Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Wordcraft -- Being there, déjà vu

During his recent appearance in Dallas, Stephen King bemoaned the fine points of a setting you can’t know until you live in a place. He visited Dallas during the course of extensive research for his book about President Kennedy’s assassination, “11/22/63.” And still there were a couple of items, both minor, that he said had gotten by him.

One was the local pronunciation of Oak Cliff radio station KLIF. Another was the spelling of the town of Killeen. Two l’s, not one as in King’s book, although he said not even his fact-checker caught the tiny omission.

His visit reminded me, on this last day of 2011’s NaNoWriMo (national novel writing month), of the importance to your novel’s setting of your presence in that setting.

I love researching in libraries, online or off. But writing stories and this blog has prompted me to go places I wouldn’t have gone to otherwise. And the experience of being there gives me a feel for the subject I can’t get otherwise.

How would I have known how King responded to Dallas journalist Lee Cullum’s quip about his greatest fear if I hadn’t been in the audience? How would I know how blue the lights are at a strip club if I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes? Or how dragonflies hover over the rain pools of a paupers’ cemetery?

Those of us who write fiction are, by definition, professional liars. But we have to tell really good lies. Lies that can stand up to the utmost grilling our readers can give us.

Journalist Bill Marvel wrote this month in the Dallas Morning News about the perils of photography in public places. I complimented him, confessing that I carry my camera everywhere, photographing such unlikely spots as Dallas Rapid Transit stations and the surroundings of the county hospital without incident. (FYI -- a portable toilet at one station looks like a great spot for my antagonist to dump a body.)

Marvel told me a lot of writers use their cameras this way. But be careful of the old pump house at White Rock Lake (a former city water source), he said. One of his readers was hassled by police for photographing it. Makes me want to go there!

In these last few hours of NaNoWriMo, consider stretching your word count by incorporating a description of your favorite site. Port-a-potties and all.


(For Stephen King’s answer to Lee Cullum, see my post for November 16, “Stephen King on changing history.” For Bill Marvel’s article, see and search “opinion, Sunday Commentary.” The article title is “The illegal assault on photographers.” For my previous post on settings, see November 10, 2010, “Nothing beats being there.”)


Market update: Julia Carpenter, the go-to person for a book reading group I attend, found a new outlet for fiction and nonfiction at A paying market for a wide range of material. Thanks Julia!


  1. What? In trouble with the police for photographing that old pump station when folks take pictures all over White Rock lake and the surrounding park? I agree makes me want to do it.

  2. I agree, Robin. In looking for Bill's article, I ran across a DMN editoral advising people on proper ways to photograph public places. Didn't bother to read it. Public seems public to me.