by Isabella Maldonado
I’m not a native New Yorker. Not even a transplant. In fact, I had only visited NYC a handful of times when the bright idea occurred to me to set my new series there. After all, it’s our nation’s most populous city and there’s always a lot going on. Plus, I had fallen in love with the city.
What could go wrong?
In the past, I’ve set my books in cities I’m very familiar with. That doesn’t buy me a pass from conducting research, but it shaves off several hundred hours of serious online deep dives and rabbit holes.
Upon reviewing the first draft of the new novel, one of my editors pointed out that since millions of people live in or visit New York City, chances were high that even the tiniest errors would be detected and called out. Yikes.
Time to hop on a plane and do some serious boots-on-the-ground research. In addition, I needed native guides to set me straight. It turns out that even the most innocuous details that would be obvious to a New Yorker had pitfalls for my plot.
Here’s an example: I had toyed with the idea that someone could dispose of a body in a dumpster. My native New Yorker friends instantly put the kibosh on that:
“There are no dumpsters in the city.”
“What are you talking about? What do you all do with your garbage?”
“We bag it and put it on the sidewalk.”
“That’s insane. How does anyone use the sidewalks?”
“The bags are picked up on a schedule. Besides, how could anyone use the sidewalks if they were clogged with gigantic dumpsters 24/7?”
I heaved a sigh and deleted the part of the plot that involved a dumpster. Next, I came up with a new idea that involved an abduction in the bowels of a subterranean parking garage. Again, the notion was met with a verbal smackdown:
“There aren’t any parking garages like that in the city.”
“You’re kidding. Where does everyone park their cars? It’s not like they have houses with driveways.”
“They either park on the street in front of their building, or they use a multi-level garage where you drop off your car and the attendant parks it for you.”
“You have to use the attendant?”
“Yep. The cars are stacked in cubicles so they have to park them. You can’t be in a hurry to get your car when you get there. That’s why a lot of people don’t own cars. They use public transportation, taxis, or they walk.”
I had to completely rework the plot to have the abduction take place in New Jersey (after a drive through the Holland Tunnel).
Creating an atmospheric read involves honoring the locale by putting in the work. For me, that meant personally walking and riding through every place I planned to use. It also meant finding workarounds used by actual residents or scrapping my ideas in favor of something that would fit.
I took video of the place where I set the opening chase scene as I walked it, narrating the whole time. That included describing my surroundings while I went into the subway and through the turnstiles. Fortunately, New Yorkers are too busy to pay attention to a kooky lady holding her cell phone up and talking to herself.
I also stood outside the FBI field office at 26 Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan, fondly known as “26 Fed” by those who work there, to get firsthand information about the building (for example, employees enter through the side of the building while visitors use the front). My FBI contact assured me that my behavior in recording and photographing the premises would have gotten me noticed by those inside. Fortunately, I’m sure if they ID’ed me using their high-tech gadgetry and did a background check, they quickly discovered that I’m just a harmless writer and not a threat to national security.
I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to travel to do research. There’s nothing like being there and taking in the sights, smells, pace, sounds, and feel of a locale. Each venue has its own vibe, and capturing it for the reader is a tough job. Now, if I can just figure out how to get one of my detectives to Paris, Venice, or Rio de Janeiro…
Do you have a favorite series or book that transports you to a different place?