Setting: How to write about a place you’ve never been

Technically, I have been to Los Angeles. I changed planes at LAX once. But the inside of one airport looks pretty much like the next, and it was a redeye from Honolulu and I was somewhat less than fully alert. And this was in 2004, long before Jamie Brodie came into my life.

Once I decided that Jamie and Pete would live in Los Angeles, I knew I needed details about the city to make the books as realistic as possible. As I’ve written more books and expanded into more locations – Oceanside, Alamogordo – I’ve had to do more research. So – how do I do my location research?

The first thing I did was buy a couple of books – the Not For Tourists Guide to Los Angeles, which comes with detailed maps, locations of post offices, schools, grocery stores, etc.; and the Lonely Planet guide to Los Angeles, San Diego and Southern California. I am also highly dependent on Google Maps, of course. I use it nearly every day. The Street View is extremely helpful. It showed me what a typical front yard looked like in Lancaster, where Pete’s dad lived, and what the apartment building looked like that I chose for Kevin and Jamie to live in at the beginning. I was also able to use it to follow the same path that Pete would take on foot to work every day, so I knew a) that it truly was walkable, and b) what he’d see along the way.

I used the L.A. Metro website to map out Jamie’s bus ride to work from Santa Monica and to learn how long it would take.

I use the real estate website Trulia to find places for my characters to live. I search for a place that’s for sale that fits the requirements for the character(s), and save the pictures. That’s how I found Pete and Jamie’s townhouse/condo, Dave Brodie’s Craftsman house in Oceanside, Steve Ferguson’s house in Alamogordo, Liz and Jon’s condo, and the place that Kevin and Abby bought together. That way I can describe the characters’ movements around their houses accurately. Then I go back to Google Maps Street View and check out the address I’ve chosen. Is it in the type of neighborhood I want? What’s next door? What’s behind it? (That’s how I know an alley runs behind the boys’ townhouse, and an Indian restaurant is just around the corner.)

Santa Monica College Boardwalk: By Michael Oh [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Santa Monica College Boardwalk: By Michael Oh [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I use Google Images to find pictures of places; I’ve used that the most for describing locations at UCLA, but I’ve also used it for Alamogordo and the West LA police station. I also have a friend who visited Westwood a few years ago; I gave him a list of things I wanted pictures of, and he was able to get quite a few of them – Jamie’s bus stop on Hilgard Avenue, the reference desk at Jamie’s library, Wilshire Blvd. as it passes through Santa Monica. He also tells me when I have something wrong like a parking lot where there isn’t one, or that 800 Degrees Pizza doesn’t serve beer but has one of those hundred-flavor Coke machines.

That same friend, during his visit, went to the Writer’s Guild library which will appear in Filmed to Death, and described the interior in detail and the procedures for looking at a script while there.

I also read a lot about LA, both fiction and nonfiction. Jonathan Kellerman’s books are nearly all set in the West LA area; Robert Crais’s books are also great for useful descriptions and atmosphere. I’ve read about the Homicide Special unit of LAPD, which appeared in Stacked to Death, and I’ve read about the history of the LAPD.

One of these days I’m going to get to Los Angeles for a real visit, and I’m going to prowl Santa Monica and Westwood, taking notes and pictures. At this point, though, I feel like I might know the area well enough to maneuver without a map!

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