Location Scouting After the Fact

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The Sutro Baths ruins near Ocean Beach along the Great Highway in San Francisco.

As much as I like to say that it is not a substitute for actual research, Google is a wonderful thing for all kinds of things. Maps, satellite and street view have been especially helpful to me as I embark on this new vocation as a novelist. However, there is no substitute for good old-fashioned location scouting.

Several people who have read my debut novel, The Dark Truth, have asked about my settings and locations. The story is set in modern-day San Francisco and many of the sites are real. I have used Google maps extensively as I have plotted my characters movements. In truth, I have made up very few establishments and businesses. I think in two dimensions. This has always limited my graphic and artistic endeavors. I could never be a 3D animator. I’m not sure if I could ever be a world builder either.  My favorite Stephen King stories take place in fictional towns, with fictional streets and houses, and such. I fly by the seat of my pants when I write fiction. This seems to require too much planning.

I make up businesses and whatnot when the plot or the story demands. The Dark Truth in The Dark Truth is a fictional dance club that I conjured on O’Farrell Street in San Francisco. However, 98 percent of the story takes place in the real, actual, physical world you can visit today.

Numerous places in the story were inspired by a photo gallery I found on the official web site for the San Francisco Chronicle, SFGate.com. It was a gallery of images of abandoned places in Northern California and numerous images spoke to me as great hiding places for a vampire. I wrote about the inspiration for the title of The Dark Truth in a post on my official web site not that long ago.

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No spoilers! Those of you who have read The Dark Truth know what happens here.

In the SFGate photo gallery, I came across Sutro Baths. The photos were stunning and I decided to use this as the location for the climax of the story. If you can call looking at photos and Google satellite and street view “sight unseen,” I wrote the scene without actually visiting Sutro Baths.

This past weekend, I had the occasion to check it out and to be honest, I did pretty well in my descriptions and I was further convinced that I made the right choice for the scene. Now, I did miss some key details you can only observe by visiting. I may have to bring the story back to this spot. A hike along the Coastal Trail has me thinking about all kinds of delicious possibilities for the third book in the series, The Dark Terror.

A similar location scout, albeit ahead of time or in the middle of, helped me write several scenes in the second book, The Dark Descent. I did not plan on making Golden Gate Park a major location, but after a site visit, I couldn’t help but expand the park’s significance in the story. The Haight-Ashbury neighborhood also features prominently in The Dark Descent, and a location scout really helped me capture the flavor and claustrophobia of the area.

Bram Stoker wrote the Transylvania scenes for Dracula without visiting the region, rather relying on the equivalent of the venerable Fodor’s Travel Guide and travelers’ descriptions of the Carpathian Mountains and rural Romania for background material. By all accounts, Stoker did a pretty good job of describing his vampire’s ancestral home.

As good as modern tools are for research and inspiration, there is no substitute for actual location scouting and I will endeavor to do as much as possible as my career as a novelist continues.

Those of you who have read The Dark Truth can now see where the climax takes place and hopefully visualize and understand that scene, and hopefully agree with my choice.

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