Sunday, December 27, 2015

Visit Where Your Story Takes Place, Or Why Google Maps Isn't Everything

I spent most of Saturday 12/26 (Boxing Day for you Commonwealth types) taking MARTA around Atlanta to do some research for two of my writing projects.

The first project is a short story entitled "Actions Have Consequences," which will feature my supervillain protagonist Andrew Patel. It will be part of a collection featuring "Ubermensch," which introduces him and his nemesis Silverbolt, the second story "Needs Must," and a fourth, "New Friends, Old Enemies."  The second is a novel entitled The Atlanta Incursion, the sequel to the teen Lovecraftian novel The Thing in the Woods I'm currently shopping around.

"Actions" features some gang members pursuing Patel around Atlanta. The action starts in East Point, so I took the train down after eating lunch at Peachtree Center. I soon realized the limitations of Google Maps--although I had used it to map out some buildings, I soon realized I'd gotten a lot of the detail wrong. Downtown East Point is more spread out, much more like Griffin, the town where I had my first newspaper job, than Atlanta or another larger city. It would be difficult for Patel to run down an would-be assassin without too many inconvenient witnesses. Fortunately there's an area that's built up enough for the scene to work, so I was able to get away with just tweaking it a bit. I also discovered the big pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks connecting downtown to an industrial or ex-industrial site, which I'll work in there somehow.

I later took the train over to the East Lake MARTA station, where I planned to have Patel and a friend make a long run down Howard Avenue for downtown Decatur after the train is delayed. I found the station sat squarely in the middle of a bunch of single-family homes and was well-attended by MARTA police. It's also right by the city of Decatur's water tower. That whole area is not going to be having gang shoot-outs, at least not ones that don't get squashed immediately. I thought about having the final confrontation take place around the King Memorial MARTA station instead, but the whole area is surrounded by lots of brand-new apartments. That's not the kind of place where gun battles are going to be allowed to happen either. I'll need to think about how to deal with that.

For The Atlanta Incursion, the protagonist is a student at Georgia State University. I found via Google Maps there was an apartment complex near the Garnett MARTA station one stop south of Five Points, the station I got off at when I was a student at GSU. So I (briefly) stopped at Garnett. The station is jammed down amid taller buildings and I couldn't find any apartments. There's the Atlanta jail, some courthouses and police buildings, and a lot of people loitering around. I don't think anybody actually lives there. And a lot of the buildings are run down. Probably most students--especially my protagonist--wouldn't really want to live there even if there were student housing available.

As a result, I needed to make some fixes. One fix was pretty simple--just change where the character was going when he had a PTSD episode. The other fix required changing a scene more substantially--instead of taking the train from Five Points to Garnett, he's walking through campus.

So let this be a lesson in writing research for you. If you're writing about real-life places and you're able to visit them, do so. You might avoid some obvious missteps.

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