I assume that most people, like me, wish they could travel the world. Things get in the way, obligations and lack of funds being the main obstacles, which is why we also spend hours at a time scheming about stowing away in steamer trunks fitted with rebreathers and discreet but efficient waste management systems.
No? Just me?
Because we do not have unlimited monies, we watch TV shows and movies, and read books and magazines that – for an hour at a time– transport us to another place. It might be another city, another country, another time or another world.
There is an art to creating or framing these locales.
Spill all the details you’d take in if you were actually in one of these places and the reader is overwhelmed. The journey becomes an endless checklist of sensory overload. Too little description and the reader floats adrift, pulled away from the familiar but not yet tethered to the new.
I tend, as a reader, to like more details in science and historical fiction and less in fantasy and contemporary. Maybe it’s because the fantasy and contemporary stories I read lean toward a quick pace and strong voice, and copious details can diminish that. Maybe because – forgive me, wonderful world-builders – I don’t care about the world at large. I care only for how it’s going to affect and constrain the characters.
This is not to say that I don’t appreciate immersive travel writing. I do. Give me Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari or Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family (a creative family memoir, but to me it counts as destination writing) or the two-punch combo of Anthony Bourdain’s culinary travel writing and TV shows. These authors don’t jaunt around the world so much as submerge in a place within minutes of landing, then dig themselves out and rattle introspectively on to the next place.
I can find the landmarks and historic sites on my own. Castles. Battlefields. Monuments. I can memorize the names and dates and mumble appreciatively about the condition they’ve been restored to. I don’t need the writer for that. I need the writer to feed me bites of every day minutiae, to turn a corner and reveal the things I can’t find in the guidebooks. The places where cab drivers grab lunch in between fares. The nature of the night life and the after-hours scene. Are there underground coffee shops that also sell lap dances at four in the afternoon? Is there an entire quarter of the city separated from the remainder by invisible lines of language and culture? Can you pump your own gas? Is the air always tinged metallic by a nearby refining plant?
Running in the Dark is set in Santiago, Chile. This is roughly eight thousand miles from where I sit today, and from where my main character, Sydney Kildare, started her journey. Syd’s a runner, a courier for vampires who mostly works at night.
She’s never been to Santiago, but she’s a professional so I approached my research on the location the way she would. I mapped the toll roads through and around Santiago. I researched bus and subway schedules. I read translated community pages written by citizens concerned about the state of the roads in their towns.
Then, because I didn’t want this to be a story of South American urban road systems, I branched out. Like much of the Americas, pre-nation Chile was “discovered” by Europeans on a mission that had nothing to do with the interests of the people already living there. It also endured a military coup in the 1970s, the savage aftermath of which continued through much of the ‘80s. These were sad, stirring and ultimately interesting events to twist as I integrated the vampire presence into human history.
As Sydney’s definition of ancient history is “anything that occurred more than a week ago”, I focused more on the present than the past. I watched music videos by local bands. Bands love, love, love outdoor street scenes, and so long as they aren’t Lady Gaga-dramatic, those scenes are useful. Curiously, ascertaining whether they were filmed in Santiago was the most difficult part of that piece. I watched House Hunters International to get a feel for interior fixtures and appliances. I read the blogs of Americans who’d recently traveled to Chile, and Santiago specifically, picking out a few things that stood out to them as first-time visitors. A certain kind of pottery. The alluring scent of dirt-cheap food stands.
And then I pared down the hundreds of details to a couple dozen, some of which are shown in Running, most of which occur in the background. Did I do Santiago justice, reveal her inner secrets and points of pride? Absolutely not, but this isn’t that kind of story. Do I now want to spend a month there, winding and eating my way through the streets? I’m prepping my steamer trunk now. Want to come with?