Here's the Wisconsin fishing lake that I believed--from research using MapQuest, Google Maps and Google Earth--was a rushing river with a high, lonesome bridge. Sadly, it wasn't.
By Shane Gericke
Because while the former gives you all the infinite possibilities, the latter shows whether they're actually correct.
Case in point: In my upcoming book, a scene is set on opening day of the deer-hunting season in Wisconsin. To make the scene work, I needed to find a bridge from which the bad guys could toss a murder victim without being spotted by police. (I prefer using real locations in my fiction; it heightens the sense of "gosh, it really happened.") Specifically, I needed a isolated bridge in a rural setting, close enough to an interstate for the bad guys to get in and out fast, far enough from a population center that cops weren't likely to be around, and a rushing river to carry the body away.
No way in hell I'd find that combination driving around with a gas-station map. (Remember those?) So I turned to MapQuest and Google Earth and started panning for gold.
Two cups of coffee later, I found my (lonely!) two-lane bridge. Over a long, rushing river. That emptied into a sprawling forest in which deer hunting really occurs. A mile away from Interstate 94, near a tiny town named Millston. Which is twelve miles south of Black River Falls, the nearest population center. ("Population center" does not describe Millston, which is a hundred or so people and a church, several bars, a pretty town square with a cannon, some businesses to service the fishing and hunting trade, and a graveyard.) Perfect. Because technology isn't always reliable, I cross-checked MapQuest against Google Earth satellites. The photographs proved the perfecto-ness of the site.
So I wrote the scene, resting the entire sequence of that part of the book on the good graces of MapQuest and Google Earth.
But a few months later it nagged at me. The first thing you learn as Johnny Deadline, Reporter, is, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." How did I know for a fact the images I saw were correct?
Long answer short, I couldn't. Time for a road trip. Fortunately, we'd already planned to hit the Wisconsin Dells that August weekend. Hot summer, cold water, good friends, drinks and dinner every night; what's not to like? Better, the Dells were an hour south of Millston and Black River Falls, so I could eyeball the place for real. Or, to paraphrase Edward G. Robinson in "Double Indemnity," put the quietus on the little man in my stomach.
So we made the drive from the Dells one fine Sunday morning. (Note to self: contrary to what I'd expected from living in an upscale city such as Naperville, rural towns do not have cute breakfast places that are open on Sunday for tourists. The cooks, waitresses and customers are in church. I couldn't find a gas-station donut, let alone a Wisconsin cheddar omelette with side of heart attack. Sigh.) But we did find the places I'd written up so eloquently.
They did not include a river.
What looked like a river on the maps and satellite imagery was actually a pair of bucolic fishing lakes. (Well, ponds. But big ones, honest!) The photo at the top shows one of them. Not exactly rushing, right? The "bridge" that crossed them was a road on the narrow dirt barrier that separated one lake from the other. The road was, oh, a foot or two higher than the lakes.
In other words, what you see is not what you get.
That was fine; fiction is the art of the possible, not of the documentary. So I kept things the way I wrote them, added some sight-and-scent details from our foray--Mmm, fried walleye! Eeew, pond scum!--and added an Author's Note at the end of the book, thanking the good people of Millston and Black River Falls for allowing me to alter their geography to create a rushing river and a high, lonely bridge. Yes, authors can and should alter reality to support the truth of their stories. (Again, it's an entertainment, not a geography lesson.) But it's best to acknowledge what you're doing to the reader, so if they're familiar with the real-reality of the place, they won't think you're just a lazy dope who never bothered to do the research.
Oh, and that bridge I made up? My hero sheriff happens upon the river quite by accident, surprising the bad guys into one of the most exiciting shoot-em-ups I've ever had the privilege to write.
Cause hey, if I can't shoot a bad guy now and then, then what's a fictional bridge for?
Shane Gericke invites you to visit him at www.shanegericke.com, where the digital coffee is hot and the conversation is mellow. Naturally, the talk might drift toward his upcoming new thriller, Torn Apart, the cover of which he managed to drop in next to this block o'type. Sneaky bastard, our Shane.