After I completed the second draft of my first book, I knew it needed work. I wrote a story set in locations I had never been to. Or if I had, I had never really paid attention. If you know me even a little, you know I can be somewhat of a perfectionist. In my novel, it’s important for me to make true things as true as possible. In this case, I wanted to get the location settings as close to authentic as I could.
My book takes place in four key places:
- A secret government lab outside of Denver, Colorado
- The Denver airport
- Washington, DC
- The long drive between Denver and DC
Not having intimate knowledge of these locations, I did my best to describe them in my book. Turns out, I did a pretty bang-up job. But that wasn’t enough for my anal-retentive, perfectionist self. Google maps and Google Earth but was met with limited success. Those tools help, but they will only get you so far.
I had to make sure that when someone who is familiar with any of those locations reads my book, they have no bone to pick with me. I don’t want my readers thinking, “Uh, no… that’s not right.”
Which meant one thing: Road trip!
Going On Location
Years ago I was on a Hollywood tour of Paramount Studios. At the time they were shooting Star Trek: TNG and Voyager and we happened by the soundstages. I remember the tour guide talking about how they mostly shoot scenes in the stages, but sometimes when they are filming other planets, they go “on location.” I found this hilarious because the tour guide made it sound as if they actually went to these planets to film. I knew better, but it was still funny.
But I learned something. You can create almost any setting in a soundstage, but there’s no replacement for actually being there. And when it came to creating the scenes for my novel, I wanted to be there. I wanted to see it for myself so I could write about it in a way that worked.
So at the tail end of winter, I packed up my truck and drove from Ohio to Denver to begin my research.
The Secret Facility
When writing about a fictional secret facility, one can usually get away with making crap up. Put it wherever you want. But my facility was special. It’s an abandoned movie studio that was converted to a secret science base. The soundstages were converted into large labs for all kinds of futuristic projects (time travel, teleportation, etc.)
Denver’s a big place and I probably could have put this facility anywhere, but it was also supposed to be semi-hidden. It is a secret, after all.
When I arrived in Denver I scouted for locations. I drove west to the mountains and then north and south, looking for the perfect place. And I found it! Between the highway and the mountain base was a wide and long gully that would be the perfect “hiding” spot. Big enough to hold my facility. If someone were to ask, I know exactly where this is.
The Airport No One Sees
One of the reasons I chose Denver as a location is because of the number of conspiracy theories surrounding the airport. I knew I wanted to use that in my book. At the time I had completed the early drafts of my novel, this was the only location I had been to. DEN has been a regular layover of mine for years. I may know Terminal C like the back of my hand, that’s not where my action takes place. For that, we have to go underground.
One of the “theories” of the airport is that there is a secret underground government facility. I was initially going to use this facility as my character’s base of operations but ended up going a different way. Plus, as my MC notes, you can hide a mountain of truth in a thimble of conspiracy.
Months ahead of my trip I was able to secure a tour underneath the airport. It’s amazing what people will do when you tell them you’re an author! I only had an hour but they took me through the underground “highway”, showed me the multi-million dollar baggage handling system that no one uses, and then led me deeper underground to the secret bunker.
That last part is a lie. There is no secret government facility. Wink, wink.
I had already written my underground-airport scenes before my tour and it turns out what I imagined wasn’t far off. I had to change a few things logistically, but I think all of that added to the story’s authenticity. At least for the few people who have been there and lived to tell.
The Long Drive
A large chunk of my book is my character’s journey across the country in a large RV. Don’t worry, it’s far more exciting than it sounds. Especially what they discover along the way!
My characters take a very specific route and it’s that route that I wanted to drive for myself. I had to see it with my own eyes. For three days, I drove sunrise to sunset, taking in my surroundings, seeing what my characters would see. Granted, it wasn’t exactly the same, I saw far more cars on the highway than they did, but I was able to get a stronger picture of their journey.
While the drive didn’t net me much more than a couple of paragraphs, those paragraphs are much stronger than what I had already written. Despite the sore neck and back, that drive was well worth it.
The Capital City
My last location was Washinton, DC. For that, I planned a family vacation. Just being there gave me perspective on where things were around the city. I had no idea that you could see some monuments from certain locations or what obstacles were between others. This turned out to be valuable information when my characters are hoofing it around DC looking for… Oh, sorry, no spoilers.
I didn’t get to visit the White House, but that was fine. My characters don’t exactly get the tour. They just end up in the subterranean levels, and I’m pretty confident nobody would have allowed me to see the presidential bunkers. In this case, all of what ended up on my pages came from the factory in my head.
Research in all its Glory
Even though my book revolves around largely speculative and theoretical principles, I did a fair amount of research to ensure everything seems plausible. But not just the science. Because my book is set in modern-day earth, to sell the fiction, I had to make the setting feel real. I may have been able to do all the research I needed from my computer (and I did a lot of research), that wasn’t sufficient. I wanted to be there so I could put my readers there as well.
Sometimes, you just have to go the distance. That may look different for you than it did for me. Every author has to decide what they can and must do to bring their story to life. Going the distances costs money and time, or maybe something else. For me, it was worth every bit of it. I was able to give my book just one more layer of authenticity to help sell the fantastic story taking place.
What do you need to do to go the distance?