Sadly by about half-way through, I wanted to bounce my kindle off the floor.
You want to know why?
In a Seattle Times article last March, a group called the Tom Tom Navigation Company said Seattle had the 5th worst traffic in the country. We were right there behind Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Honolulu. This is not a new problem. We've been in the top ten for the last twenty years at least.
But seriously, as much driving around as the guys in this book did, most of the action would have had to take place in the FBI agent's SUV, because they would have been spent the whole novel on the freeway.
I don't mean to get ranty about Seattle traffic - although it does suck - but when a character in Tacoma agrees to meet someone in Seattle by 5:30 on a Friday afternoon, their first thought better be "How soon do I have to leave?" Because if I had to drive those 45 miles, I'd give myself an hour or even ninety minutes. Though I loved the interaction between the characters and thought the plot was clever and suspenseful, in my mind the author missed something pretty basic.
And as a writer, that kind of scares the crap out of me, because you don't know what you don't know.
Regardless of the setting - or the time period, for that matter - I want to get the details right, to avoid bumping the reader out of the story with something as dumb as a missing traffic jam. Either I limit myself to writing contemporary stories set in Seattle, or I better have some strategies for ensuring my own accuracy.
I dug around to see if I could find information about how to keep from making setting errors, and to a large extent, it's a problem of worldbuilding.
But Liv! Wait!
Worldbuilding is for fantasy novels or science fiction, not contemporary settings. Right?
The post Check Your Facts on The Editor's Blog is a great resource for preventing setting errors. It also reads like the mirror image of Patricia C. Wrede's list of worldbuilding questions. Ms. Wrede's list asks, "what kind of animals are in your world?", while the Editor's Blog post asks "are the animals in your story appropriate to the world?" They're coming from different angles to get at the same information.
(Janice Hardy's also got some good information on developing your setting in this Worldbuilding 101 post on the Fiction University blog.)
When you're working with a contemporary setting, I think the tendency is to assume things are pretty much the same as your own reality. Grinding down to the level of detail suggested in any of the sources I've mentioned would take a whole lot of work, and most of the information you develop would never make it onto the page. Maybe the answer is to streamline some, to tackle the most pertinent bits of information and make sure you get them right.
But how do you decide what's pertinent for a place you've never been to?
- Thank God for the internet! More importantly, thank God for GOOGLE! I read as much as I can stand about all aspects of my chosen setting, and will even take screenshots of specific locations from GoogleEarth. I save the links in Evernote, organized by topic, or on the Pinterest board for that story.
- All the research in the world can't replace actually standing on the ground. It may not always be economically feasible, but visiting the location of your story is the best way to get the nitty-gritty details that can make a setting pop. Google is very, very good, but it can't replace your own five senses, nor your experience of a place.
- If you're serious about writing, you know the value of a good beta reader, but I would argue that if you're going to set a story outside of your own home town, you should try to find a local to read through it. My urban fantasy novel Hell...The Story is set in L.A., and after one of the final editing passes, I sent a copy to my sister who lives there. Her whole assignment was to take a red pen to anything that didn't ring true, and her ideas and suggestions were invaluable.
I'm pretty sure I would have had all kinds of helpful suggestions if the author of the traffic-less book had asked me to beta read it. Maybe I should track them down and offer to help with future projects...
My list of suggestions for how to keep the setting real is by no means exhaustive. Do you have any ideas to add?