The last time I took a vacation, I ended up at the Santa Fe, New Mexico Police Department after spending time in a hospital emergency room. I spent another pleasure trip checking out hookers holding up lampposts on one of Washington, DC’s many traffic circles. These weren’t your typical family outings. They were writer’s vacations.
The downside of a writer’s vacation is convincing those vacationing with you that they’re having fun. My experience has been that traveling companions can be less than enthusiastic (way less) about touring hospital emergency rooms, interviewing cops and otherwise veering off the tourist track for the sake of research.
Not to worry. With proper preparation, you can have your vacation and eat the fruits of a bountiful research trip, too.
Before You Go
Begin by giving top priority to the vacation itself, even if you choose the destination primarily for research purposes. You nee vacations to recharge your creative batteries. (My husband is quick to add that spouses of writers need vacations even more.)
Gather all the information possible on the destination. Sources can include local/regional tourism bureaus, auto clubs, libraries, Internet pages, and friends who have gone before you. Your goal is to gain an overview of the area’s history, and a sense of the qualities that make it distinctive. For example, for a trip to northern New Mexico, I read up on the unique blend of Native American, Spanish and gringo cultures that have influenced the lifestyle and architecture of the area. And by poring over The Santa Fe and Taos Colonies, by Arrell Gibson, I was prepared to appreciate such subtleties as the region’s clarity of sunlight, much coveted by artists.
For road trips, study up on sites along the route. For a trip to Washington, DC, this collateral research familiarized me with Arkansas wineries and West Virginia glass-manufacturing. My brief stops in those areas then produced far more grist for future articles and stories than if I’d stumbled on them cold.
For urban destinations, detailed street maps are crucial. I take two–one for navigation, and the other to scribble research findings on. (If you can’t find street maps in advance, make the local visitors center your first stop on arrival.)
Planning Your Invasion
Begin by preparing to-see and to-do lists for the vacation. Plot daily schedules … in pencil. At this point, everything is subject to change.
Next come checklists of specific research needs. Dig around for background material such as:
* Interviews with local police, to learn what investigative procedures they follow (this can vary markedly from city to city)
* Interviews with hospital personnel, including a tour of the medical facility (Detailed checklists should include the color of scrub suits, waiting room decor, location of public phones, etc.)
* Locations of business, residential and other potential settings for story scenes (I list each separ-ately, noting whether it requires a posh neighborhood, a slum area, close proximity to a major thoroughfare, etc.)
* Routes/distances (how characters would get from Point A to Point B, how long it would take, etc.)
* Miscellaneous detail (such as the names of local radio and TV stations, popular beers, area newspapers, etc.)
In addition, plan to keep an eye out for article ideas during the trip. Interviews and behind-the-scenes tours are vital, and, given adequate notice, public information officers and other valuable sources can be extremely accommodating. It took me all of ten minutes on the phone to set up interview appointments with the chief of detectives at the Santa Fe Police Department and with a public-service rep at the regional hospital.
When making interview appointments, always explain exactly what information you’re seeking. To save time later, send ahead a list of key questions so the subject can be prepared.
Try to schedule interviews early in the day before tourist attractions open.
With interviews inked into the schedule (as well as confirmed in writing), begin firming up the vacation schedule, keeping research needs in mind. For example, for my book project, I chose likely feeding sites from an eatery guide. My husband and I dined on seafood enchiladas at a picturesque restaurant in Taos, and had ice cream in the oldest building in Santa Fe. But do seek out off-the-beaten-path places so your story won’t sound like a chamber of commerce travelogue.
While You’re There
To track down scene locations, it’s usually best to wait until you get there. In Santa Fe, a motel desk clerk obligingly pointed out the have and have-not areas of town, both of which were of interest to me. I also scooped up an armload of freebie real-estate tabloids from the lobby (for useful photos and descriptions). Then it was simply a matter of charting a route from, say, the Plaza (after morning shopping) to an outlying complex of museums (for afternoon artifact-viewing), via the business or residential district I wanted to check out.
Also purchase books on local flora and fauna, and make note of what plants are commonly grown in yards and planters. (This can prevent embarrassing errors, such as one by Dean Koontz in Mr. Murder, where he has pine trees growing on the decidedly unpiny plains of western Oklahoma.)
Waiters, store clerks and other locals are rich sources of area color, such as how trespassers can sneak into the San Diego Zoo after hours. So I habitually strike up conversations with anyone who’ll stand still long enough.
My husband, being a consummate tourist, handles the camera while I jot notes on tastes, smells, sounds and other sensory aspects that can’t be photographed. The jarring aroma of pizza wafting across a hot beach in Jamaica; the stench of urine atop a temple at Chichen Itza; and the cartoon-cackle of a pileated woodpecker skimming over a shopping mall in Florida–these things can recapture the essence of a place long after you’re gone.
It’s a basic law of physics: the longer the trip, the higher the tide of paper. To keep from drowning in a sea of research materials, take a moment at the end of each day to tidy the ship.
* Interview notes and tapes go into separate 6×9 envelopes (prelabeled), collected in a large manila envelope.
* Brochures, maps, restaurant menus, etc., are sorted by subject into separate envelopes.