Being on location vs. reading about the location

Christine Carbo has written a dandy four-book series of suspense novels set in Glacier National Park. Had their location been a city, they might have been called “police procedurals.” Her books focus on the work of Park Rangers, with help from personnel from local sheriffs’ offices in solving crimes within the park. I have just now finished book two, Mortal Fall after enjoying The Wild Inside.

Carbo lives in Whitefish, adjacent to the park, and her proximity to the location of her stories shows what a good writer can do when they can be on location to check specific areas and talk to rangers and others who work there. If you love Glacier and suspense novels, you will love the accuracy of these novels.

Most of you know what I worked two years in the park in the 1960s and have been back a handful of times on vacation. My love of the park drew me to set several novels set there. Two of those are fantasies, taking place in a look-alike universe accessible via the park. The other two were set back in time and stayed away from specifics that would be difficult for a Georgia writer to know about or uncover through research. So, okay, I’m not only impressed with Carbo’s work but a little jealous that she lives where I planned to live, something that didn’t pan out mostly due to the lack of large computer companies in the area in need of technical writers.

Being on location, either because you live there or because you can afford summer-long visits is night and day different from using books, Wikipedia, Google Maps, and Google Earth from the far sie of the country. In my mind, writing what you know partially depends on what you know about the places where you set your stories.

I’ve been impressed with the work of authors like Hilary Mantel (in Wolf Hall) for the accuracy of their location work about the way things were in the 1500s. Such work shows what one can do if they have the talent as well as the resources that allow them to be there.

Some experts say that the adage “write what you know” is false advice. Well, sure, if you don’t know the subject and place before you get an idea for a story, you can learn it and (possibly) come to know it by the time you start putting words on the page. Needless to say, I take exception to the notion that the old adage is false advice. Even if you’re world building a place and culture for a sci-fi novel or fantasy, you will have come to know it if your resulting novel ends up selling well and being critically acclaimed.

If I hadn’t come to love Glacier, I probably would have set all of my novels–like those in the four-book Florida Folk Magic Series–where I grew up, or possibly down the road from here I live now. But my muse insisted on the Glacier books even though I said, “But dammit, Siobhan, I live in Rome, Georgia rather than Whitefish, Montana.”

“Wing it,” she replied.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Glacier Park Novel

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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