Friday, May 3, 2019

Location, Location, Location

When it comes to creating a sense of place in your work, how do you do it? (Research and real places? Invention and fictional ones?) What’s worked for you, and what hasn’t? 

by Paul D. Marks

This one’s going to be on the long side. Mostly because I’m using several excerpts from stories or novels and I’m focusing only on things set in L.A. or Southern California here.

There’s no end to the ways one can do research in terms of creating a sense of place. I tend to set a lot of what I write in Los Angeles and Southern California. And those areas become another character in my work, so much so that author Steve Lauden said, “…[it’s] almost as if the region was one of the main characters.” And I know SoCal pretty well. But it’s also changed a lot and I don’t go exploring as much as when I was younger. Back in the day, a friend of mine and I would get in one of our cars, point it in a direction and drive and explore. And we explored pretty much everything in Southern California.

There’s different kinds of “places,” not everything is a street or building, a park or landmark. Sometimes it’s just a room or other interior. And there are different ways of doing research: in person first-hand, internet, books and libraries – still, talking to people, maps, music, old movies and others. And I will do all or any of them in various combinations on any given project.

It’s always great to be able to do first-person research, to travel to a location and feel it, smell it, get to know the people, at least a little. But that isn’t always possible. I was hired once to do some polishing on a project that was set in the Amazon. I’d never been there, still haven’t, though it’s on my bucket list. But I have been to other tropical jungle type places. So I did research on the Amazon, probably in books in those days, but I also transposed my own jungle experiences from other tropical locales to that area so the characters could have a better feel for it. And I think it worked pretty well. 

So let me talk about some specific locations from some of my works. It’s hard to narrow it down to a handful of examples, but here goes:

Angels Flight is a funicular railway in downtown Los Angeles. Star of many films and many noirs, including Kiss Me, Deadly, Criss Cross and others. Chandler visits it in The High Window and The King in Yellow. As a young boy, my dad took me to the original Angels Flight (now moved down the road). And though I may not have known about noir films and hardboiled novels then, it was an experience I’ve always remembered. Such a cool little pair of trains going up and down that hill, the tracks splitting in the middle just as each car approaches the other and you think they’re going to smash into each other head on. Angels Flight slams back to me in memory every now and then and makes its way into my writing, most notably in the eponymous story Angels Flight (currently available in L.A. Late @ Night, a collection of five of my previously published stories), which I must say came out before Michael Connelly’s novel of the same name. And also in Ghosts of Bunker Hill (Ellery Queen, December, 2016).

Angels Flight

Angels Flight is about a cop whose time has come and gone, and that theme is still pretty relevant today. The world is changing and he’s having one hell of a time catching up, if he even wants to. He’s a dinosaur. And he knows that Angels Flight is an anachronism, just like he is. He says to the other main character:

“Will Angels Flight bring back the glamour of the old days? Hollywood’s lost its tinsel. Venice’s lost its pier. And there are no angels in the City of Angels. What can Angels Flight do to bring that back?”  
“Sometimes you need something for the soul,” the other person says.

I think that sums up a lot of my attitude not only toward Angels Flight but to the City of Angels as well. That said, here’s a little more Angels Flight, from Ghosts of Bunker Hill:

I stood at the bottom of the hill, staring up at Angels Flight, the famous little funicular railway in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles, that brought people from Hill Street up to Olive. I desperately wanted to ride those rails up to the top. But now the two twin orange and black cars were permanently moored in the middle, suspended in mid-air, ghosts from another time.


And there’s Bunker Hill itself, also from Ghosts of Bunker Hill. Bunker Hill was L.A.’s first wealthy enclave. But around World War I, the rich folk started moving west and it fell into disrepair. In the late 1960s, the grand Victorians were being torn down or moved to other parts of the city. I was lucky enough to have explored the area with friends before it was all gone and even “borrowed” the top of a newel post (see pic) from a stairway in one of those grand Victorians. In Ghosts of Bunker Hill Howard Hamm, the detective, inherits one of those moved Victorian mansions from his now-murdered friend:
My newel post from Bunker Hill

Howard and Nicole wanted to escape the past; I wanted to escape into it. For me, Nicole moved to our classic, refurbished Victorian on Carroll and I’ll love her always for that. In the 1960s someone had the brilliant idea to tear down the old Victorians on Bunker Hill, many of which had become SROs and flop houses, and build a sparkling new downtown of gleaming high rises, but it won’t be long till they’re shabby town too—high-rise shabby town. Luckily several of the grand old dames were saved, moved to Carroll Avenue a few miles away, including ours.

Every time I walked those creaky wooden floors, I felt the presence of the past. The people who’d lived there. Not ghosts, but history, something Los Angeles often doesn’t appreciate. Carroll Avenue was close to downtown, where I worked. But the whole short street looked like something out of early 1900s L.A. I loved everything about it.


Hollywood Forever Cemetery is the cemetery to the stars. It makes appearances in several things I’ve written, most notably Continental Tilt (published in Murder in La La Land anthology), a satirical mystery – what else can you write when you open on this place? A place where people sit outdoors on graves, eating brie and drinking wine, watching movies on the mausoleum wall. So how did I research this – well, I had to go to a movie there. And other things as well. I guess I’m just one of those people sittin’ on the graves...doin’ research, of course.

Movies on the mausolem wall at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

In the heart of Los Angeles, in the heart of Hollywood, a vampire movie played on a humongous silver screen. This wasn’t your usual movie venue, but the crowd of seven hundred loved it. Spread out on beach chairs and blankets, with bottles of wine and beer, Boba tea, doing wheatgrass shooters and eating catered Mexasian sushi, fusion food for the Millennial-iPod generation.

Did I forget to mention that the movie theatre was the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in the heart of Hollyweird? That over the summer they show movies on the mausoleum wall, while people sit on their beach chairs and blankets—Beach Blanket Bloodshed—and munch their munchies amongst the graves of movie stars, rock stars and even mere mortals? The back wall of the cemetery, clearly visible from the field of graves the watchers watched the movies from, was appropriately the back wall of Paramount Studios.

“Yeah, a movie in a cemetery, but hey, this is Hollywood,” I said.

 “Yeah, Hollywood—cemetery as theme park.” Mari lit a cigarette.


Venice Beach and boardwalk is the number one tourist destination in Los Angeles. People think it’s cool and flock to see the “freaks,” and maybe the nearby Venice Canals. Developer Abbott Kinney wanted to recreate Italy’s Venice in L.A., and he did, to some extent. But it didn’t quite work out. Many of the canals were drained and filled in, though some remain. They can be seen in several movies, too numerous to name. And, because Venice is another place I’ve done time at, it pops up in my short story Santa Claus Blues (from Futures), which opens with a bunch of kids playing along the canals and coming across a dead Santa floating in one of them (not quoted here),as well as my short story Windward (Best American Mysteries of 2018 anthology):

Venice Beach and Boardwalk
I’m talking about Venice, California. Los Angeles. Hey, the other one in Italy has canals and grand thoroughfares with colonnaded arches. We have grand canals and streets with grand colonnaded arches. Okay, so we don’t have such grand canals these days, most of them have been filled in, including the Grand Canal. And Venice didn’t quite cut it as the cultural paradise-by-the-sea that Abbott Kinney, its founder, had envisioned. Today it was an ever-changing kaleidoscope of people, dudes dancing on skates, musicians, artists. Maybe a few pickpockets here or there. But it was home. And I liked it here.


Hollywood Sign: And who doesn’t know the famous—or infamous—Hollywood Sign? Something I saw almost every day as a kid, and which a friend of mine and I hiked up to many, many years ago, before it was all fenced in and touristy. I guess that was presearch – pre-research, just in case I’d ever need it. In Free Fall (originally published in Gary Lovisi’s Hardboiled magazine, but available in the L.A. Late @ Night collection), a man recently separated from the service, heads west, as far west as he can go until he comes to the terminus of Route 66 in Santa Monica, near the Santa Monica Pier. This is the end of the road for him in more ways than one.

I kept looking at the Hollywood Sign, wondering about all the people down below, pretending to be in its glow. Where do they go after L.A.? There is nowhere, the land ends and they just tumble into the arroyos and ravines, never to be heard from again.

And the Sign from my novel Broken Windows:

The Hollywood Sign beckoned her like a magnet—or like a moth to a flame. The sign glowed golden in the magic hour sun—that time of day around sunrise and sunset when the light falls soft and warm and cinematographers love to shoot. Like so many others, Susan Karubian had come here seeking fame and fortune, hoping to make her mark on the world. Oh hell, she had come to be a star like all the others. And she would do it, just not quite in the heady way she’d anticipated.

The young woman drove her Passat down Hollywood Boulevard, turning up Franklin, passing the Magic Castle. She turned slowly up Beachwood Canyon, past the low-rent area north of Franklin, up through the towering stone gates with their “Welcome to Beachwood Canyon” signs. Past the movie star homes in the hills—past where she thought she’d be living by now. She drove in circles, past piles of rubble from the earthquake several months ago, figuring that sooner or later she’d hit the right combination of roads and end up where she wanted to be.

If she couldn’t be famous in life, she would be famous in death. But she’d make her mark one way or another. She hoped her fall from grace would be graceful, even if her life hadn’t been.


The Box: Well, what is the Box? It’s that small interview room in the cop shop that you don’t want to find yourself in. A small room with you on one side, a cop on the other. So what research did I do for this? Well, luckily I’ve never been “boxed” for real. But I have been in them, visiting – kind of like in Monopoly when you’re in jail but “Just Visiting” – people I knew who worked there. And, believe me, that’s the only kind of research I want to do for The Box (Mystery Weekly, May 2019):

The room grows smaller with every word coming from the man across the table. His stale, garlic, cigarette and bourbon breath slam me in the face—what the hell did he have for lunch? Or was it dinner? I’ve lost track of time. It might be bright daylight outside or dead of night. No clocks in this room. Neither of us wears a watch. Time stands as still as the air in the confined, windowless space—a room they call the Box. And the air, thick as tar and smelling just as good, suffocates me. I try not to show my discomfort. Try not to let my scratchy throat betray me. It’s not easy, but I think I’m pulling it off.

Nothing to look at. Bland, non-descript brighter-than-white walls nearly blind me. No pictures, no view. Nothing to focus on but the burly man in the rolling chair a few feet away. His chair has wheels. Mine doesn’t. His chair sits higher than mine, so he can look down at me while I have to crane my neck to look at him. No doubt who’s the alpha dog here.


A velvety whorehouse: Well, I won’t tell you what research I did for this one…in House of the Rising Sun (available in Switchblade Issue 9, released 4/19):

Tacky chintz and red velvet decorated the gaudy parlor. Looked like a New Orleans cathouse and that’s just how Mrs. Winter wanted it. Could have been right out of someone’s pervy Victorian fantasy. And that’s just how the boys wanted it. Yeah, the boys, the men who came and paid money for girls or women—women pretending to be girls and girls pretending to be women. Men who snuck out on their wives or girlfriends or wanted something they wouldn’t give them. Those boys. Hell, this might as well have been New Orleans. Inside the house in the Hollywood Hills you were in the Big Easy. It was a different world—away from the boys’ everyday world. But it was Vivien’s everyday world—and she wanted out of it, though she had nowhere to go anymore since her family was all gone. Mrs. Winter had even imported kudzu and a Bourbon Street beat. But this was Los Angeles, land of make-believe glamour and real life whores. So a phony Big Easy whorehouse fit right in. Right down to House of the Rising Sun—a song about a New Orleans whorehouse—playing in Vivien’s head. If this house had been in the real New Orleans it would have been in the red light quarter. The quarter she knew best.


The Rodney King Riots: I was in L.A. during the riots, and while I could see the smoke not all that far away, I was glad I wasn’t actually in the middle of them. But I’ve been in some hairy situations, some scary situations. So I used those experiences, those emotions and recast them into the riot situations and characters there. And I’ve had several people tell me, both cops and civilians, how real they thought those scenes were in my novel White Heat:

The crowd surged toward another small grocery/liquor store. We were caught in it. No escape. The store owner, shotgun in hand, hard-charged someone who’d broken off from the crowd. He waved the gun wildly, maybe at the man who’d broken from the crowd. But we were all in his kill zone. Through the smoke it was hard to tell if he was Mexican, Korean, Armenian—didn’t matter anyway. He was shouting. I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Neither could anyone else it appeared. It wasn’t English, and the din was too loud to figure out what it was. No one was listening anyway. He jacked the slide of his twelve gauge. People hit the deck, dispersed, fell all over each other. A blast rang out. A young woman fell. I rushed to her, tearing my belt off, making a tourniquet on her arm that was bleeding profusely. Tiny pulled me off. 

“It’s no use. We got business. Leave her be.” 

“Somebody’s got to.”

“She’s dead,” Tiny said. “Get it? She’s dead. Doesn’t matter what you do.”

I didn’t move. He lifted her head. The side that had been facing away from me was a mess of bloody hamburger. How could I not have seen it? Maybe I didn’t want to.

He pulled me away. I let him. 

We dashed across a gas station where two men were lighting a Molotov cocktail. Behind us the sound of shattering glass. I slid beneath a car on the street. Tiny hugged a wall. The gas station went up in an overwhelming fireball of light and heat. White heat. And it seemed as if the Post Modern Age had gone up with it.

 Welcome to the Apocalypse.


Los Angeles in the Mid-1940s during World War II – for The Blues Don’t Care (novel coming in 2020): I really enjoyed doing the research for this. I love that era. Yes, the war. But still there was the music, the movies. The feeling that we were on the side of right. But there was no way I could research this first-hand. I have a love of history so I already knew a lot about the era just sort of by osmosis over the years. But I didn’t know about specific things related to L.A. So I went to books, the internet. I listened to the music of era and watched movies for styles and slang. One of the best things I did was to get maps of L.A. from the era. Things have changed, streets and street names. And there were no freeways. One of the locations that’s repeated in the story is the Pike amusement park in Long Beach. How the hell did one get there before freeways? This is where the maps came in more than handy. I also remember a lot of “that” LA from when I was a kid. World War II was before my time, but when I was a kid Los Angeles hadn’t changed all that much…yet. But my best resource was my mom and her friends who were here then, who could tell me things that I wouldn’t find in books or on the net, And who I think really helped make the story and the locations that much more real:

Los Angeles – The Homefront, World War II

Bobby Saxon stood across Central Avenue from the Club Alabam, watching the crowds spilling into the street, lingering on the sidewalk. A near-lone white face in a sea of black. Dragging on his cigarette, trying to steady his nerves, he watched the people in their swanky duds entering and exiting the club, working up his nerve to go inside. Sure, he’d been in the Alabam before, but this time was different. He wasn’t there just to see the bands blow and the canaries sing.

Everyone played the Alabam, or wanted to, including Bobby. Young, inexperienced—white—he knew he could knock ’em dead, if only Booker Taylor, one of the band leaders, would give him a chance.

Central Avenue was something to see. The heart of colored Los Angeles in the 1940s during the war. And at the heart of Central was the Club Alabam, and the Dunbar Hotel next door. Neon marquees lit up the night sky, beckoning passersby to enter their realms of music and mystery and see the likes of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and every other colored act you could imagine.

Cars, with their bright white headlights and trailing hot red taillights, crawled like lifeblood up and down the avenue. Cigarette smoke wafted in and out of the clubs, wrapping around street lights, forming halos in the L.A. fog, creating an ethereal world—another world. And it was another world from most of L.A. and the L.A. Bobby grew up in. A world that Bobby would have sacrificed almost anything to be part of.


Whitley Heights: One of my favorite L.A. neighborhoods, across the freeway from the Hollywood Bowl. Bowl, if you know L.A. Of course it was much bigger before the freeway took out a good chunk of it. The houses, mostly Spanish and Mediterranean, go up-or-downslope on the hillsides. My research for this consisted of knowing people who live there and exploring as much of it as I could on foot, both inside the houses and out on the streets. From my story Fade Out on Bunker Hill (Ellery Queen, March/April 2019):

Howard threaded the maze of tight streets, rills of amber light hitting the Mediterranean Revival houses dotting the hillside. He watched the unlit Hollywood Sign fade out in the increasing darkness the way so many actors’ careers seemed to dim to an early fade out. Like Sunset Boulevard and Sarah Gilmartin, and even her Whitley Heights neighborhood, that had once been home to the likes of Rudolph Valentino and Bette Davis, the sign was a ghost of Hollywood’s past.


The Salton Sea, in Southern California near Palm Springs, is a relic of a different time – a time when the SoCal Dream was everything to some people. It was going to be a tourist destination at one time, a resort, a place for people to live or get away…at one time. But those dreams went up in a puff of dead fish and hot desert air. And what research did I do for my novel Vortex – I spent more time at the Salton Sea than I care to think about:

So here I was at the Salton Sea in SoCal’s low desert, sitting at the edge of the water, a gusty breeze pitting my face with briny spray and fine, gritty sand. Watching that eddy swirl, sucking water and fish and whatever else down into its endless spiral and wondering where it all went wrong. It had to start somewhere, but there’s really no beginning and no end. It just happens. And you have to roll with it. Have to live with the choices you make. I sure as hell was living with mine.

Jess walked up, sat down next to me. “This isn’t my idea of heaven.”

“It’s not heaven, it’s Mecca.”

“Mecca’s farther north, this is Bombay Beach.” Mecca, Bombay Beach, Desert Shores, Salton Sea Beach, were towns that were on or near the Salton Sea. The original Mecca might be a place that people pilgrimage to for salvation. I didn’t think that was true of the Salton Sea’s Mecca or any of the other towns around here, filled as they were with the detritus of dreams gone bad. The American Dream crashed and burned right here at the Salton Sea.


So, there’s a variety of different types of research I did for several different stories or novels. What about you – how do you go about it?


And now for the usual BSP:

New May issue of Mystery Weekly is out. And I'm honored to have my new story The Box featured on the cover. Hope you'll check it out. -- This link is to the Kindle version, but there's also a paper version available.


Our own Dietrich Kalteis interviewed me at his blog Off the Cuff. It was a lot of fun and thanks for having me, Dieter.  


My short story House of the Rising Sun and lots of other great stories are in Switchblade - Issue 9, which is available on Amazon (Kindle version): The paperback version to follow in May.

Please join me on Facebook: and check out my website


GBPool said...

Paul, Your books and short stories are sort of a Time Capsule of Old Los Angeles, but they might also tell people that we shouldn't get rid of some of those landmarks or if we do at least put back something that will become memorable in time. They aren't doing that at the present. Pretty soon there will only be your stories, a handful of other books, and a few old movies to tell the history of what was Los Angeles.

Paul D. Marks said...

Hi Gayle, Thanks for your comment. I agree that we shouldn't be getting rid of landmarks, but it seems to be the way here. And what we're putting back is definitely not memorable.