Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Spying, Eavesdropping and Other Techniques for Location Research

Last year, I met an interesting writer named Jeff Posey. At the time, he was the chief organizer of the Dallas Fort Worth Writers' Conference. I soon found out he's familiar with Southwest Colorado, and even plans to move to Pagosa Springs one day, a community just 45 minutes from where I live in Durango.

Because we both recently conducted location research for our novels in progress, we thought we'd have an online 'chat' and then share our insights with other writers (and anyone else interested in our writing journeys). Below is an excerpt and then a link to the full 'chat.' Please forward to any writers you think would be interested!


Don’t you wonder sometimes whether we’re truly the writers — or whether there’s a secret galactic box somewhere that just uses us to tell stories?

I know what you mean by stories latching on to us. I’d doggedly hiked nearly every trail in the Weminuche Wilderness in Southern Colorado (near you in Durango), but I’d avoided all the ancient Anasazi ruins in that part of the world because I thought they’d be boring.

Then on a trip with my son to the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area between Durango and Pagosa Springs, this boy ran across our path. I put my hand out to keep my son from running into him. The boy was a figment of my imagination, of course. A figment I couldn’t shake. Hence my surrender to the grip of the galactic box that wanted me to write Anasazi historical fiction.

I just returned from Pagosa Springs on a book research trip. I took a class in making authentic Anasazi pottery (see more here: Ancient Arts Chimney Rock Workshop). I find myself looking mostly for experiences, sensual input I guess. Do you do that as well? Do you intentionally seek out a place, perhaps at a certain time or date, just to see what it feels like?

I absolutely believe in something like that secret galactic box 'choosing' us to be the vessel for the story that needs to be told. I had titles for all three books come to me in a very out-of-body woo-woo way, and I just had to say, "Okay. I'll get started..."

I love the idea of 'sensual input' in regards to research. That's exactly how it felt in Opelika. The story takes place in July and I visited in July so I experienced first-hand how very uncomfortable the heat and humidity are -- for me and my characters. I ate the food -- Southern, deep-fried, comforting, artery-clogging, digestion-challenging. I drank sweet tea and sat in neighborhoods, looking at houses where I thought my characters might live. I made sure I noted when the sun set, when the mosquitoes and crickets came out, how hot it was at 9 p.m. or 6 a.m., the driving distance between different places. I listened to that lilting, captivating accent of the region.

By the end I was exhausted from being so hyper-vigilant. I might have tried to absorb too much in a three-day trip. But the book will be different, better because of this trip.

I'm wondering if anything surprising came from your research? Something that stopped you short, something you knew had to be part of your book.

Oh, yeah. Slapped me into a dead stop for a few seconds: Shining White Greathouse at Chimney Rock. I’ve been on the tours maybe a dozen times, but somehow the mental image escaped me until this trip. You know that beautiful stonework we associate with the Anasazi? Those stones the sizes of loaves of bread with smaller stones shoved between them in courses? The Anasazi covered that up with white plaster. Imagine walking from Chaco Canyon (90 miles as a crow flies) to Chimney Rock and seeing that shining white building high on the tilted mesa.

I know exactly what you mean by the exhaustion of hyper-vigilance in doing site reconnaissance. I climbed Pagosa Peak’s southwestern face to see if a bunch of boys in my novel could build and light a bonfire there that could be seen from Chimney Rock. It’s a rugged place. Building a bonfire wouldn’t be easy, but could definitely be done. Imagining my characters there wore me out as much as the hike and climb.

I love the details you describe and that you captured. I tried taking notes, but that seemed to fail me. I took lots of snapshots. Otherwise, I just rely on memory to tell me the things I need to remember.

READ THE FULL CONVERSATION, including the Top Three Pieces of Advice for Location Research!


  1. There is definitely a galactic box that reaches out and grabs people to make them write things down. I love the chat too. I'm not very vigilant when it comes to researching the places that I write about, but I do like to go back to places where I've been to remind myself how it's like. That way, I can perfectly the describe the taste of Manhattan air, for example, or the softness of the wild grass in North Carolina.

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