Behind the Scenes: Location Scouting

verisimilitude / verəsəˈmiliˌt(y)o͞od / noun / the appearance of being true or real.

It’s the moment when you read a story and think, “That’s exactly how it is.” A feeling, an experience, a place, an idea. When you’re caught up in the story. When you’re interrupted while reading and look up startled to discover you’re not on a beach in the Caribbean or in a jazz club in Chicago.

Verisimilitude is what allows fiction to communicate truth.

Too often people ask, “Is it true?” when what they really mean is, “Is it a fact?” Sometimes truth and fact are buddies, but the reality is that often truth and fact are in opposite corners of the ring duking it out. If you doubt this, take time to read How to Lie With Statistics, a short little book that shows anyone with a basic facility with math how to perpetuate any number of lies using facts. Or, as an alternative, just watch any 24-hour news channel for a few minutes.

At the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy touches on this topic when he says

“Archaeology is the search for fact, not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.”

Jesus used parables (stories that weren’t factual) to communicate truth. Religion aside, a novelist can do the same if he/she has a mind to. It all starts with verisimilitude. A lot of things go into creating verisimilitude. A big component is getting the setting right.

As I sat down to write The Reluctant Saint, I decided to use real places whenever possible. The story ranges across the US, from Galveston to Santa Fe to DC, back to Santa Fe, and then to Portland, OR. I could have created fictional places, as I did in Muffin Man and other novels, but I wanted to ground this particular book in the real world.

Being an amateur hermit (as proclaimed on my Facebook page), I conducted online research to select the perfect locations for my story. I spent a ridiculous number of hours on Google in satellite and street view. I posted questions in online forums. I perused websites of hotels and restaurants and bars and tattoo parlors.

Ultimately I decided to get on a plane and go to these places myself.

Here’s the thing about that. For the last decade I have cultivated my status as an amateur hermit. As a freelance writer working out of my home office and setting my own hours, I have that luxury.

But in the previous decade I traveled all over the world for the day job. When I wrote the first three Fred books, I lived in Hawaii and traveled internationally fifty-percent of the time, writing the novels in planes and hotel rooms and coffee shops all over the US, in Canada, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Spain, France, Germany, and Switzerland. My first experience in location scouting was verifying the location and appearance of an office building in Geneva for Hell in a Briefcase.

In 2000, I filed state income tax returns for three states. On September 10, 2001, I took a red-eye to San Jose, CA. A friend in New Jersey woke me up at six a.m. the next morning and told me to turn on the TV. I was stranded in California for almost a week before air travel resumed and I was able to return home.

The travel schedule was both brutal and rewarding. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, but I can’t deny that for the past decade I have enjoyed the life of the reclusive writer, rarely leaving the house except for the four-year-old Sunday School class and my writer critique groups.

So why did I choose to get on a plane and spend ten days outside of the comfortable little cave I had created? I asked myself that very question when my flight was canceled and I rented a car and drove seven hours at 85 mph from Albuquerque to Boulder to complete the final leg of my trip.

I had plenty of time to consider the answer, and it came down to Hensley.

If you’ve read Endless Vacation, you know that Hensley is a polarizing figure. People love him or they hate him. I love him, but I admit he is an acquired taste. He is an amalgam of my college roommate, a soulmate I met on a plane from Charlotte to Austin, and Bertie Wooster of Wodehouse fame.

Yes, he is a manipulative schemer, a sweet talker, a bon vivant and citizen of the world.  But he is all these things because he is a survivor. Nobody would blame a guy for showing up for work every day for his 40-hour-week dead-end job, but that guy does so because he is also a survivor. In the end, Hensley did what he had to do.

As I wrote the story, I saw so many things beneath his calculating smoothness that others didn’t. I cut the readers some slack because I didn’t have the space to explore those aspects of Hensley. After all, Endless Vacation is Davison’s story, not Hensley’s.

Of course Hensley is flawed. Who isn’t? Who can know what shapes another person, what forms the quirks that irritate us? Perhaps Evelyn Waugh was onto something when he wrote ,”To understand all is to forgive all.”

Despite Hensley’s pragmatic nature and myopic worldview, he has an ethos that those who see only the surface of his actions would never suspect.

That was the reason I had to write The Reluctant Saint. And that was the reason I had to leave my comfortable hermit cave and travel to the places Hensley went in 2013. To create the verisimilitude his story deserved. To use invented “facts” to tell the truth. The truth of what Waugh said.

If we could only see as God sees, if we could understand all, then perhaps we could forgive even Hensley his excesses.

What follows is my own journey to visit those places Hensley went and the story of the sometimes amazing, sometimes terrifying moments I encountered while location scouting The Reluctant Saint.