the names of things. But I didn’t have the feeling of being there first thing in the morning and the middle of the night or of walking downtown at lunchtime, and there were things I didn’t know. For example, as I entered Missoula, the road was lined with gambling casinos. I didn’t expect that. The hills surrounding Missoula looked huge in the pictures, but they are not the Rocky Mountains; they’re rolling hills like those in my hometown of San Jose. And the drive is so much different from what I thought it would be. In fact I took one way there and a different way back, realizing the first route would be impassible in winter–and she’s going there in December. It would have been more realistic if I went to Missoula in winter, but I had the opportunity now. Besides, my character might be used to driving in snow, but I’m not.

Sometimes I think you just have to go there. The Internet is good, imagination is great, but if you’re using a real place in your fiction, you need to walk the streets and feel what it’s like. I would not have realized Montanans have a little drawl, wear their hair differently, have no sales tax, really get into cowboy art, dress in bright colors instead of Oregon’s grays and blacks, and that the men get confused when a woman opens her own door. To see the cubicle my character might have worked in and the people she might have worked with will make my book so much more real.

My previously published novel, Azorean Dreams, took place mostly in San Jose, California, where I lived and worked for most of my life. I made up the place where my hero lived but planted it in a setting that was so real my readers often go looking for Simao’s house and office, and even I have a hard time believing they’re not really there. After all, you can visit  the cemetery, the church, the bakery, the Portuguese community center, and the bridge where Chelsea met the homeless people. Our settings need to be that real and that detailed.

And here’s a 21st century bonus: When my new novel is published, I can post stories in my blog or on Facebook about my character’s journey, using the pictures and experiences I gathered during my research.

So go there. It’s fun! It’s deductible, too.

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