Friday, October 23, 2009

Pat Bertram, author of DAUGHTER AM I

Please welcome my returning guest host, Pat Bertram. Her new novel, Daughter Am I has just been released and this week she's doing her virtual book tour. I'm thrilled to have her back.

Pat Bertram is a native of Colorado and a lifelong resident. When the traditional publishers stopped publishing her favorite type of book — character and story driven novels that can’t easily be slotted into a genre — she decided to write her own. More Deaths Than One and A Spark of Heavenly Fire, available at Amazon and from Second Wind Publishing, are Bertram’s first novels.


I once got in an argument with someone who claimed that writers have no business writing about places they have never visited. To be honest, it wasn’t much of an argument since I never got a chance to speak. Still, he did make a point -- there really is no way to impart the true flavor of a place unless you have experienced it. On the other hand, how much do you really need to say about a location to put a reader in place? If you are writing a travelogue, you need to know a lot, but if you are writing a novel, you only need to know enough to set the scene.

I’ve been to very few of the places I talk about in my books. I’ve lived in Denver, stayed in northern Wisconsin for about a year. I visited the outskirts of Chicago once, perhaps drove through Peoria. But I never went to Thailand or the Philippines. Never went much of anyplace. So does that mean I’m not allowed to let my characters visit exotic locales? Nope. It just means I need to do a bit of research. Find a few significant details that let the reader envision the scene, smell it, hear it, taste it. Even better is to show those details through the character’s eyes, through the character’s emotions. And lastly, include an aspect that is so common all readers have experienced it. If this aspect is real, if the character’s emotion is real, then the place will be real.


In Daughter Am I, I have Mary Stuart, my hero, driving along North Avenue in Chicago. The house where her grandfather had grown up, along with most of the original buildings on the street, had been bulldozed and replaced with modern townhouse developments already showing signs of age.

Mary drove slowly down the street, ignoring the honking horns of irate drivers, and wondered what it had been like when her grandfather lived there. Had there been so much traffic? So many people? So much noise?

I found the information about the townhouses in a travelogue, and for the rest of it, we’ve all been there -- a busy street is a busy street is a busy street.

I’ve never been to Cluculz, but I could write a scene that takes place on the lake. The character would be slapping idly at mosquitoes, listening to the cry of a loon, feeling a cool breeze and thinking about the coming winter, perhaps see a fishing boat silhouetted against a stunning red and orange sunset, maybe hear the cry of a baby from the nearby Lakeside RV Resort. Novelists don’t need to have experienced the places their characters visit. They only need to find enough details to make the reader feel as if the character has been there.

I’d never write an entire novel that takes place somewhere I’ve never been -- it would be too easy to make a mistake. But a scene or two? No problem.

-- Pat


* Pat will be back Monday for her one on one interview

16 comments :

  1. Hi, Joylene! I'm so pleased to be here in Cluculz. I even know where I am! I had to look it up on a map, but isn't that what we're talking about here? A bit of research goes a long way!

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  2. I'm happy you're back! Isn't this virtual travelling fun? I think you're the first to actually google the place tho. That's nice, Pat. And it says a lot about your dedication to your craft. Stuff like that is always rewarded.

    It's great knowing you.

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  3. I did the same thing with a small town that was critical to one of my scenes. I knew all of the other locations quite well, but had to research this one carefully, down to the demographics. Excellent post Pat.

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  4. I think one has to be careful too. When I researched VietNam and Russia it must have taken 4 months. I was so bombarded with facts my head felt as if it would explode. In the end, it took 8 drafts to get my scene just perfect. THEN a kindly VN vet proof-read the entire ms for me. I don't know what I'd done without his input.

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  5. Tracey, how nice to see you this morning! A lot of people think they don't need to research fiction, but getting the facts right in fiction is just as important as getting the facts right in non-fiction

    Joylene, I know what you mean about being bombarded with facts -- I researched Thailand for months, drew maps, looked at videos, read books, yet in the end I used only a few bits. If I had know what those bits would be ahead of time, I could have saved myself a lot of time!

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  6. As always, I enjoyed your insightful words here, Pat.

    I agree that the writer doesn't necessarily need to implement each and every detail one knows (or has researched) about the location they are presenting. The urge to get in every little fact turns into "data dump" and does not make for a pleasurable read. One reader may want to know everything there is to know about Chicago/Peru/Cuba, whereas another will skim the location elements in search of the actual story. Best to be prudent when implementing location details.

    Also, cities and areas change--you don't want to look like a fool by naming an actual restaurant or landmark that may not exist 5 years later.

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  7. Deborah, that's why I relied on simple elements to show that my caracter was in Thailand, such as the green lizard on the ceiling of the hotel room. I have a feeling those critters will always be around!

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  8. Exactly, Pat. And that visual of the green lizard on the ceiling is an image that continues to stay with me. So powerful!

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  9. I know the value of good research. My last book was set in a different country and two different historic eras.

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  10. A.F., I am impressed. The amount of research must have been asounding! The closest I got to a different historic era was in More Deaths Than One, but I don't think 1988 can really be considered a historic era!

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  11. Pat, hi, this is a great post and exactly the discussion I've been looking for! I wrote a novella that's been published, and it takes place in Seville, Spain, specifically in a small museum there. I visited the museum several years ago, took copious notes (NOT with the idea that I'd ever turn them into a novella), and after pulling all of those notes together and doing some intense research to make sure the accuracy of description was still there, it worked out very well! One thing I did was to compare and contrast (again, based on my notes and current research) other towns in the south of Spain to Seville, to give the reader a wider dimension of the area, and to create trust that I knew what I was talking about (showing contrasts, to me, instills knowledge and trust in the reader/writer relationship).

    Thanks again for this great post!
    -Lori

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  12. I like Pat's idea of using selected details to give the sense of place without extensive description. That's a useful technique. As a reader, mind you, there are times when I savour descriptions that put me in delicious places I've never visited.

    In my writing I need to have the actual locale in my head as I write -- I find it easier to convey the setting -- but I realize that limits my choices. Now, if I get to be a wildly successful author someday I could travel lots and be able to research potential locations in person! Wouldn't that be a treat?!

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  13. Hi Ladies:
    I'd suggest looking up places on Google Earth, even if you've been there before. As well as the remote sensing imagery - often good enough to pick out individual buildings - other users have photographs posted that can be accessed by clicking a link.

    I recently wrote about a covert insertion on the Rhine (actually on an alternate Earth) but used Google Earth to look at the whole course of the river from the mouth (which I had never visited)to the Bingerloch (which I had). It was particularly useful for picking out the sandbanks and shallows at the mouth that someone entering secretly would need to avoid, and the succession of photos going upstream revealed the scenery and nature of the land as one went upriver.

    Chris H.

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  14. Joylene - You're the perfect hostess & I love what you've done with your lake.

    Pat - IMHO - Location description is great so long as it doesn't cause the story to drag. For instance - the old farm house in Daughter AM I is described pefectly - not beaten to death. Takes no time at all to see it & feel it. Don't wanna go too far, but the point is, the reader gets pulled into your story - pronto. Nuff said.

    On the other hand - Location description IS very important when trying to convince one's wife that a trip to the islands is desperately needed for research purposes. Is a 90 mile seaplane trip too much to ask? Shouldn't have mentioned I wanted to fly "dee playne dee playne..."

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  15. Update - Deb's leaning toward an Okay on the seaplane trip to the islands, provided I stay away from the controls. Heck, I only wanted to try my luck at landing - didn't wanna do the boring part....

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  16. Lori, I like the idea of comparing and contrasting towns. It would give readers more of a feeling of being there than a simple description. As you say, it's important to instill in the reader the idea that you know what you're talking about even if you don't. In this case, you obviously know what you're talking about.

    Carol, for the most part, describing scenes of exotic locales is better left to people who've been there. For people like me, who try to give the impression we've been there, it's better to stick to select details. That way there's less chance of people realizing I haven't a clue! I agree, being wildly successful and able to travel would be a treat. Hoping we both make it!

    Trailowner, I wish I'd had the Internet when I did the location research for my novels. It would have been so much fun to actually see the streets I was talking about! I've taken virtual tours of neighborhoods I once lived, and I even took a tour of parts of Bangkok. What an incredible reference tool!

    JaxPop, would you like me to rewrite the article to prove that only writers who have actually been to the book's locations can write about them? Be glad to do my part to get you to the islands.

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