The Devil is in the Details

It was oh, so easy to write fantasy: my world, my rules, make it up on the fly. I could let my imagination run free. Adhering to a writing quota of X-hundred words a day was a breeze, as well. I could lose myself in—well—my fantasies, committing to disc as much as I could create in the time available. Writing was a literary vowel movement. Life was good. Then, I changed genre.

When one elects to write thrillers, it is not just the story one has to get right, but how closely the details of the world one depicts match the real one. The first and universal problem is that of setting. Because any number of readers either live in, or have visited the creation’s locale, a certain amount of the setting must meticulously match what exists in reality, just as a certain amount better not.

I set my first effort in Manhattan. It is a story of terrorists and terrorist threats and I found it appropriate to place it in New York for what I hope are obvious reasons. I had visited the Big Apple a few years earlier and much of it—the streets, the restaurants, the general feel of the place—were fresh in my mind. And when a character unexpectedly turned off a street I had walked and headed down an unknown cross street, I could pull street level photos from Google Maps and be sure what I wrote corresponded with what the locals would know.

Similarly, when I needed to house my terrorists’ operations in a small town outside New York City, even though I had never been to Monroe, Google Maps gave me a feeling for the town and I could house them on a street I knew did not exist. I wouldn’t want to use a real address as the base of operations for something as nefarious as what I was hatching. That might associate real people with an evil, fictitious deed with unforeseeable, probably unpleasant legal consequences.

Weaving the story with my own experiences proved none too difficult, and because the culprits never interacted with Monroe’s inhabitants, the town, unlike Manhattan, was only a backdrop, so my knowledge could remain sketchy. I had enough of an understanding of small towns in general to make the story flow. It was the sequel where the real world collided with fiction and forced the story to an abrupt halt.

For a number of reasons, I’ve set this one in Denver with a terrorist attack in Invesco at Mile High as the opening scene. I know everything I need to about the stadium from television broadcasts. As before, the first three chapters flowed. Then, everything stopped cold. Much of the rest of the story will be set in and around the city and I have never been to Denver. I have no sense of the topography, nor the place’s vitality and I know if I rely solely upon Google, descriptions will either fall flat or be grossly inaccurate. I know what I want to write, but I lack the setting. It’s stalled, unable to proceed. There’s nowhere closer to home suitable for what I have in mind, so I have no choice. If I want a believable story, I need real world experience.

On Friday, I’m driving to Denver.



9 responses to “The Devil is in the Details

  1. Yay! 😀
    (and crap, I need to find a restaurant, don’t I? *laughs*)


  2. Raymond–I laud your effort and I get it! It’s one of the reasons I moved back East–even though I lived in the Boston area for 40 years I didn’t feel I could write about Boston without the ability to be back there at the drop of a hat. My book is non-fiction so I can’t choose my locales–it has to take place in the streets and seasons in which the real characters walked. And what will add life to the biographical and activity details are the descriptions of light, color, and feel that can only come from being in the right place at the right time…..

  3. I think it’s crucial to get it right – especially when you’re writing thrillers and the readers are expecting those kinds of details. So have fun in Denver – I’ve only ever been downtown for a couple of days and that was a very long time ago. I avoid it, only because I HATE flying in and out of that airport – always windsheers scaring me to death!


  4. I dig being “on location” when I’m writing. It gives me great ideas and helps me bring layers of nuance to the setting, which I love.

    Have fun in Denver!

  5. As a spec screenwriter, I end up writing in different genres, but like you, I have to have some idea of the lay of the land. Granted, the producer or director may decide to change the location after it is sold and being made. But while writing it, I need to walk the ground my characters will be walking. Good article, Raymond! Have fun in Denver. Try the Chile Verde! That was one of the few things i liked about the place, years ago when i boxed there.


  6. Good points Ray. Creating a believable setting is important but does not always require great details to do it.
    Have a great trip.


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