by Rachael Phillips
A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in a pirate cave. Yes, a for-real pirate cave, and not off on some distant island in the Caribbean--though I wouldn't have minded that too much. No, this was an enormous cave in Hardin County, Illinois, just west of the Indiana state line, on the Ohio River. Having researched and settled on this locale for my next Christmas novella, I decided to visit it.
My non-writing friends, upon hearing I was taking a research trip, assumed my publisher had planned and funded this endeavor. Did my resort hotel include a free spa and nightly massages? Again, I wouldn't have minded that too much. Instead, I drove halfway and, having been mugged and hugged and slimed by three sweet grandkids and a dog, spent the night on my daughter's sofa. Eat your heart out, Karen Kingsbury.
The next morning as I drove the last fifty miles or so, the familiar Midwestern cornfields and small towns morphed into the hilly Shawnee National Forest. I pulled into Cave in Rock State Park and hiked to the cave where, during the early 1800s, bloodthirsty pirates often raided flatboats carrying pioneers westward. Some took the more subtle approach and lured weary travelers to a tavern in the cave, then promptly robbed and--ulp!--did away with them.
My story takes place a decade or two after the worst events, but if my plot continues as planned, the cave, long a center of illegal activity, will be involved in my novella. I had read about it and seen it on the Internet, but sitting alone in its echo-y vastness, even on a sunny November morning, I heard voices from its walls I would never have noticed had I stayed home. I climbed the rough, uncaring limestone and swished the dead, broken leaves on its mud floor, smelling its dampness and age. All the while, the Ohio River, an innocent blue on the lovely day, rippled in front of its wide-open mouth.
My story will be better because of that one-day hurry-up trip. Books, magazine and newspaper reports of settings give us solid foundations for good fiction. And while virtual tours of locations are invaluable to us writers, computers cannot touch. They cannot smell--at least, not yet. And they cannot feel the emotions that well up in our squishy stomachs and make us wish our big, strong hubbies had accompanied us. Interviews with area natives can give us human perspectives that written and cyber material cannot. Still, a first-person experience of a setting, if possible, takes the author beyond looking at snapshots and watching videos. She assumes a role in the real-life drama she longs to share with her readers.
How about you? Have you found that visiting a setting--or a similar one--makes a substantial difference in your writing?