Saturday, October 26, 2013

Google vs. Feet On Location

Philadelphia's 30th Street Station - The setting for a scene in DOHA 12 by Lance Charnes

I met a great Author, Lance Charnes, who conducted a fascinating experiment perfect for Novel Travelist. He mentally built Philadelphia's 30th Street Station via google and then compared his accuracy during a trip to Philadelphia. 

Building 30th Street Station By Lance Charnes

In my international thriller Doha 12, assassins follow our heroes Jake Eldar and Miriam Schaffer to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. There, the bad guys launch an ill-prepared attempt to kill Jake and Miriam, which devolves into a three-way shoot-out running the length of the terminal. This is one of the major set-piece scenes, and because the place is so familiar to a large number of people in the Philly metro area, I wanted to get the setting right.

One problem: like most indie writers, I’m not working on an advance. All travel and research is completely on my own dime. I needed to do as much research as I could for free, since I had no idea when or if I’d ever get to Philadelphia to check out the place in person.

Interior of 30th Street Station - View from Stairs
Whenever I select a setting for a scene, I try to harvest as many high-quality pictures as I can from as many angles as possible. Google Images is perfect for this; put in your search term, and you get back a flood of photos from all manner of sources, including Flickr, newspapers, TV, and so on. If you do this, keep crawling through the results; the farther in you get, the more offbeat the sources. 

  • Train enthusiast websites had close-up pictures of the Amtrak information desk and board, and shots of the arrival platforms. 
  • An advertising firm showed an ad placement it had done in the main hall. 
  • Someone thought to take a snap of a women’s restroom. 
  • Another traveler had been there at Christmas (the shoot-out happens in early December), so I got much-needed pictures of the decorations, including the giant, perfectly conical tree at the east end of the concourse.

At the end of this process, I had a big collection of still photos, but no good idea about the layout of the place. I’d found only one small, blurry floorplan on the Amtrak site. From that and basic photointerpretation skills (I used to be in intel), I constructed a reasonable plan for the concourse; everything else was a guess.

I had lots of random still photos, but no clear idea of the layout.

Next, I turned to video. YouTube offered up 23,000 hits on “Philadelphia 30th street station.” Here’s where the weird diversity of the Internet truly came into play. There were tons of trainspotting videos; after digging through these, I found the one I needed, an end-to-end video taken in a NJ Transit commuter train going from Cherry Hill (NJ) Station to 30th Street – exactly the route our heroes take. I found videos taken by people walking through the concourse (note to future videographers: whip pans are lousy to watch), waiting for pickup outside, a flash mob dancing in the concourse, and a guided tour of the station at Christmas courtesy of a Philly yoga enthusiast. I plowed through a lot of truly awful video (too dark/too bright/out of focus/taken during an earthquake), keeping the links for the ones that were the most helpful.

The videos showed me: 

  • How people move through the space
  • What you can see from where
  • Some of the ambient sounds (note to future videographers: shut up and let the location speak for itself). 
I still didn’t have a good floorplan, though. I used the videos to refine the less-than-wonderful one I’d been able to scratch together, then forged ahead and wrote the scene.

A couple months passed. During an editing session, I decided to see if anything new had surfaced on the web. Lo and behold, the website Metro Jacksonville (Florida!) had posted an essay on the Amtrak Keystone Corridor train service, holding it up as an example for Jacksonville transit. The post included a reproduction of 30th Street’s visitor directory. Not only was it a clear, accurate floorplan, but it told which vendors were in each of the commercial spaces. Eureka!

It also showed that beyond the concourse, my cobbled-together floorplan was mostly wrong.

I dragged this treasure into Photoshop and did some measuring. The real concourse is 135’ wide by 290’ long. The map concourse was 177 pixels wide by 352 pixels long. With a bit of fudging, I was able to lay down a 9’ (three-stride) grid on the map concourse. I could finally measure distances and sizes throughout the terminal, time out how long it would take my characters to move from place to place, estimate how far they could shoot and what they could hide behind. I rewrote the scene using this new information and hoped it was good enough.

Fast-forward to October 2011. Through a series of circumstances I won’t bore you with, I got to go to D.C., Philadelphia and New York City. A few days before Halloween, I found myself standing in the concourse of the real 30th Street Station.

First, it’s a tremendously strange feeling to finally be in a place you’ve known only through photos. (Going to the Parthenon felt exactly the same way: damn, it really looks like the pictures.) Secondly, it’s very strange to go someplace you’ve never been and know exactly where everything is. I spent the next ninety minutes roaming the station, taking pictures and making notes. I traced the steps my characters ran, took cover behind the obstacles they used, checked the sightlines, confirmed which windows would get hit by the missed shots. I have no doubt I’m now on some Amtrak Police watchlist for all the suspicious things I did that morning. What kind of law-abiding citizen takes pictures while crouched behind a bench?

Statue - Great for my hero to hide behind.
The upshot? I had to make only minor adjustments to the action. What I’d pasted together off the Internet turned out to be about 95% right. The other 5% involved the passage of time and the tricks camera play: signs and trash cans had moved, some of the stores had changed out, the half-walls around the stairs leading to the tracks were lower than they looked (or I’d been measuring them against short people). I took notes and made these tweaks when I got home without causing another rewrite.

I also used this research method for some of Doha 12’s other settings, such as the Manhattan Diamond District, Central Park East’s Temple Emanu-El, and Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. It worked time and again. Still, there are limits. Photo lighting isn’t always normal lighting; some places are darker or lighter in real life. You can’t feel the air temperature (chilly in the station), and until online Smell-o-Vision happens, you can’t get the ambient smells (cleaners and donuts in the station). This wasn’t a major drawback in my case. However, if your scene is set in a Kolkata meat market, the missing information may be crucial.

The take-home lesson: just because you don’t have an advance doesn’t mean you can’t accurately describe a setting in your writing. Another bonus: you can surf for hours and call it “research.”

Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. He’s the author of the international thriller Doha 12 and the upcoming near-future thriller South. He tweets (@lcharnes) about scuba diving, shipwrecks, marine archaeology and art crime, among other things.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Few Jane Austen Questions

I'm writing an historical fiction novel in the style of Jane Austen, in the period of Austen, 1802, BUT set in Ireland.

During this writing challenge, I've been reading all of Austen's works, letters, unfinished works, unpublished works, etc. It's been fascinating to watch her grow as a writer, but also fascinating to realize how bloody good she was in her youth. 

If you've never heard of, or read Lady Susan, one of Austen's earliest unpublished novels, I highly recommend it. It's an epistolary novel, meaning it's composed entirely of letters, and the lead character is quite a scandalous lady of her time. Hand-written correspondence has all but disappeared in the modern lexicon of life, so the delight of reading letters is ten fold increased today. Hence, my hypothesis as to why Lady Susan is making a comeback on bookshelves. Reading someone else's letter is a voyeuristic occupation. It allows the outside reader in on a secret. And this book, with a beautiful, charming lady seducing men many years her junior and carrying on an affair with a married man, is full of salacious secrets. The letters from the jealous wives of the seduced men are equally as intriguing. 

This brings me to an observation about all of Jane's writings - the fact that women had little or no power over their fate. Lady Susan is her only character, in any of her books that even attempts to live life for her own happiness, and not to please others. She can not be happy if oppressed by the rules of society, so she defies every rule.
But she is always the Belle of the ball, despite her reputation. Why? Because women, the jealous wives, have no power. In the land of Austen, good morals always win the day; but if an opposite horse ever had it chance at the blue ribbon, it was Lady Susan.

Women in the regency era, 1790's - 1820's, were always at the mercy of either a good marriage or an inheritance. If neither were in a woman's future, she may be forced into service as a governess. The stakes for a low-income, young, unmarried lady are great, it's either marriage or servitude. This situation is exactly why Austen's books are so enjoyable; a lady's merits overrule her income. A rich husband is always found for the lady of high moral character. The books offer hope to all the penniless gentlemans' daughters of the past and the present. The reader is instantly rooting for the underdog.  

Now the question - as it pertains to my own Irish set Austen novel. If my young sisters each have £20,000, like Miss Crawford in Mansfield Park, are they allowed to marry beneath their rank? Knowing that women at this time have little choice in their fate, is it believable that a wealthy Anglo-Irish lady may choose to marry a working doctor? Is it believable at this time, in 1802, that a young lady may wish to find a greater purpose in her life than to simply sip tea with her morning callers, which is any well-bred ladys' fate as she fends off one fortune hunting suitor after another? 

What's your opinion?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Murder in the Spa

Who opens a thriller with a scene at a spa? This girl, I suppose. And I suppose that shouldn't be a surprise, given that my last novel, through no conscious choice of my own, ended up opening on a nude beach. It's funny how settings (and characters, for that matter) just barge right in and novel-bomb one's latest piece of writing without even so much as an introductory handshake.

This time, it's the spa. Specifically, it's the Spa: The one around which the town of Spa, Belgium sprang up (pun fully intended.) The one from which all other spas take their universal nomenclature.
The word "spa" is thought to descend, as so many things do, from ancient Rome. These healing waters in the mountains of Belgium, once visited by the likes of Pliny the Elder, birthed the Latin phrase Sanus Per Aquam, meaning "health through water." How lovely. Follow the acronym and you get the word "SPA."

Other famous visitors to these therapeutic springs included Peter the Great, Charles II, and everyone's favorite head-hunter, Henry VIII. The natural elixir bursting forth from the underground here is rich in calcium, sodium, magnesium, iron, and bicarbonate (a.k.a. baking soda.) So its healing properties are not a myth: we realize today that each of these minerals is essential.

Indeed, from their discovery in Roman times, to the development of the city of Spa in the 15th century, to today, these waters are where people go to detox and rejuvenate. They are recommended for anemia, cardiovascular diseases, respiratory disorders, rheumatism, gynecological disorders, mental fatigue and stress. And they always have been.

Perhaps Henry VIII should have spent more time here.
So what does all of this have to do with a thriller? Well, I'm sure you can imagine all sorts of possibilities. Drowning in the mineral baths (duh). Strangulation during an overzealous deep tissue massage. Being thrown from the top of the mountain or a drop of arsenic in your mineral water. But you'd be dead wrong.

You see, the protagonist of The Queenmakers is a healer. Having recently discovered The Vesuvius Isotope, Katrina Stone has now built a pharmaceutical empire around the therapeutic properties of natural elements. And so, in pursuit of science and medicine, she must visit the spa of Spa.

Ah, the hardships of field research.

The Queenmakers is the forth-coming sequel to The Vesuvius Isotope. Look for it in Fall 2014. 
Buy The Vesuvius Isotope on Amazon.

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that increasingly pervaded his behavior in recent weeks. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the esoteric life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague, introducing it into the twenty-first century.

Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children.