Ask Me Anything 2017: Researching locations


stevenangie05 asks:

How do you pick a location for your books and how much historical research do you do for that location?

I write about places I love, and places that lend themselves to intrigue.

I grew up thinking that Southern California was an ordinary place to live. But when I moved from Santa Barbara to England, I discovered that my British friends considered California to be as exotic as Jupiter. I was only too happy to write about a place I adored — and knew well — which also fascinated people.

Later, I wrote about London as the great teeming world city that had become a second home to me. In my novel Kill Chain, I portrayed London through Evan Delaney’s eyes, as she raced through the capital on a mission. She saw the city as a shell-shocked American tourist (and as I, a shell-shocked American tourist overwhelmed by the place, had first seen it). In my recent short story “Irregular,” I showed it through the eyes of a teenage Londoner, Shaz. Her city is hyper-modern yet ripe with old world etiquette; throbbing with international money yet home to hard working class neighborhoods and caravan parks where families live in trailers beneath motorway overpasses.

All my novels are contemporary, so I don’t delve too deeply into historical research to write about the places where they’re set, unless history influences the plot.

If I can get to a location where I’m setting a book, I go. There’s nothing like feeling the air, smelling the aromas that waft from food carts and dank alleys, and watching how people interact in market stalls or on the Metro. I never would have been able to write about a chase scene through Bangkok if I hadn’t ridden a long tail boat down the Chao Praya River, with waves whipping around me and a Chevy 350 hemi engine pouring exhaust at the back of the boat.

But if I can’t get to a location, I rely on books — with lots of excellent photographs and maps — plus Google Street View. And I always try to talk to someone who lives there or who has visited the place. That’s what can provide the telling detail that brings a place to life. For instance, I’ve never been to Amman, Jordan. But my uncle told me that the patio at the Intercontinental Hotel serves fabulous coffee, from a silver service that shines brightly in the desert sunshine. So, in The Memory Collector, that’s how Ian Kanan spends a warm afternoon before flying home to San Francisco and unleashing havoc.

None of this stopped me from getting San Francisco directions wrong in The Dirty Secrets Club. It took a helpful reader to point this out, and for me to realize that when I head down Bush Street, I get turned around, and have since I was eight years old.

Photo: Oxford Circus, London, December 2016.

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