Friday, March 26, 2010

A Bridge Too Far ... Digital Edition

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

Technology's great.

Reality's best.

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, 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.


Gabi said...

You went to Wisconsin Dells and didn't stop by to meet my parents? They live in tiny North Freedom, a mere 15 minutes away. They could have given you the local scoop on heart attack on a plate Sunday breakfast. It is available if you know where to look.

The new cover looks great. I can't wait!

Sophie Littlefield said...

wow shane that cover is AWESOME - is there any shiny on the gold? I love has become my life's goal to get some shiny on a cover sometime.

i would have made the worst journalist. my first impulse would always have been to make it up. i would have written that bridge and given it a niagara type falls and then thrown in a zombie for good measure.

Shane Gericke said...

Dang, Sophie, I wish I'd thought of zombies. Now THAT would've sold this thing for sure!

Thanks on the cover. I couldn't believe my eyes when da boss sent it to me ... it is SO cool. Yep, there's shiny gold and white embossing on the important parts: the title, and my name :-)Kensington did me proud.

Shane Gericke said...

Gabi, I totally would have stopped to see them! Especially living in a town called North Freedom? That's the best. And heart attack on a plate is available in North Freedom? Damn, wish I'd asked. It totally sucked taking a road trip on an empty stomach ... not even a cup of coffee ... course, I should have known better. I grew up in a little place like Millston and it didn't even have a river or bridge or shootout of nuthin'. Just two churches, three taverns and a gas station. You know, the important things in life.

Shane Gericke said...

If this cover with the glittery gold and black and chain link and Deaver and Child and shoot-em-ups and fried walleye and serial killers and child kidnappers and narco lords and cops-cops-dopsdon't sell a shitload of books, I give up.

Well. Not really.It'd suck to have to, you know, find a real job. But I sure would be pissy for awhile.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Cool cover! And what could be better than a good old-fashioned shoot-out?

I'm glad you checked it out. Plus, you had the fun of a road trip. Unfortunately, without the heart attack side. But maybe that was for the best.

Shane Gericke said...

Terry, I had the heart attack on a plate later that day. And fried walleye that very night! So it all worked out just dandy :-)