Monday, May 24, 2010

Location Location Location

I collect locations. Whenever I travel, I take photographs and catalog streets and businesses. On a recent trip to Manhattan I spent an afternoon walking the streets within a ten block radius of my hotel with my Easyshare snapping the streets, architecture, and geography to be (possibly) used in future stories. I snapped clandestine shots of people on sidewalks and in crosswalks, and overheard their conversations (“So, what you’re telling me is you've done dick all day…”).

In the spring of 1999 I took a road trip across the country. One of the reasons I took the trip was because I knew I was going to use the experience in a novel. I wasn’t sure what would happen or how the locations would come into play. But I took about ten rolls of film, which, as I predicted, became the general route of my main character in “A Little Disappeared."

But, one of the best locations I’ve found was one I didn’t seek. It came to me.

A few years ago I had a temporary job where I worked in the inventory department of a computer network company. Part of my job was counting computer parts that, for one reason or another, had been sent back to the company. Call them gently used. All these parts, from large routers and backplanes, to reels and spools of various sized microchips, were boxed up and stored in a warehouse.

The warehouse was a temporary one, housed in a five-story building that had originally been home to another networking company. But aside from pallets of computer bits and pieces on two of the five floors (microchips sure can take up lots of space) it was vacant. It had not been designed to be a warehouse, so much of the space was made up of vast areas of cubicles. On the third floor was a dormant cafeteria. Next to that was a corporate gym. Always darkened. Always musty. Always a little creepy.

What struck me about the building was that all the chairs and desks were still in place, waiting in the cubicles for the next occupants which, due to the financial downturn of 2001, were nowhere to be found. Everything was gathering a gritty, grimy dust. Not only that, but some of the desks still contained files and paperwork and office supplies.

It was a fun place to work, because I was often alone in the building. Sometimes when I had to drive over from the main inventory department—in another corporate park a couple miles away where I did most of my work—I would spend an extra ten or fifteen minutes poking around the building.

It was like a movie set. I could pretend that the world’s population had been wiped out and I was the last man alive, lamenting humankind’s fate while working out in the gym. I walked the stairs alone. I used the still-functioning restrooms. I took the elevator alone. I stood at a fifth floor window and looked out over the empty parking lot. I looked through every desk in the building, and procured fistfuls of paperclips, file folders, and binder clips. I found a drawer full of Wall Street Journals all from a couple years earlier. I found a Beatles CD and birthday cards. I was fascinated about how a building that had obviously been full of workers could become, and remain, a shell.

I never took any pictures of the place, but I still remember it. I started writing a story that grew from this location, the idea of such an empty building, and how it got that way through corporate downsizing. So, details like how the lobby was three stories high and contained leather chairs, are still logged and ready. I haven’t finished the story, but it’s still there, like the memory of the location, ready to be used when I’m ready.

A great location helps make a great book. Stephen King uses locations to add menace to his horror, often using locations like characters. Think of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. In A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole used all of New Orleans as a tapestry on which he imprinted his own brand of literary insanity.

As a writer, what are some of your favorite locations? As a reader, what stories made an impression through use of location?


Robin said...

Dell -- I love this entry about the importance of location or setting. Where would Emily Bronte be without her beloved moors? Stephen King and the wilds of Maine? Thanks for an eye-opening blog.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Great post!
Just as I love to read a book jacket blurb to learn about the story and characters, I can't wait to discover where the novel takes place.

When I write, I often choose the location first before all the characters make their entrance in my mind and on the page. :)

Dell Smith said...

Come to think of it, I think I choose locations first as well. Or at least consider where my characters will live and work and act out. It helps define them.