By Gwen Florio
A few weeks ago, I loaded up the truck with the sweetie, the dog, the tent, and sleeping bags, and headed off on a 2,600-mile round trip from Montana to Arizona to check out Book Four’s Navajo Nation setting.
Back when I was a gainfully employed reporter, I did a lot of work there. But that was about fifteen years ago, and the details had gone fuzzy. Given that a good chunk of the 85,000 words sitting in my computer revolved around places on the reservation, I figured I’d better get it right (because we’ve all gotten those emails when we get something wrong).
Now, I’d spent many hours on Google Images and YouTube, looking at photos and videos of my settings, so I was pretty sure this would just be a pro forma exercise. Imagine my surprise, upon arriving in Arizona, when I realized that the smokestacks I’d placed at a mine on which I’d loosely modeled my fictional one actually turned out to be part of a generating station nearly fifty miles away.
Or that instead of being largely abandoned in favor of houses decades ago, hogans still exist in quantity on the reservation, albeit usually next to houses. Or that the expanse of desert that I’d remembered as bare red rock was dotted with sagebrush and juniper, somehow rooted in shallow patches of grit.
Little things, mostly. Not seeing them would mostly have resulted in sins of omission. Including them, I hope, will help place a reader more firmly in a very particular world that acts nearly as a character in the book, just as the wintry plains surrounding the Bakken oil field did in my second book, Dakota.
I wasn’t crazy enough to go to North Dakota in the wintertime for that research trip, but even in the summer, it was daunting. We thumbed through local newspaper ads for $2,000-a-month apartments, ate in restaurants where I was the only woman in a crowd of roughnecks, and even went to a strip club (one of two across the street from the Williston Chamber of Commerce), where I abandoned the sweetie while I went to talk with some of the dancers taking a smoke break. He still talks about the sacrifice he made then for my art.
Again, before I went to North Dakota, I’d read and watched everything I could find about what the oil boom has meant for the region. But nothing could have prepared me for the experience of being stuck, in a tiny Subaru, in the 24-7 traffic jam of towering oilfield trucks rumbling through a small town, or the sight of farm fields sprouting campers—with no hookups—that housed the workers who couldn’t afford, or obtain, the $2,000-a-month apartments. And one day, the local McDonald’s (which went to $15 an hour long before the present trend) was closed because it didn’t have enough workers. Everyone had jumped ship for oil patch jobs.
I thought I’d done a good job picturing the Bakken boomtowns in my book. When I got back from North Dakota, I revised my descriptions to make them much, much worse.
For what it’s worth, I do my location scouting after I’ve already written a first draft. Maybe it’s my fear of succumbing to my old just-the-facts-ma’am reporting habits, but I think I’m better off relying on imagination and memory first, rather than burdening my already-fragile creativity with too much reality. I need to have a good, muscular plot before I add the nerve endings of description.
I’ve read about and heard from writers who set their books in exotic locales without ever having been there. I’ve read those books and found them entirely convincing. Props to their authors. Maybe I’m too insecure, but I could never do that.
Even when I’m writing about a familiar place, I like to touch base when I write about it. Call it the cover-your-ass school of writing. Early in my first novel, Montana, my protagonist lands at the airport in Helena and marvels at the massive stuffed grizzly bear that greets travelers.
Fast-forward to a reading in Helena. You know what’s coming: A woman raised her hand to remind me that, although the airports in Missoula and Great Falls have snarling stuffed grizzlies, the Helena Airport is griz-free. Um. “It’s fiction?” I tried. “You jackass,” her expression said.
I want to avoid that look at all costs. In Book Five, my protagonist heads to Utah, in a plot that takes place largely in and around Salt Lake City. I’ve been there dozens of times, but guess where I’m headed next spring?
(With the sweetie in Lower Antelope Canyon in Arizona, which plays a role in Book Four.)
Gwen Florio is a veteran journalist whose first novel, Montana, won a High Plains Book Award and Pinckley Prize for crime fiction, and was a finalist for an International Thriller Award, Shamus Award and Silver Falchion Award, all in the first novel category. Dakota was published in 2014 and her third novel, Disgraced, comes out in March 2016 and is available for pre-order.