Friday, May 11, 2012


by Sheila Connolly

On my return trip from the recent writers conference Malice Domestic, I spent a day prowling around Philadelphia, doing "research."

I write a series set in Philadelphia.  I lived and worked in the area for almost 20 years of my adult life, including at three different jobs in Center City, as well as when I was a child.  I know a lot about the city, past and present.  But there are many things I never paid attention to.

As writers, we try to create a micro-world that will both captivate and convince our readers.  It's not enough to throw in a random detail about a place, which looks too much like you've been sitting at your desk reading travel books and Wikipedia descriptions rather than wandering around the real place.  You have to weave the details into the story so that it doesn't sound like a tourist brochure. (And don't forget, there will always be a few natives of your location who will write to tell you that a certain street doesn't run north-south, or that the building you so carefully described was demolished ten years ago.)

So I gave myself a refresher tour.  First I stopped at the gravesite of Edwin Forrest (1806-1872), one of America's first, great, native-born actors (think mega-superstar of the 19th century), who is central to my next book. I've known about him for years, and once wrote a pamphlet about him when I was employed at an historical society, but most people have never heard of the man (makes you wonder how George Clooney will be remembered in 2100).

Then I went hunting for the Philadelphia FBI office, since one of my central characters is an FBI agent.  It's housed in the federal building near Independence Hall. And I checked out the central police station, which my protagonist visits periodically.  I contented myself with taking pictures (nobody questioned me about that), since walking into either and chatting with people would have taken more time that I had. Because I use these sites regularly in the series, I wanted to know how far apart they were, and how far from other pivotal locations—call it a reality check. I also paid attention to parking availability (have you ever wondered where FBI agents and police detectives stash their cars in a major city, near enough to headquarters to be retrieved quickly?).

I looked at Center City neighborhoods—which ones are on their way up, which ones in decline, and where the transitions are.  I looked at locations of hospitals (in case I needed an emergency room, which I do in the next book). I looked at who was on the streets and what they were doing (quick answer:  talking on cell phones, regardless or age or race or gender). I looked at general conditions—for example, trash on the streets (not much), vacant lots and shuttered buildings.  
I revisited some much loved landmarks, such as the Reading Terminal Market  and the Down Home Diner inside, which I have already used in a book, and where I ate my first cheese-steak.  Yes, gentle readers, in 20 years in Philadelphia I never ate a real cheese-steak. I have now corrected that significant defect.
It's hard to say now whether I love Philadelphia because I spent so much of my life in or near it, or whether I made a point of returning there to work as an adult because I already loved it.  I was once part of the city's financial advisory team, which helped saved the city from bankruptcy, and which also assisted in obtaining financing for the convention center there.  Because of that I had access to a lot of information that most people will never see, so you could say that I know the city from the inside out—or did, almost twenty years ago. I've met the last four mayors, one of whom went on to be governor.
I ended my day at the Water Works, which is the site of a crucial scene in the next book.  I had never visited the Water Works, and its 20th-century status has been sketchy.  There are many pictures available on-line, and non-photo images dating back two centuries (yes, it's that old).  I thought I had roughed out the staging for my chapter, but when I got there I realized that what I had planned wouldn't work, but an even better option presented itself—something I wouldn't have considered if I hadn't been standing there. 
Philadelphia Water Works (with the Art Museum behind)
Nothing matches seeing a place yourself.  As a writer, you have to stop your hurried march from Point A to Point B and really look around to capture details.  Anybody can write "the street was lined with small shops," but you have to be present to say, "Jewelers Row had long since spilled over its original street, and now several blocks were crammed with tiny shops offering wares ranging from cut gems the size of pigeon's eggs to mass-produced tourist charms of the Liberty Bell."
Besides, I love this kind of research!


Leslie Budewitz said...

Nice post, Sheila! I've loved my brief trips to Philadelphia. You've illustrated neatly how site visits deepen both description and the story itself. (And gave me a couple of ideas for places to use in my own series, despite the very different setting!)

Susan Oleksiw said...

We used to live in Philadelphia (and I went to Penn and stayed on afterward), and whenever I go back I always look for the changes--and sometimes they're hard to miss. The college where my husband worked has merged and all but disappeared, and favorite dinner sites are gone. But the museum and the parkway, with their festivals, seem to be still there. I'll look forward to your next book.