I am new to Alaska. So new, in fact, that my husband and I can still measure how long we’ve been in here in months (thirteen if you’re interested) and I’m still amazed by things like moose and 24 hour sunlight. Conversations with my friends and family down the lower-48 still include a lot of questions about the state and what it’s like actually live here. My best friend and I were on the phone the other night and she asked me how much fresh fruit costs in Alaska. We talked about the fact that goods and services are more expensive up here than they are down in New Jersey. I assured her that the fine print at the bottom of commercials that reads “prices higher in Alaska and Hawaii” doesn’t lie. Eventually, though, she asked about seafood, because, surely that was cheap, cheap, cheap. When I explained that the state is big enough that the costs of getting something from one part of the state to another automatically makes it expensive, she laughed and thanked me for bursting that bubble. She’d always assumed that, even if I was paying more for my grapefruit, I was at least getting king crab for less than the cost of chicken. The reality isn’t nearly as full of inexpensive crabby deliciousness as she would’ve liked it to be. Which is actually something authors have to be aware of whenever we write. Not crab, or the lack thereof, specifically, of course, but the differences between the realities of a situation and the assumptions we make about that situation.
Writing what we know is helpful, but still not foolproof. My first novel was based in Denver, Colorado, because that’s where I was living when I wrote it. By the time I had finished it, though, the coffee shop where my hero and heroine met had closed and the working class neighborhood where I had the best friend living had been gentrified and house prices had skyrocketed. So much for writing what you know. For my next novels, I thought I had solved the problem. I created Lambert Falls, North Carolina out of thin air. Only I still had to know how far it was to the Virginia border and how long of a drive it was to the Outer Banks. Even a fictional town required very real research.
My current work in progress takes place in New Orleans. I know nothing about New Orleans. You’d better believe, though, I will find someone who knows that city and pick their brain. I will become best friends with google maps and local librarians. I will learn about the local haunts, not just the tourist traps. Because for every reader out there who assumes certain things about New Orleans, there’s a reader who knows New Orleans. We as authors can’t get away with only writing the idealized version of a place.
So, I’ll research New Orleans and, hopefully, get it right. However, I do admit I would love to write a story with voodoo priestesses in every shadow and dark brooding men on every corner. Of course, I’d love king crab to be cheaper than chicken, too.