NOTE: This post originally appeared on Novel Travelist on 26 Oct 2013. Sadly, Novel Travelist is going away. I’m reposting here so the information will live on after that site disappears.
In my international thriller Doha 12, assassins follow Our Heroes Jake Eldar and Miriam Schaffer to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. There, the bad guys launch an ill-prepared attempt to kill Jake and Miriam, which devolves into a three-way shootout running the length of the terminal. This is one of the major set-piece scenes, and because the place is so familiar to a large number of people in the Philly metro area, I wanted to get the setting right.
One problem: like most indie writers, I’m not working on an advance. All travel and research is completely on my own dime. I needed to do as much research as I could for free, since I had no idea when or whether I’d ever get to Philadelphia to check out the place in person.
Whenever I select a setting for a scene, I try to harvest as many high-quality pictures I can from as many angles as possible. Google Images is perfect for this; put in your search term, and you get back a flood of photos from all manner of sources, including Flickr, newspapers, TV, and so on. If you do this, keep crawling through the results; the farther in you get, the more offbeat the sources.
- Train enthusiast websites had close-up pictures of the Amtrak information desk and board, and shots of the arrival platforms.
- An advertising firm showed an ad placement it had done in the main hall.
- Someone thought to take a snap of a women’s restroom.
- Another traveler had been there at Christmas (the shootout happens in early December), so I got much-needed pictures of the decorations, including the giant, perfectly conical tree at the east end of the concourse.
At the end of this process, I had a big collection of still photos, but no good idea how the place goes together. I’d found only one small, blurry floorplan on the Amtrak site. From that and basic photointerpretation skills (I used to be in intel), I constructed a reasonable plan for the concourse; everything else was a guess.
Next, I turned to video. YouTube offered up 23,000 hits on “philadelphia 30th street station.” Here’s where the weird diversity of the Internet truly came into play. There were tons of trainspotting videos; after digging through these, I found the one I needed: an end-to-end video taken in a NJ Transit commuter train going from Cherry Hill (NJ) Station to 30th Street – exactly the route Our Heroes take. I found videos taken by people walking through the concourse (note to future videographers: whip pans are lousy to watch), waiting for pickup outside, a flash mob dancing in the concourse, and a guided tour of the station at Christmas courtesy of a Philly yoga enthusiast. I plowed through a lot of truly awful videos (too dark/too bright/out of focus/taken during an earthquake), keeping the links for the ones that were the most helpful.
The videos showed me (a) how people move through the space, (b) what you can see from where, and (c) some of the ambient sounds (note to future videographers: shut up and let the location speak for itself). I still didn’t have a good floorplan, though. I used the videos to refine the less-than-wonderful one I’d been able to scratch together, then forged ahead and wrote the scene.
A couple months passed. During an editing session, I decided to see if anything new had surfaced on the web. Lo and behold, the website Metro Jacksonville (Florida!) had posted an essay on the Amtrak Keystone Corridor train service, holding it up as an example for Jacksonville transit. The post included a reproduction of 30th Street’s visitor directory. Not only was it a clear, accurate floorplan, but it told which vendors were in each of the commercial spaces. Eureka!
It also showed that beyond the concourse, my cobbled-together floorplan was mostly wrong.
I dragged this treasure into Photoshop and did some measuring. The real concourse is 135’ wide by 290’ long. The map concourse was 177 pixels wide by 352 pixels long. With a bit of fudging, I was able to lay down a 9’ (three-stride) grid on the map concourse. I could finally measure distances and sizes throughout the terminal, time out how long it would take my characters to move from place to place, estimate how far they could shoot and what they could hide behind. I rewrote the scene using this new information and hoped it was good enough.
Fast-forward to October 2011. Through a series of circumstances I won’t bore you with, I got to go to D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City. A few days before Halloween, I found myself standing in the concourse of the real 30th Street Station.
First, it’s a tremendously strange feeling to finally be in a place you’ve known only through photos. (Going to the Parthenon felt exactly the same way: damn, it really looks like the pictures.) Secondly, it’s very strange to go someplace you’ve never been and know exactly where everything is. I spent the next ninety minutes roaming the station, taking pictures and making notes. I traced the steps my characters ran, took cover behind the obstacles they used, checked the sightlines, confirmed which windows would get hit by the missed shots. I have no doubt I’m now on some Amtrak Police watchlist for all the suspicious things I did that morning. What kind of law-abiding citizen takes pictures while crouched behind a bench?
The upshot? I had to make only minor adjustments to the action. What I’d pasted together off the Internet turned out to be about 95% right. The other 5% involved the passage of time and the tricks camera play: signs and trash cans had moved, some of the stores had changed out, and the half-walls around the stairs leading to the tracks were lower than they looked (or I’d been measuring them against short people). I took notes and made these tweaks when I got home without causing another rewrite.
I also used this research method for some of Doha 12’s other settings, such as the Manhattan Diamond District, Central Park East’s Temple Emanu-El, and Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. It worked time and again. Still, there are limits. Photo lighting isn’t always normal lighting; some places are darker or lighter in real life. You can’t feel the air temperature (chilly in the station), and until online Smell-o-Vision happens, you can’t get the ambient smells (cleaners and donuts in the station). This wasn’t a major drawback in my case. However, if your scene is set in a Kolkata meat market, the missing information may be crucial.
The take-home lesson: just because you don’t have an advance doesn’t mean you can’t accurately describe a setting in your writing. Another bonus: you can surf for hours and call it “research.”