The trouble with faraway places...
The trouble with faraway places is that the moment you've got the layout straight in your mind, some idiot comes along and changes everything...
I love to write stories set in far off places—to share with my readers the smell of exotic spices and all the other colorful sights and sounds as my characters wander through the souk in Tangiers, or maybe it’s a romantic night-time stroll along the Seine with the hero of my story, or, if the heroine is in jeopardy, a race for time through a confusing maze of back streets and narrow alleys in Moscow, Madrid or Marseilles with the hounds of hell snapping at our heels.
Even with extensive research, using locations you’ve never visited can be tricky--there's bound to be a helpful reader who just has to tell you that you've got it all wrong. Using locations you think you know well can also be tricky—especially if you haven’t been to that particular spot in several years. I was born in London, England, and thought I knew it pretty well. The last time I was in the East End, once the home of the London Docks, it was full of ancient, crumbling wharves and warehouses, so, when I wrote WHERE’S MICHELLE (a romantic suspense involving the kidnap of a 9-year old girl) an old abandoned wharf seemed like the perfect place to set the opening scene. Fortunately, I’d made the exact location of the wharf very vague which was just as well because on my next visit some years later, shortly after the book was published, I discovered huge changes had occurred. There are still a few pockets of decay awaiting rejuvenation and historically significant sites have been preserved, but most of what I remember has gone. The streets are still there, but most of those old warehouses have been replaced by expensive Thameside condos.
In WITHOUT A CLUE—a romantic suspense set in Paris, I was the victim of what I can only describe as absolute and outright sabotage on the part of the French people. I’ve visited Paris many times and, since I prefer to walk rather than ride, I’m familiar with the layout and have visited all but one of the famous tourist attractions on more than one occasion. So imagine my shock the last time I was in Paris and I found an expressway running through part of the Tuileries Gardens--the exact spot where my heroine was to finally make contact with the “mystery woman” in the plot. At this point, Clue hadn’t been published, so it was simply a matter of finding a new location for the scene. I finally decided on the Palais Royal which turned out to be an even better choice because many of the boutiques in the Palais gardens have both front and back entrances and this allowed me to escalate “the chase”.
I’m currently working on SEEING CAN BE DECEIVING, the second Liz Moretti mystery. But when I started the research, once again I discovered that what I remembered is not the way it is now. In the opening scene, one of the main characters has just been released after spending 20 years in prison. The London train takes him to St. Pancras Station and, since I was in England visiting with my sister, I thought I’d go over and check it out. I hadn’t been to that part of London in at least 20 years, so I figured that would be the perfect opportunity to see it all again through Kenny’s eyes. As it turned out, we both got the shock of our lives. The St. Pancras Station we knew and loved is no more—the old brick station, black with smoke from the days of steam trains has been torn down and replaced with a brand new shiny glass and steel building to help with the increased Chunnel traffic. My character thought he’d gone to the wrong station and for a moment, so did I.
And the moral of this story is, when it comes to details, rely on what you saw this morning with your own eyes. Otherwise, be vague—very very vague.