Character Development, Oldsters, The Writing Life

Doing the Leg Work

Speaking of her writing process, author Jacquelyn Mitchard said, “I do a great deal of research. I don’t want anyone to say, ‘That could not have happened.’”

I imagine most writers feel this way, but it’s not just about having your facts straight. One of the great things about writing a novel is putting your characters into places and situations that interest you. While my novel, Oldsters, is best described as a character-driven, upmarket fiction work, I’ve spent many happy hours researching the places Eddie, Nick, Lila and the rest of the group go, and the situations they run into which play out behind the conversations that are the heart of this book.

For any new followers of my blog, Oldsters follows a group of friends who live in a retirement center in Illinois and take off on a road trip down Route 66 to Albuquerque, NM. Think Thelma & Louise meets The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel! Two themes intersect in the novel – the idea of second chances and the fact that no matter what age you are, life’s triumphs and trials remain the same. Love, betrayal, friendship, loss – the human experience doesn’t change that much at all as we go from 18 to 80.

But I digress…

I have to keep myself on high alert when I’m researching, because it’s so easy to get carried away and lose track of precious writing time. I can start with the best intentions and before you know it, I’ve spent 30 minutes checking out the calendar of events for the upcoming Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque for 2015…when my story is set in 2012!

With that said, as fiction writers, we do want to make our stories authentic – and that takes some leg work. I thought it would be interesting to share a sampling of the items of those elements that are helping me make Oldsters the best it can be!

Route 66 map
Route 66
  • Bloomington, Illinois: This is where the gang lives in the beginning of the story, so basic information such as weather, geography, downtown shops/restaurants etc. to help me live in their day-to-day lives.
  • Early 1960’s Chicago: An important flashback scene for one of my main characters plays out during this time period, so I needed information on street names, Buckingham Fountain, Goldblatt’s department store, the jazz clubs etc.
  • Retirement Centers: So important to get this right, since it’s the setting for my characters for Act 1 & Act 3. I researched different types of facilities, level of care provided in each, the common types of buildings/grounds of places and types of people employed there.
  • Route 66: This was so much fun! I researched maps and created a real itinerary the group would follow. Besides having them stay in real-life motels and eat in actual restaurants, I especially liked having them visit places along the way:
    • Silk Stocking Row (one of the most interesting / had no idea what it was or how it got its name)
    • Route 66 Museum
    • Gay Parita Sinclair Station
    • Bennett State Park
    • Cadillac Ranch
  • Albuquerque, NM: This is where most of Act 2 takes place, so again I was shooting for realism:
    • Armijo Trail
    • The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
    • Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

This is only stuff that made it into the book…if you’re a writer you understand. Think about the time spent researching the small stuff, just to make sure you can write a line or two about that quirk your character has, where they grew up that gave them that regional turn of phrase they use when they’re happy or worried – the list is endless.

So yes, I agree with Ms. Mitchard – I want the future readers of Oldsters to know that I cared enough to do it right…I just have to put my credit card away so I don’t book a trip for next year’s Balloon Fiesta!

write on…


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