Friday, May 6, 2011

New to Alaska

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.

Pauline Trent


Tam Linsey said...

I really appreciate writers who take the time to research. When a book or TV show gets something wrong, it is hard for me to buy into the rest of the story. Great post about Alaska, by the way! said...

Same here, I love a story that doesn't jab me with incorrect research. And about the voodoo priestesses in every corner--write an alternate world! Where voodoo is so common, the common priestess is out of a job, and hangs around the street corners with little signs that say "Will Voodoo for Food-oo". Only the black curse-making magic makers are still doing a brisk trade on the sly, like drug dealers, avoiding the white-magicked-armed, black-magic-suppressing police. :-D

vee worthy said...

Oh. My. God. I should never read and comment before my first cup of coffee. LOL!

Tiffinie Helmer said...

Great post! I love it when I read a book and someone has done their homework. I learn something and the book is that much richer because of the research.

Alaska is so different and vast. It's a beast unto itself. What you find in the Interior will be different than Southeast or Anchorage.

K. Bannerman said...

I love that magical blend of fiction and non-fiction, when you can never quite tell if the author has uncovered a remarkable fact in their research or if they've conjured it from their clever imagination. Thank you for dispelling the cheap crab assumption -- I look forward to visiting Alaska and seeing its beauties with my own eyes.

Pauline Trent said...

Tam ~ I'm the same way. Once an author blows it, especially in an easily avoided way, I have a very difficult time reading the rest of the story. And thanks!

Vee ~ Oooo! I love it! You have my permission to run with it. :) (And I should never do anything pre-coffee either so I understand.)

Tiffinie ~ That was a promise I made myself when I started writing, that I would get it right. Alaska is truly amazing and vast. It will be a while before I am willing to tackle a story set here.

K. ~ Yes, that's a wonderful place and I love it when an author takes me there. The crab is worth the price, though, so when you get up here, definitely splurge!

Boone Brux said...

Great post!My approach to research is to write fantasy. Then I can say whatever I want. The sky is green, moose tastes like chicken, and the crab is free. :)

J. H. said...

Right on! There's nothing worse than being duped by mis-information (and feeling stupid if I've shared it in the meantime - yes readers should not have to research or check 'snopes' for EVERYTHING. :o)

Authors who take the time to diligently research should be commended, for it is time consuming; but we have an obligation to our readers to be factual when presenting a story in a real setting. They're counting on us, especially if we live in the area where the story takes place, to broaden their knowledge while providing escape into another place/time.

It's disconcerting to read a WWI novel where the kids are watching t.v., or a Regency where they travel in a horse-less carriage.

Silly? How about watching the Northern Lights from the heroine's backyard in Anchorage at 10pm on a warm clear June night?
(FYI - sun setting at 11:30pm & city lights would prevent this)

Whether a reader wants escapism and doesn't care about factual detail or scours the story searching for discrepancies, they should be able to count on reality.

Oherwise Veronica is right - call it a Sci-Fi or Paranormal from the start.

Lynn Lovegreen said...

All good points, but even with scifi or paranormal, you have to be consistent. You can't have green sky then suddenly switch to purple sky for no reason. Guess we all need to do our research and/or editing.... I'll stick to historical fiction set in Alaska since I'd rather research that than anything else. :-)

Juniper Bell said...

Great post! Considering that most of my knowledge of history comes from historical romance, I devoutly hope the authors have done their research, LOL. I have a sneaking suspicion I may have some wrong facts in my head.