Tuesday, January 11, 2011

First-Person Research

By guest blogger Karen Dionne

I love novels set in exotic locations. My first published novel, Freezing Point (Berkley, 2008), is set in Antarctica. I’ve never been to Antarctica, but I lived for 30 years in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, so I know snow and cold. In the U.P., we’d see 5 feet of snow on the ground by the end of winter, and temps would drop as low as 35 below. The Mackinac Bridge spans a five-mile stretch of water between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas, and in the winter, the entire Straits of Mackinac freeze solid. Driving across the bridge looking at all those miles of ice and snow, it’s not hard to imagine what it would be like if there were no land on the other side.

Like most desk-bound writers, I also did extensive location research for my novel on the Internet. Travel websites, blogs by people who'd spent time in Antarctica, Google Earth, and my Lonely Planet guidebook were my best friends.

All that changed when my editor bought my second novel before it was written. Suddenly, I had the chance to see and experience the setting of my novel for myself. The ink was barely dry on the contract before I began planning my trip.

Boiling Point (Berkley, January 2011) is an environmental thriller about an erupting volcano, a missing researcher, and a radical scheme to end global warming, and takes place at Chaitén volcano in Northern Patagonia, Chile. At the time I pitched the book to my editor, I didn’t know anything about either Chile or volcanoes – I just had an idea for what promised to be a cool story.

Turns out, Chile is a very safe, tourist-friendly country; a lucky thing for me – especially since I don’t speak Spanish. The volcano, not so much.

(photo of Chaiten volcano by Carlos Guiterrez)

Chaitén volcano erupted on May 2, 2008 for the first time in 9,000 years in a major eruption. Scientists have since determined it was a rhyolitic eruption, the most dangerous kind because the volcano erupts without warning, and the magma travels to the surface very quickly. Fortunately, no one lost their life in the blast, but the town six miles away at the volcano’s base was destroyed ten days later by a lahar – a fast-moving flow of mud and ash that choked the river and buried the town.

When I was there in April 2009 a year after the initial blast, the volcano was still erupting, still on Red Alert, and the town was still evacuated, and thus without city services like electricity and running water. But I’d found an English-speaking guide by following a photo credit for a recent picture of the volcano, and he arranged lodging in Chaitén town for me and my son with a friend who rents cabins.

The conditions turned out to be much more comfortable than I thought I might have to accept. Cabanas Pudu has its own well, so we had cold running water and indoor toilets, and they generated electricity between 7 and 10 every evening, so I didn’t need the extra batteries I’d brought for my electronics. April is the beginning of winter in the Southern Hemisphere, but my cabin was warm and cozy thanks to a fire Juan built in the woodstove every evening, and the meals his wife, Anita, cooked were fabulous – salmon, chicken, beef, fresh tomatoes and lettuce, and home-baked bread. Just look at that breakfast!

Even so, that first night, my guide made it clear that we were not at all safe – and that he couldn’t be responsible if the volcano decided to let loose another blast and we were all turned to cinders in the morning. Sweet dreams!

But that was the only time I was even a little nervous. When my guide took us to within one mile of the new lava dome, where we saw steam vents, heard explosions coming from the caldera, and felt a small earthquake, I felt nothing but awe. There's a sense of enormity in the presence of an active volcano, a keen awareness of forces unimaginable that's difficult to convey. To be in an area of both destruction and creation and observe firsthand the forces that shaped much of our earth engenders a feeling approaching reverence.

It was a completely amazing trip that definitely informs my novel. And because my guide was there when the volcano first erupted, I was able to weave much of what he told me about that day into the book, along with my own experiences and observations.

Now I’m hooked. Onsite research brings a level of authority to your writing that I now realize is otherwise difficult to achieve. In the future, I’ll definitely be traveling to the locations where my novels are set. My next Point book (should Boiling Point do well enough that my publisher wants another) will necessitate a research trip to Hawaii. The things we do for our art . . . .

How about you? What’s the coolest thing you’ve done in the name of first-person research?


Karen Dionne is the internationally published author of Freezing Point, a science thriller nominated by RT Book Reviews as Best First Mystery of 2008. A second environmental thriller, Boiling Point, about an erupting volcano, a missing researcher, and a radical scheme to end global warming published from Berkley in January 2011.

Karen is cofounder of the online writers community Backspace, and organizes the Backspace Writers Conferences held in New York City every year. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and the International Thriller Writers, where she currently serves on the board of directors as Vice President, Technology. She is also Managing Editor of the International Thriller Writers' newsletter and webzine, The Big Thrill.


Lois Winston said...

Karen, so nice to see you here! Great post. Doesn't make me want to get up close and personal with a volcano, though. I'll take your word for it, instead.

The series I'm currently writing, The Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries, takes place in my own backyard, and since Anastasia is up to her eyeballs in debt, I don't see a cool research trip in the near future. Maybe I'll have to send her on a business trip and tag along.

Joshua Corin said...

Karen, those photographs are absolutely breathtaking. I can't wait to read your book and experience that world for hours on end.

I just hope there are fewer rats this time. Oh, the nightmares!

Unknown said...

Ha, Josh - funny! No rats in Book Two, though my editor says Boiling Point is even scarier than Freezing Point. I'm just sayin' . . .

And Lois - so much fun to talk to you here! I feel like we know each other on several levels. ;) As for your character, maybe she could suddenly inherit a rich uncle. Or not!

Lois Winston said...

Karen, if Anastasia inherited a rich uncle, that would be the end of the series. Better to keep her one step ahead of living out of a cardboard box on the street as long as people continue to buy the books! :-)

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Very cool, Karen! What gorgeous photos too! I too am glad to hear that there are no rats. At least that. :)

When I was in New Zealand, they boiled eggs and potatoes in the boiling hot spring. Even though it was not book research (that I know of), I ate 'em. Nothing like the power of the Earth...

Reece said...

Karen -- Nice to see you here! I'm really looking forward to reading Boiling Point.

Shrewd move setting your next book in Hawaii. That will definitely require extensive on-site research!

Unknown said...

Thanks, Reece and Becky - it's fun to pop in at a place where I know almost everyone here!

Yes, I'm thinking Hawaii's just about perfect for the next book (though technically, most of the action takes place halfway between Hawaii and California). One thing about my choice of settings, though - did anyone notice how monochromatic they tend to be?

Freezing Point = Antarctica = white
Boiling Point = Chile/erupting volcano = gray
Breaking Point = Pacific Ocean = blue

I need to find some more colorful settings!

Kelli Stanley said...

Wow, Karen, fascinating stuff!! :) I just read a headline about thunderstorms producing anti-matter--and thought of you, you queen of environmental thrillers! :)

Thanks for joining us on CM!

Graham Brown said...

Hey Karen - great post - awesome pictures. Looks like a fun trip. I will surely be picking up both Freezing Point and Boiling Point as they look like fantastic reads.