Sunday, 2 February 2014

Road Trip!

I am maybe -- just maybe -- planning another US road trip.

I've become quite a connoisseur of them...all in the name of research, you understand.

That's true about the research. But the fact is also that I'm American, which means I'm hard-wired to find road trips pretty much the most fun it's possible to have while still in your car. There's just something mesmerising about them -- watching the US slowly slide past as you travel the old state highways (road trip rule number one: NO FREEWAYS). And, in my case, they're sometimes essential.

Pardon me while I do a happy-dance and thank whatever gods that be that this is my actual job.

Remember the road trip in Angel (Angel Burn in the US)? Alex and Willow drive from upstate New York to New Mexico, and from there to the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. As I was writing the first draft, I kept thinking, "It would be SO cool to make this trip myself." And then I thought... why not? I'd done a fair bit of travelling in the US, but there were still places on that drive that I'd never seen. And although Angel was fiction (well, I hope it's fiction, or we're all in trouble!), I still wanted it to feel as real as possible.

"I think I might take a road trip," I said to my husband.

He looked at me.

"See?" I said, showing him the map. "I'm going to rent a car and drive from here in New York state to New Mexico, and then on to California."

In case you don't know, this is a very long way.

My husband looked at the map -- all 3,000 miles of the trip. Then he looked at me again.

"I'm coming with you," he said.

Well, I had kind of envisioned hitting the road on my own -- just me and my characters, hanging out and bonding together. But the idea scared me a little, too. The US is a big place. Having my husband along turned out to be perfect. For one thing, he's lovely and funny and excellent company. For another, he likes to drive, so he did most of it, while I got to gaze out the window and occasionally take notes about what I was seeing. (Um, why exactly did I want to go on my own again?)

I'd gotten a lot of things right in that first draft, but some significant things wrong, too. Wow, who knew that eastern Tennessee was so hilly? Or that the panhandle of Texas was so INCREDIBLY flat, with its horizon a long, hypnotic line in the distance?

The most important thing, though, was going to New Mexico.That's where my main character Alex was from, and I'd never been there. I was determined to find the exact spot where Alex's father's training camp was, where Alex had been raised.

We travelled all over the state. We saw so many places that could have been the camp's location... yet they just didn't feel right. Then we drove past a particular patch of desert. I didn't say anything, but thought, "I wonder if that was it?"

Suddenly my husband pulled over to the side of the road and turned around. "I think that might have been it," he said.

The psychic link had spoken. That was indeed it.

I walked through the sand to a fence and gazed out at the view. A hot breeze was blowing as I looked out at the location of Alex's camp. This setting is such an important part of the story...and now, for the first time, I could actually see it. I could touch the juniper bushes. Smell the dust in the air.

This is what a research trip is all  about. The internet is a great friend to writers: I use it constantly. But you can't actually feel the wind on your face or know exactly what that gritty soil feels like under your feet.

Then came Angel Fire. I was writing about Mexico City. I HAD NEVER EVEN BEEN TO MEXICO. Panic! Research time! I read book after book about my setting, and thankfully, we were also able to go there. Driving to our hotel, it was amazing to see the Zocalo -- one of the world's largest city squares -- with the Catedral Metropolitana rising up at one end. A major scene in Fire takes place there; it was like meeting an old friend.

And once we got inside, I realised it was an old friend that had been totally misrepresented on YouTube.

This is why you can't always trust the Internet. I'd watched every video I could find of the cathedral's interior, and not one showed that when you first step inside, all you can see is a small altar at the front. I'd envisioned a big, open space. Nope. You have to walk past the mini-altar to get to that. The solution was simple -- mention a cathedral redesign once the angels had taken over -- but without going there, I'd never have known there was a problem.

Same goes for the famous "Lions' Gate" outside the Bosque de Chapultepec, the city's largest park. See, there's this awesome gate leading into the park with huge lion statues to either side. In a scene where Seb and Willow have just met, I had Seb leaning against one of these lions. Great, huh?

Well, it would have been, if they hadn't TAKEN THE GATE AND THE STATUES DOWN.

"But why?" I bleated to the park attendant when I finally figured out what he was saying to me. "It's a really famous gate!"

(Yes, he thought I was mad.)

(Yes, I probably am.)

Warily, using non-startling motions and a soothing tone, the attendant directed me to some other lion statues inside the park. ("Wow, she must really like lion statues," he must have been thinking.) I rewrote the scene using these statues instead, and was able to keep the imagery of Seb leaning against the lion.

Does any of this matter? How many readers will even know if there are really lion statues outside a particular park or not?

I think it does. I'm writing fiction, yet I want it to feel as true as possible, as if you were there yourself. And if you know a place I'm writing about, I want it to feel like coming home. I'm sure all three Angel books have mistakes, but not for lack of trying.

We did an Angel Fever road trip, too. Remember when Willow drives from Nevada to New York State, by way of Canada? That's what we did. And I'd had no idea that Canadians have different road sign designs for each province. I should have guessed -- US states have different road sign designs -- but it hadn't even occurred to me to check.

It's one of those little things that count.

Now I'm working on a new trilogy. I'm doing lots of reading for research...but there are also some locales that need checking out. I was mulling aloud about where a particular setting should be, when my husband said, "How about Alaska?"

Bingo! Not only have I always wanted to go there, it's perfect for my story purposes. So these days I'm busy gazing at maps of Alaska and thinking about the trip we'll probably take -- from somewhere in that big, vacant interior down through Canada, and then the Western US coast to Los Angeles -- which just might, possibly, be another story locale.

I love my job.


  1. Brilliant! If you ever decide to do a road trip in UK or in Poland make sure to let me know! I will be trying to spot you for another autograph for Soul Mates! x

  2. Uncanny. Just how I saw things in my head when I read the book.

  3. I would love to do things like this - all in the name of research, of course! - but with four children and a proper job (and absolutely NO money) it's not going to happen. Yet. One day . . .