I’m funny about doing research for my novels. If I’m not collaborating on a project, I like to wing it with what I can pull from my subconscious memory, on the first draft at least. Then I go back and fill in the missing holes. It’s fun to cover a fresh printout with sticky notes and make lists of what I need to know. But I’m kind of geeky that way.
For Sliding Past Vertical, the novel that’s coming out toward the end of the summer, I thought I had it made, as far as knowing my locations. Part of it is set in Boston, part in Syracuse. I lived in Boston for five years and in Syracuse for the whole of my undergraduate degree. I thought I knew what I was writing about. But something nagged at me when I read my drafts. I needed another dose of both places to make sure I was remembering correctly. Memory can be a strange beast, and I’d be mortified if the book came out with glaring errors that could have been avoided with a bit of research, or, even better, a trip.
Syracuse was the hazier memory of the two, so I took a few days off, booked a hotel room, packed up my manuscript, and drove the four hours to the university area. I walked the streets my characters walked, felt the broken pavement under my shoes, smelled the smells, and made notes about the architecture. I had my particular fond memories of different parts of campus. For instance, most of the quad proper sits on a drumlin. Basically, a drumlin is a giant mound of debris left behind by a retreating glacier. Much of upstate New York is peppered with them. They make handy places upon which to build a college campus, although climbing all those stairs to get to the top grows old after about three days.
The edge of the SU drumlin that faces the city of Syracuse is a fairly sheer drop. A wooden stairway had been built into the side that took groaning students some 100 steps from the Brewster/Boland dormitories to the level top of the quad. One of my favorite places was a small, grassy ledge just to the side of the top stair. When I had a late class or team practice, I’d sit for a while and watch the sun set. In fact, I’d written this into the book. Much to my dismay, when I toured the campus this time, the stairway was covered with Plexiglas domes and the ledge, my lovely ledge, was gone, an expansion of the law building now in its stead. I don’t necessarily begrudge the law department an expansion (okay, yes, I do), but why did it have to be built on my ledge and screw up my book?
I grumbled about this all the way back my hotel room, where I furiously scribbled on my manuscript. Then it came to me. Why not use these changes, and these tricks of memory, to my advantage? So when Sarah revisits her alma mater some eight years after graduation, she can react to the changes. She can bemoan the loss of her ledge as well as the lovely overstuffed chairs she remembered from the basement coffee house of the campus chapel.
Sometimes, you just need to use change to your advantage. Take that, law department.