Thursday, March 5, 2009

My North Dakota Location Recce

Last Thurs, I showed how Google Earth can help you research locations you can’t physically check out yourself.

Today, I wanted to show you how I researched the location for my Prairie Junction series.

When I first decided to return to writing three years ago, I didn’t have any writing friends, belong to any writing groups, or was involved with any internet social networks. About the only thing I had was lots and lots of Steeple Hill Love Inspired books which was the line I wanted to target. I noticed that all the stories were located in the U.S. (I've since read some with Canadian locations.)

So when I wanted a U.S. location, I picked North Dakota which is the closest state for me to research. Plus, I already had a U.S. post office box in Noonan, ND which is only a couple hrs from where I live.

Noonan is a small town with a population of 140. Whenever I drove down to pick up my mail, I’d drive west to Crosby, pop 1089 and check out the trade-in section of the Divide County Public Library. Bring used books in. Take used books out. Even across the border. No library card required.

I liked the remote location of Noonan and Crosby as well as the proximity to me. Whenever I went down, I stopped for a coffee and a visit in the local coffeeshop. Then, I'd head over to the bank and pick up some state quarters for my collection. The bank employees are always friendly and one was even born in Sask so we chat a bit. And of course, I'd spend a couple hours in the library. I liked the area and the people. So, I started searching for a possible location for my fictional town of Prairie Junction.

On one of my forays, I noticed a spot around midway between Noonan and Crosby, at the T intersection where a gravel road leads south to Wildrose. A summer road heads north where a couple of my characters would live. And, the railroad track runs alongside the highway. It was the perfect location for my fictional town. This is a photo of the actual site and you're looking north except you can't really see the railroad tracks.

Why didn’t I just use Noonan or Crosby? Because, I didn’t want someone to be totally engrossed in my story then be yanked out of it because I’d made a building or street error. Not only would it take the reader right out of the story, but it would play on her mind making her wonder what else was false. And of course, if she’s thinking about the geography, she’s not concentrating on the characters or their conflict and she won’t feel satisfied with the ending if she continues to read that long.

Once I had a visual picture of Prairie Junction in my mind, I needed to know what the town people saw when they looked down the road. On my next trip to ND, I went on a recce (reconnaissance mission) to the site of Prairie Juction. Camera in hand, I took photos of the empty field where I envisioned the town as well as photos in all directions. I wanted to see what my characters would see. What anyone standing in that empty field would see.

My hero for Book 2 in the Prairie Junction series is a Deputy Sheriff and I needed to know about his vehicle, uniform and shifts. So, with teen daughter riding shotgun, I drove into Crosby and parked close to the Divide County Sheriff’s vehicle. I took my camera, stepped outside my vehicle and took some photos with my teen groaning behind me and asking me to get back into the van.

Not to be deterred, I marched right up the steps, went inside, and introduced myself to the Deputy on duty who then introduced me to Sheriff Lauren Throntveit. I explained I was a writer on a recce and Sheriff Throntveit was very accommodating. He answered all my questions about shifts, calls and equipment and when I asked if I could take a photo of their uniform, he told the newest Deputy to stand in front of the huge Divide County wall emblem for me. Then, he gave me his business card and said to email him if I had any more questions. I really enjoyed the visit and came away enthused with the knowledge he’d imparted. (I'm sorry I can't show you more but I promised the Sheriff I'd use the photo of his Deputy for research only.)

Book 2 in the Prairie Junction series has a working title of When You Least Expect It and is a finalist in the Linda Howard Award of Excellence contest. It is with the final judge now. Oh, the waiting...

How do you chose your locations? Do you pick somewhere familiar and close? Do you throw a dart at a map? Do you think an author should have enough creative license to chose a known location then add a bunch of fictional elements?


Anita Mae Draper said...

Uh Janet... re the new photo... you see it was 2 am and I wanted to see how it'd look and once I changed it, it was either leave it or delete it and leave an empty spot because I didn't have your original. And I hadn't been smart enough to take down the photo address before I changed it. *sigh*

Anonymous said...

heya anita
i so enjoy hearing how you do things for your writing. i'm not sure i'd be as brave as you. i'm more like your groaning daughter *grin*.
for locations, i usually use places i've been, and i've been to some interesting locations. of course, i'm not near as far along as you with your writing.
thanks for the inspiration you provide.


Karen said...

Hey Anita,
I wish I had your moxy. Hey, maybe I can hire you to do my research! My current wip could use a visit to a rural rcmp detachment but I'm just too chicken to walk through the door and start asking questions.

For my first manuscript I chose a place I was familiar with because I thought it would make it easier. I spent two summers working in the area where my current wip takes place but I should revisit it and snap some photos.

BTW, I love the name of your town, Prairie Junction. I'm terrible at naming things.

Karen said...

Like the new photo!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Deb, thank you! And I'm blessed if I can inspire your writing because your wedding toppers are something I remember every time I try to make and decorate a cake.

Folks, Deb is a graphic designer... uh... animator, I think and last summer for her wedding, she sculpted these 2 little scuba divers as wedding toppers. They were likenesses of her and her hubby, exquisite in the detail: 2 little 'frogmen' held hands, looked into each others eyes as close as their flippers would allow. Now that was an inspiration, Deb!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Karen - considering that I had to look up 'moxy' in the online Urban Dictionary...

Hey, here's an idea... get your stuff together and we'll go visit that RCMP detachment together. Or can it be any detachemnt? The guys here in my town are really nice and approachable.

Or, if you don't think you have enough... moxy... send me the questions and I'll ask.

But I'd rather go on a recce with you. Anywhere. You need to go and take photos, you say? Me and my GPS are at your disposal. :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Anita, I love all the research you do to immerse yourself in your location. I can just picture your daughter groaning at your moxy :)

I draw a lot of inspiration from my home town, Victoria, and other areas of BC, in constructing the world for my novel. I have a bit of a pet interest in geography, so I wanted to make sure that the weather, landscapes, wildlife, etc felt cohesive for my world. I soak up a lot of little details of Victoria whenever I go back to visit, and turn to a few references on BC plants and animals when I want to make sure I have the right trees in the right environment.

Karen, if you need rural RCMP info, I can help. I'll email you.

Hazel said...

Anita, your attention to detail is awe-inspiring. I usually have a place I know in mind for location, and I have sometimes revisited places to freshen up my impressions. But I admire the methodical way you go about creating a location that is familiar, yet still imaginary.

I haven't used Google Earth in my writing, but my sons have showed me sites they have been to on their travels (I also have seen where I live). I think I now have another tool in my writer's kit.

Thanks for a great blog.

Janet C. said...

Hey, Anita, great post :) And amazing research. Your book will be that much richer for your 'moxy' and dedication.

Research for Lady Bells was online, naturally (although I have been to Scotland and have a good visual memory of glens, moors, sheepland). I had to choose a location, then needed the topography. Old maps, photographers webpages, google maps, google books, and google earth. It took forever, but I'm happy with the result. And one day I will go there - that exact spot where I created Fallowlees fief - and perhaps have a picnic on the moors.

And since Karen likes the picture - we'll leave it there until spring comes (whenever that happens).

So, I may have to hire you to be my US stamp smuggler, ah, buyer. I'm running out of my precious commodity The Husband brought back from Arizona.


Anita Mae Draper said...

Hi Hayley. I love Victoria! While in the CAF, I was flown to Victoria for a 3 day 'Custodian' course because I'd been promoted and would be the Custodian in charge of all the Top Secret cryoptography equipment, codes and books. The course was held at naval base of CFB Esquimalt and I was put in the barracks overlooking the HMC dockyards. What a gorgeous view!

I remember walking (yes!) down Admiral's Rd and then Esquimalt Rd all the way to downtown Victoria. Then after moseying around a bit, I stood in front of the Empress Hotel wishing I could afford to go in for High Tea. The BC hovercraft ferries awed me. Then I walked back along the sea wall which took much longer than the 2 miles to get there! I believe I caught the bus around 9 pm when I became scared of every bush and shadow.

On the same trip, I stood in the magical Butchart Hanging Gardens astounded by the wondrous mind of its creator.

And I visited Butterfly world and laughed as the winged creatures fluttered close if you stood still for awhile.

On another trip with my family this time, we played with starfish at low tide on Gabriola Island, parked several feet from the ocean (high tide!) at Pacific Rim and collected sand dollars from the shore.

Hayley, no wonder you are so imaginative when you come from such a background. Tell me, did you ever visit the 7 Dwarfs Thatched Cottage while it was still open for public viewing?

Anita Mae Draper said...

Thank you, Hazel for your nice comment. When my book comes out (not if!), I might quote you. :)

Yes, do get Google Earth because even the hunt for locations can be inspiring to a writer.

You just reminded me about a Google Alert I rec'd a couple days ago. Apparently, someone had read my blog post at eHarlequin (where I tell them I'm blogging here) and downloaded Google Earth. She was so delighted, she wrote a blogpost about it. I laughed at her enthusiasm when she discovered her house and car, although she wasn't sure why her garden looked so yucky. Reading that post made my day!

Thanks for visiting, Hazel.

Karen said...


I was tempted to use the word 'swoon' in a scene this morning. Evil editor had nasty things to say.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Janet, again, sorry about the pic but I'm glad Karen likes it and that it'll stay awhile longer. Because of the fog, it has a very lonely 'Wuthering Heights' morose thing going on, I think. :)

I would love to visit Scotland! I could barely understand my Gaelic grandmother and lost her before I truly appreciated my heritage.

Oh, to picnic on the moors... you're inciting the adventure bug in me, Janet and hubby will only let me go if I can drive there. LOL

Yes to the stamps. I usually bring some back for my own hubby.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Anita, your reply brings back so many fond memories. It sounds like you really got to see some of the best places in the area. I haven't done high tea at the Empress, but there are some other fabulous local tea rooms (we Victorians are so painfully British, aren't we?).

I always have to go down to the inner harbor, Butchart Gardens, and get some time by the shore whenever I go back home. I don't really remember the cottage, but it sounds very very familiar. I think we probably went when I was very little.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hayley, something you said reminded me that when my eldest daughter was 10-12 yrs old, we used to drive around Eastern Ontario on Sunday afternoons. Hubby usually stayed home while we did our ‘adventuring’. We lived halfway between Ottawa and Montreal and the area was so historic. I didn’t want to miss anything during our 5 yrs posting there.

But what struck me with your comment, was that as soon as our daughter left home, she moved to BC and spent summers working as a tree planter and her winters travelling. She spent 4 months in India one winter and 6 months in New Zealand the next.

I wonder where she got her wanderlust?

Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
Hey, I know where Noonan and Crosby ND are! We used to live in Estevan and they were right across the border.

I would love to go on a 'recce' with you sometime too, Anita. Like Karen, I'm sadly lacking in the moxy department. Keep me in mind.

I usually choose locations because I know the area, or at least have visited. Unfortunately, that really limits my options as far as settings go. I need to broaden my horizons.


Anita Mae Draper said...

This is so ironic - you used to live near here and now you live in the Winnipeg and I live here but used to live in the 'Peg. :)

Sure, Jana. I'm up to a recce anytime, anywhere... well, except Beausejour in the spring and early summer. If I recall, that's the woodtick capital of Canada and you won't find me anywhere near there from May-July.

And, there's nothing wrong with using a location that you know.

When I posted on my eharl blog today about blogging here, Donna Alward had this to say to my question about using creative license:
Why not? Expecially if you change the name. I put Larch Valley where I wanted it geographically, and modeled some of the town after Cochrane, and other bits of towns that stuck with me during my years on the prairies.