Fort Freak, and Writing in the Cities You’ve Never Visited

May 14th, 2009

As before, news and a rumination.  The news is that Fort Freak, the latest volume in the ongoing Wild Cards cycle, has been announced over at George R.R. Martin’s blog, and I’m among the writers tapped to write it.

Fort Freak

Fort Freak

Aside from the good feeling of having a proposal accepted, there’s also the writer’s anxiety about writing about something you don’t know and fear of getting it wrong.  Mary Anne Mohanraj (also among the writers, and new to Wild Cards) was writing about the same thing, relative to Fort Freak being a police story, something she knows little about beyond what she’s seen on television.  My knowledge of police dealings has a slight benefit in that one of my best friends had studied to be a cop (until health issues made him change to lawyer) and his brother is a cop, and I have other friends who work in law enforcement, so I have people to run legalities by so I won’t run too far afoul of Sjöberg’s Law of Cinematic Inaccuracy.   (“Movies get everything wrong. Hacking-based movies are laughable to hackers, military-based movies are laughable to members of the armed forces, and Indiana Jones movies are laughable to archaeologists.”)  Or, as it’s recently been termed on tvtropes.org, having a story “Dan Browned,” a subset of the trope “Did Not Do the Research.”

Of course, there are sins and sins.  Television budgetary concerns can excuse Television Geography and even “The Mountains of Illinois”, but novels and short stories?  Not so much.  I’ve read short stories set in San Francisco where people had a picnic in Candlestick Park (not realizing that it’s a baseball/football stadium) or walked from Alameda to downtown SF (somehow forgetting that not only is this quite a distance, but the bay is in the way).  And these were published too.

So, I’ll confess my failing: I’ve never visited New York.  Neither state nor city.  But I’ve written stuff set there.  Most recently for my story in Busted Flush (the scene cut for pacing and plotting, not inaccuracy), but before as well.  And now I’m about to do it again.

On the plus side, I’ve at least touched Connecticut brownstone (the Flood Mansion in San Francisco is built of the stuff, imported at ruinous expense back in the day) and being familiar with the architecture of San Francisco and other cities helps, in that what was built in one city was then reproduced in other cities of the era, often by the same architects.   (Driving around Mexico City a few years ago, I was getting deja vu, thinking at times I was in parts of San Francisco or New Orleans or even downtown San Jose.)  And with Wild Cards being an alternate timeline which diverges in 1946, there are structures which were knocked down in our Manhattan which can still exist in the world of Wild Cards.  Not tipping my hand too much, but I’m currently researching  one of those, both because it’s neat in terms of alternate history to preserve something rather than destroying everything, and because if I’m pulling from museum archives and photographs, I don’t have to worry that much about someone who actually lives somewhere looking up from the book and rolling their eyes about how I’ve got it wrong.

I’ll also be running the story by some native New Yorkers, so I can get the errors caught before publication.  But right now, it’s research time.

4 Responses to “Fort Freak, and Writing in the Cities You’ve Never Visited”

  1. Foz Meadowson 14 May 2009 at 8:56 pm

    It’s good to know I’m not the only one who worries about setting stories in places I’ve never been! Although, rather than do my research, I tend to take the coward’s option, and just stick with what I know. Which is why I’d love to visit America, and why I’m keenly looking forward to travelling to the UK this year: so I can set some stories there. Not that there’s anything wrong with Sydney, Melbourne and the NSW Central Coast, but broader options are always nice! :)

  2. Madeleine Robinson 15 May 2009 at 10:54 am

    Getting a map of the city in question–current to the time of your story (don’t set something in Georgian London using a present-day map–they ripped large chunks of stuff up and replaced them with other stuff, on a fairly regular basis)–is one cheap, easy way to do some research. Talking to the natives is good too. But there’s nothing quite like walking the streets of a place you want to write about, getting a sense of the light and air. San Francisco sunlight is different from NYC sunlight (it’s brighter and whiter, and don’t ask me why, it just is), and the air in NYC, even on a clear, dry, day, is more humid. OTOH, fog not so much.

    Have fun with NY, Kevin.

  3. Lois Tiltonon 16 May 2009 at 10:11 pm

    Be careful not to be accused of urban appropriation!

  4. Alan Kelloggon 04 Jun 2009 at 6:06 pm

    Actually, you can walk from Alameda to downtown San Francisco. You can even walk over the bay. But, it is a long walk, and if you happen to have a fear of heights the hike over the bridge can be a tad daunting.

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