By Hugh Gilmore
January 21, 2008. When I said last week that I had finished my novel, I meant to say I "finished" it. That is, I had written the final scene: Some gunshots. Then one last shot. I know who fired the gun and at whom it was fired (a surprise choice) and why the gun was fired. I know the consequences for the four men and two women in the room at the time. I know what the person who fired the shot said just before pulling the trigger, and where the shot person's body fell — a rather iconic slump, if I do say so myself. That's what I meant when I said I finished my novel.
But lots of other problems still remain. For example: My story is set in Ann Arbor, Michigan, both in the town and on the campus of the University of Michigan. It takes place in 1985.
I'd like it to be set in 2008, but I'm not able to go live in Ann Arbor for a while to get a renewed feel for the place. I lived there, as a faculty member, from 1979 to 1982. For most of that time I was single and I roved the night scene in a way that husbands and daddies do not, or should not. 1985 was as far forward as I dared project the story.
The story takes place during three days in May, dates still not determined. I want the action to occur during the break between the end of the regular spring semester and the first of the summer sessions. The town needs to be quieter and not quite as bustling as it is during the regular school year. I'm guessing, say, May 20-23? I need to research this.
Here's why: Part 2 of the story opens with this sentence:
"When Klaus awoke the next morning, his body felt renewed and eager to take action. Though it was only _?_ bright sunlight lined the edges of his dark green curtains."
That question mark is there because I need this Klaus guy to get up, try to have breakfast, but suffer an enormous conscience attack, rationalize his behavior from last night, and then drive 25 miles to a flea market where he is to meet two shysters at 8 o'clock. What time should he wake up—if I still want the luxury of writing "bright sunlight lined the edges of his dark green curtains"?
With the luxury of Google at my fingertips, I typed in the search space: "Time of sunrise/sunset Ann Arbor Michigan 1985." And what I received from timeanddate.com/worldclock/astronomy was Sunrise/Sunset/Astral Noon times for any day of the year between 2029 and 1989. 1989 is not 1985, but close enough in sidereal time, so I picked May 22 and noted that the sun rose at 6:07 AM and set at 8:56 PM.
So, don't you think we can allow bright sunlight to gather at the edges of the curtains and then awaken Klaus at about 6:45 AM and still get him to Saline, Michigan by 8 AM? After my research, I plugged that time into the blank I'd left. A small detail, to be sure, but in this case, one that also affects a scene from the night before.
The hero/protagonist of the book is named Brian Berrew (a play on the name Brian Boru, a celebrated Irish King from a millennium ago). Brian went to a movie that started at 9 PM. On his way there, just as darkness was descending, on a heavily tree-lined street, he noticed and interrupted a burglary in process. In this scene, it is important that it be too dark to see details, but light enough to see silhouettes. Luckily, the world clock data fit, so an 8:45 burglary interruption works just fine.
If you have the sense that I enjoy this aspect of writing a novel, I do. One of most enjoyable tasks I had was to assign cars to people. Klaus drives a black Mercedes whose diesel engine's loudness provides a clue. Brian Berrew drives a 1978 Volkswagen Kharmann Ghia. He is single (divorced), has very little money, but enjoys the "poor man's sports car." The bad guys, Claudell and Patrick, tool around in Patrick's big 1977 Pontiac Grand Prix. With just about everyone in Ann Arbor being eco-conscious, this gas guzzler is a brazen announcement that these two guys are not interested in the Rotary Club's "Man of the Year" award. There are others: the poor, plodding detective drives a city-assigned Ford Tempo; Carmella the Luscious, whose looks would make her a Gina Lollobrigida rival, drives a sensible Dodge Colt.
All these cars had to be researched to make sure that the manufacturer still made those specific models in a certain year, or that, for example, the car's trunk was big enough to carry a certain quantity of loot after a burglary.
During the writing of the book I also entertained myself by collecting images of Ann Arbor landmarks, characters you'd be likely to see on the street ("Shaky Jake" was a fixture for years, as was the haranguing "Dr. Diag," and the shrieking "Crazy Mary.") Also, the names and characters of local bars, diners, bookstores, super markets and local gas station franchises. I bought several maps of Ann Arbor, and frequently consulted Google Earth. If someone runs down a street, climbs over a fence, runs across a field, and hops in a car parked on a side street, I'm fairly confident a reader could use my book as a guide.
But not always. Certainly not when it gets in the way of my story. For example, while there are several flea markets in the vicinity of Ann Arbor, I moved the market I know best (in Perkiomenville, Pennsylvania) out there to Saline, Michigan and called it "Perky's." I'm doing the work, so I can set the pieces on Mr. Potato Head any way I want.
Mostly I do the research because it's fun. It also can lead to new story lines, or sharpen the ones I'm working. Last, but certainly not least, I work on this part because I dread the thought of some critic reading the book and saying, "Mill Creek doesn't run East-West; it runs North-South." That's it. No comment on plot, character, theme, story, dialogue or worthiness. Just an obsession with the literal truth of the novel.