Friday, November 30, 2012

Location and Setting in Alaska

As they say in Real Estate, it’s all about the Location! And it’s hard to beat Alaska for unique locations.

What do you envision when you think of Alaska? Wide open tundra dotted with lakes and lichen? Soaring mountains covered in ice and glaciers? Stormy seas lashed by gale-force winds and thirty-foot waves? Icy green lakes surrounded by majestic mountains? Forest primeval with moss covered rocks lining tumbling streams teeming with salmon?

Alaska has all that and more. Sand dunes, barren isles, quiet lakes perfect for a canoe or water skiing. Wide rivers, raging rivers and babbling brooks. Big cities, little villages, quaint towns, stretches of land that haven’t seen a human foot in a thousand years or more. It can be friendly or forbidding, forgiving or ruthless, but the same stretch of road is rarely the same each time you drive down it.

When setting a scene or novel in Alaska, research is necessary. You won’t find the same services in Cantwell as you will in Healy, Eek, Ketchikan, Fairbanks or Anchorage.

To begin your research, head for the internet or find a map. Is the location you want on the main highway system? The rail system? Or beyond? Is it on a river or only accessible by air? If your location is on a road system connected to the main highways (to get out of Anchorage, one goes north, the other south) Google Maps might be able to give you an estimate of travel time by car. Then again, they may not have all the facts concerning road conditions.

For example, the drive from Anchorage to Fairbanks via the Parks Highway is fairly straight forward. Allowing for a lunch and gas stop and a couple breaks, it takes about six hours to drive the 358 miles. Many stretches of the road may be traveled at 65mph, although frost heaves north of Healy generally mean slowing down to 50 or 55mph. Depending on conditions, slower might be better. Say, in winter when the road might be icy. In the summer, no worries. Or rather, not many if there isn’t road construction going on. And there is ALWAYS a road construction project, or three, along the highway.

Mountainside covered with fireweed along the Steese Hwy.
By comparison, the drive from Fairbanks to Circle, a city at the other end of the Steese Highway, but not on the Arctic Circle, is 155 miles. A distance Google Maps estimates will take about 4 hours to drive. They’re not off by much. Only 2 hours. The day I drove from Fairbanks to Circle and back, Liz Selvig and I spent more than twelve hours on the mostly dirt/gravel road. Granted, we made a couple of stops along the way, mostly to take photos, but we didn’t make four hours worth of stops. We had the advantage of a clear, hot, sunny day with no rain and mostly dry roads, although there was one section that was sort of soggy and we weren’t all that confident we’d get through it. There was also a section where a “creek” was cutting into the soft side of the road. The creek was wider, deeper and faster than rivers I’ve seen in Colorado and California, but since it was feeding into the Yukon, I guess creek was an appropriate term. Sort of.

In the end, however, no matter how much information you dig up on the internet, there will be huge holes. Holes that can only be filled in by personal experience. This is where making friends with an Alaskan resident can help your manuscript immensely. I’ve been asked questions such as: Is it possible to run the length of the Alaska Pipeline? Um, well, I wouldn’t recommend it, and I’m pretty sure Alyeska Pipeline Service Company security wouldn’t be thrilled with the idea. And there are sections where the ground is so boggy, I doubt it would be possible, although there is the Dalton Highway (aka the Haul Road) north of Fairbanks, but between the dust and mosquitoes in the summer, and the ice and subzero temps in winter… no, it wouldn’t be practical at all. Better to have the hero jump in the Arctic Ocean in the annual Polar Bear Plunge. Or the Seward Harbor in February during a snowstorm. Same idea.

What about medical care? Where will your characters go if they need more care than the handy First Aid kit can provide? 

The largest city with the most options is Anchorage, although hospitals may be found in Fairbanks, Juneau, Sitka, Kenai and the Mat-Su Valley to name most of them. The farther out you go, the smaller the facilities and the fewer services available. Time of year also makes a difference. Some roads are not plowed in the winter, even if they are on the highway system. Anchorage has three large hospitals, only one of which has a Level III Newborn ICU. Many babies from the villages end up there. Medical care in the villages is often re-routed to the larger cities, and sometimes further south to Seattle. If you watched the episode of Deadliest Catch when the captain had a stroke, you would have seen a lovely shot of Providence Hospital with the Chugach Mountains in the background. He was airlifted from Dutch Harbor to the largest medical facility in the state. A process that took more than a few hours.

October moonrise over Broad Pass
Distances are deceiving here. The more remote the location of a scene, the more you’ll need to talk with someone who’s been there if you can’t make it there yourself. The internet can only give so much information. It can tell you what trees grow in the area, average temperatures and snowfall, hours of daylight day by day, even current news – if there’s a news source there. What it can’t tell you is what it smells like, what sounds you’ll hear while standing under the trees, or how biting or soft the breeze is. An aerial view might show you the landscape – are there trees or tundra – but it won’t show traffic patterns, or how fast the placid-looking river is actually flowing.

Like the land itself, the topic of Alaska is extremely vast. To drill down and investigate one facet could fill pages here. It’s certainly filled libraries. I’ve lived in Alaska since 1977, with brief ventures out for college and a few years in Colorado, and I still don’t know everything there is to know about this wild and beautiful land. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it, but I always respect it, because like a wild animal, it can turn from benign to deadly in the blink of an eye. Something it’s hard to explain to Outsiders enthralled with the myths, the mystery and romance of The Last Frontier.

Here’s my advice to people writing about Alaska: choose your location, do your research, then find someone local to talk to. Your book will have a ring of truth that will enhance the reader’s experience and not add to the many misconceptions already out there. If you’re not sure where to start, well, there’s a whole chapter of RWA members here who are happy to help!

Morgan Q. O’Reilly
Romance for all Your Moods

All 2012 Royalties from the sale of Weathering the Storm, Book 3 of the Shaughnessys, will go to the Alaska Red Cross to help with disaster relief stemming from the Sept 2012 floods in Southcentral Alaska.

Weathering the Storm: Available at Kindle, Nook, Sony eReader and from other ebook retail sites.


Jae Awkins said...

Lots of innformation, Morgan! Alaska is truly unique & unlike any other state in the U. S.
You're correct about assuming things are comparable elsewhere - don't!
Thanks for a better perspective about Alaska - the Last Frontier.
--- Jae :o)

Tiffinie Helmer said...

Wonderful post! Great information. That must have been some trip to Circle. I grew up in Fairbanks, and sometimes just getting to Fox took forever. You never know what you will come up against.

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Thanks for the post, Morgan. You are the expert when it comes to driving the highway from Anchorage to Fairbanks and Circle! :-)

Cathy in AK said...

Great post! Folks seem to romanticise life here, which is fine and dandy, but when I read books that make glaring errors in living here it makes me nuts! Talk to one of us! We're happy to share : )

Morgan O'Reilly said...

Isn't Alaska unique?? It still blows my mind that it takes at least 6 hours to get to Fairbanks. One hour by plane, six by highway, twelve hours by railroad. Dang! I forgot to add that little tidbit. LOL My son found out one Christmas when he didn't get me his finals schedule soon enough to make plane reservations.

Thanks for stopping by!

Morgan O'Reilly said...

Oh, Cathy, isn't that the truth? Alaskans love to talk about Alaska! Wish more writers would dig a little deeper and find willing resource to talk to.

I had one author send me her manuscript to review for accuracy. In addition to my comments, I gave her pages of urls to check. I should see if she ever published that one...

Anonymous said...

Your narrative and photos capture the essence of these beautiful places and scenes we keep close to our hearts. I think you should write a travel guide too!