Wednesday, May 21, 2014

8 Details to Notice on a Research Trip

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

I just returned from a book tour. I got to go to Salt Lake City and Phoenix. I've never written a story in Salt Lake, but Phoenix was the home of Eli McShane, who some of you might know as Papa Eli from Captives. When I set out to write that series, I started with a book called Thirst, which was an apocalyptic novel about the Great Pandemic. My main character was Eli and the friends from his youth group, who had been on an outdoor survival trip when the Great Pandemic struck. They returned home and found Phoenix burning and everyone infected with a deadly virus.

During the offers and negotiations for that book and its spin-off Captives, my publisher threw out Thirst and instead bought the dystopian trilogy. And so Thirst never got finished. But I did write about 40,000 words of that story before I found out that the publisher didn't want it. And before those 40,000 words, I spent a lot of hours researching Phoenix.

And I got to go there last week!

I confess, I didn't do too bad on my research, most of which was done online and in emails to relatives who live there. But while I was there last weekend, my senses were on high alert for those details that one can only get when one is standing in that place. So I'm going to share some of my observations with you, mostly about Phoenix, but some Salt Lake City details too.

Stephanie and I have blogged about research trips before. Here is a post Steph wrote about a research trip she went on. And here is a post that I wrote about how to do a research interview. But today, I wanted to give you eight details to notice while on a research trip.

1. Sight
The first thing I noticed about Salt Lake was the mountains all around the city. It reminded me of the mountains in Alaska. It gave the city a majestic feel. The first thing I noticed about Phoenix was that it was bright, brown, and very warm. It got up to 102 the day were were talking at schools. I also noticed that, while Salt Lake City is a big place, Phoenix is bigger. There were a lot of people in Phoenix and a lot of cars on the freeways. Salt Lake was greener: more trees. Salt Lake also seemed to have more space in terms of land in someone's yard, where Phoenix was a little more cramped.

2. Sound
There was plenty to hear on the trip. One big one that stood out to me in Salt Lake on the drive from the airport to my hotel was the ding, ding, ding of the TRAX train while we sat in the car at stoplights. In Phoenix, crickets sang the night away.

3. Smells
When we got to the high school in Phoenix, outside was the sweet smell of alyssum flowers. I didn't know what they were, but Lorie Ann Grover did. So I emailed that detail to myself to add to Thirst if I ever get to go back and finish it.

Also, do you know how it gets when you're someplace really hot and the asphalt smells? Phoenix had that too.

4. The feel
Phoenix was hot. It's the kind of place where you don't go anywhere without a water bottle. And the kind of place where you have to open your car doors to let some air in, when they've been sitting in the sun a while.

5. Tastes
We ate lunch at a Mexican restaurant and had real sopaipillas, which my husband saw on the show Psych and had tried to make just last week. The real sopaipillas were so much better! But, good try, Brad.

6. The people
Both cities had varied demographics, but Phoenix had a bigger Hispanic population. Also, it seemed to me that the people in Phoenix were a little older, while they were overall a little younger in Salt Lake.

7. The buildings
While the majority of homes in Salt Lake were sided in wood, the typical house in Phoenix was stucco with a tile roof. The school in Salt Lake was average to me, but in Phoenix, the students' lockers and the lunch tables were outside. Both places had a downtown area with some fairly tall buildings. Phoenix's downtown was a little bigger. But I had the privilege of doing an event in the Salt Lake Public Library. Check out this building!

Lorie Ann Grover, Lisa T. Bergren, me, and Jonathan Friesen outside

Our escort Jim, inside the library

8. The plants
While Salt Lake City has plenty of trees and forests, Phoenix is a desert filled with palm trees and cactus. Phoenix also has these adorable little barrel cactus that are so soft you can pet them. I guess that's why they're also called petting cactus.

They're so soft!

What state or country do you live in? Give us some details about your home that might be interesting to a writer. You don't have to give all eight, but here are mine.

Eastern Oregon
1. Sight- This is high desert, so there are a lot of small mountains covered in sagebrush. Lots of deer. More cows than people. In fact, cows have the right of way out on our country roads.
2. Sound- Every day at noon, the city fire alarm bell rings, telling us all that it's lunch time!
3. Smells- In winter, you can smell chimney smoke outside since so many burn wood here.
4. Feel- It's usually quite nice here, weather-wise. Dry. Sunny. Rain and snow come rarely. Though if you're down by the river or creek, there are lots of mosquitoes, and you will get bit!
5. Tastes- This is a hunting/ranching town, so lots of people eat venison and their own cows.
6. The people- We look pretty much like everyone else, though there are quite a bit more cowboy boots, cowboy hats, and Wrangler jeans here than in the rest of Oregon.
7. The buildings- Things are old here. Think Old West. Our downtown area has several murals to show our heritage.
8. The plants- While the general area has lots of sagebrush, there are trees here, and it's a short drive up into the mountains to find the forest. This area used to have several mills and did a lot of logging. No more.

Mural in Canyon City, Oregon, not far from where I live.


  1. I'd like to write a story based in Florida. I don't live there but I used to, so it's probably why I like it. :) It's really flat, covered in sand and palm trees, it rains as much as the sun shines (so don't ask me why it is called 'The Sunshine State' :) ). I'll have to think about the eight points... Thanks for the post! And the library looks like it was pretty epic. :D

    1. "I don't live there but I used to, so it's probably why I like it." Totally agree on that. I used to live in Colorado, but I don't now and really miss it. The mind remembers more of the good stuff then the bad, doesn't it? :)

    2. Oh my goodness, does rain way too much here to be called the Sunshine State! I moved here four years ago and that was really strange to me the first year or two.

      There's lots of water sitting around in ponds and things, too...

    3. Those are great details, Naomi!

    4. I've visited there a lot in my life and for some reason I like it a lot. :) A Florida person? Cool! There is a lot of water there....even besides the ocean. :)

    5. Thanks, Mrs.Williamson! :)

  2. Oh how fun! I love learning about different US cities. My goal someday is to visit all 50 states. :) Here's a little bit about where I'm from.

    West Michigan:
    1. Sight: Water is everywhere. From the Grand River that runs right through our downtown, to the fact that we have Lake Michigan only 30 minutes away, you can always spot some body of water. That, and we have a HUGE art scene in this part of the state. We have art pieces all over the place that range from murals, to sculptures, to actual paintings. That's one of my favorite parts about where I live.
    2. Sound: You'll laugh, but over here we have two seasons it seems. Winter and Construction. So, in the summer time, half the time, you'll hear the sounds of construction crews repairing our roads after all the salt they needed to dump on them in the winter time.
    3. I guess I've never really noticed the smells very much. ;-) I do know that when I'm walking downtown that I always smell the water.
    4. Feel. In the winter time it's COLD. I'm talking like, wear three layers plus your winter coat so you look like the Michelin man cold. But, our autumns are awesome. The trees here are exquisite. And we have apple orchards, and cherry orchards, that are just THE BEST PLACE to be in that time of year. :)
    5. Tastes. We like our micro breweries over here. We have 18 of them just in the city that I live in. ;-) We also are famous for our apples and fudge.
    6. The people here are diverse and varied. We've got a strong art scene so you'll see a lot of artsy looking people, business people, college kids, large families, small families. Young and old. All different races. It's diverse here.
    7. Our buildings are new and old. Our downtown is a hub for hospitals, so we have doctors buildings and tall hospitals galore. We also have old looking buildings we'ere trying to bring back to life. We have a hotel that dates all the way back in 1913 and is still one of my most favorite places to be in.

    Thanks for the great post, Jill!

    1. Great job on that list, Clare! Makes me want to write a story in Western Michigan!

  3. West Virginia:

    1. Sight - mountains--the soft, rolling variety, covered in trees, trees, and more trees. Very green.
    2. Sound - there are trains going through the side bordering Cumberland, MD. Otherwise, birds and frogs (at night)
    3. Smell - summer brings honeysuckle, winter woodsmoke
    4. Feel - often quite humid. We have four true seasons here, with summer highs near 100 and winter lows in the single digits, but those are the extremes. Often very, very windy!
    5. Tastes - down home cooking. And as our tea is sweet, I guess we're Southern.
    6. Not very diverse. The majority are WASPs, with a growing population of Hispanics and African American. You'll hear some people with the "country" accent TV would have you associate with WV, but most of us speak accent-free Standard American English
    7. Buildings - we have some dating back pre-Revolution, A LOT of Victorian, and outside of town are a lot of houses built in the 40s onward

    1. Oh, and this time of year, everything is covered in the yellow-green dust of pollen. Everything. Every day. Achew!

    2. Ooh, those are interesting details, Roseanna. Love the pollen detail too. That's great for a story.

  4. Since I spent a lot of time around Lake Chapala this year, that's what you will hear described.

    Sight - The lake is surrounded by what looks like hills, but are really some of the central mountains of Mexico. In the morning the lake is clear, and generally by the afternoon it’s covered in a grey mist/fog that makes it hard to see the other side of the lake. There are farms all along the south edge of the lake. Mostly berry farms covered in white tarps. It’s almost a green desert. If you go to Mazamitla, south of the lake, the scenery changes to involve pine trees and Swiss style buildings.
    Sound - There’s the sound of cars swerving around each other, but no honking, unless there’s a restless gringo nearby.
    Smells - Sometimes you can smell the water, and when it starts to rain, the air is filled with petrichor. In Chapala and Ajijic you can smell the roast chicken stands, and on some streets there’s the tacos. At night, if you’re lucky, you might find a small churro stand.
    Feel - during the winter months it’s a nice temperature during the day, but it’ll drop down to freezing at night since you’re in the mountains. As it nears summer it gets hotter, and even with the lake near by, it’s not very humid.
    Tastes - hot salsa abounds, but the Tres Leche (Three milks) cake and the churros are some of the sweetest things I can imagine.
    The People - There are many gringos on the north side of the lake, occupying Ajijic mostly, but there are a few scattered around the lake. The locals are always friendly and ready to greet you with a large smile that’s infectious.
    The Buildings - The hill tops are covered in large, tile roofed houses, while down towards the shore the streets are lined with cement houses and the occasional brick apartment. Rebar sticks out from the corners and tops of the cement buildings as a way to reduce taxes. They’re always “planning” to add another room.
    The Plants - Thick brush, gnarled trees, and gorgeous flowers that I have yet to see anywhere outside of Mexico.

    1. Mmmm... churro stand. Great details, Danaka! Makes me want to come visit!

  5. The west of the Netherlands! I live in a town called 'Bodegraven'.

    1. Sight: The Netherlands are flat. Just flat. We don't have mountains, especially not in the region where I live. I live between pieces of land called 'polders', which means just a lot of grass with cows and sheep.
    2. Sound: We hear the bells of the church sometimes. And if the wind is in the right direction, we have the noise from the highway as well.
    3. Smell: When the farmers have put fertilizer on the land, it smells not that nice... We also smell when someone is using his barbecue.
    4. Feel: Not too hot, not too cold. Mostly between 5-20 degrees Celsius. In the winter there's sometimes snow and ice, but for example last winter it didn't freeze at all.
    5. Tastes: Dutch people like chocolate (but not me). We also drink a lot of milk and cheese seems to be a typical Dutch product as well. For dinner, we normally eat vegetables with potatoes and meat.
    6. People: Dutch people are... people from abroad say we're down-to-earth (although it's typical Dutch to complain about the weather when it's too hot or too cold - or when it changes too fast), but we also would be noisy and sometimes asocial.
    7. Buildings: Not too old and not too high. We have a lot of houses called 'rijtjeshuizen', (terraced houses), because there live a lot of people in quite a small country.
    8. Plants: Er... Dandelions, trees and a lot of grass. Oh, and tulips, of course ;-)

    So there you are! Welcome to the Netherlands!

    1. LOVED these details! Thank you so much for sharing!

    2. That was great, Arende! I want to come visit! :-)

    3. You're welcome! If you once get the opportunity, let me know and I'll tell you the places you shouldn't miss ;-)

  6. First of all...what a cool idea for what we can share, Mrs. Williamson! Thanks! :)

    Second, I guess I can try to give a few about both places I've lived in my 15 years of existence... ;)

    Raleigh, North Carolina:
    It's been some years since I actually lived there, but here's a few things...the weather is four full seasons, with a winter that is mostly 40s. It snows about twice a year there, and only a few inches each time. Summer is 80s-100, with thunderstorms and sunny days both. Sounds would be birds chirping--lots of them! Smells, well, it depends on the season. Smells like grass in the summer and pollen in the spring, and "crisp" in the fall and winter. Feel is pretty much typical for the seasons, tastes are anything fried, people are...well, southern, buildings are old and new both, and plants are flowering trees, more "mild" flowers, magnolia can't remember plants so well, I suppose!

    But ah, Florida! I live on the west coast of Florida now, and I can tell you all lots about that! ;)

    Florida is...first of all, when people think of Florida, they think of hot. And it is hot. But not alllll the time. It's just hot longer here. From about late April to October/early November. And 100 is a rarity. It's just sticky, as opposed to Arizona and all those western states where it'll get to 115 but it's a dry heat.

    Florida is also wet. There's swampland all over. And palm trees. Palm trees everywhere. And lizards. Yes, people, there are alligators, but they don't bother you unless you bother them. There are also coyotes, rattlesnakes, armadillos, and deer. (I personally have never seen the coyotes or rattlesnakes and hope I never do.) One thing we don't have is songbirds. I miss those. Sounds you hear where I live are water running (from people's pools), airplanes overhead, and cars driving by. Smell is mostly dirt or grass, but sometimes it smells like swamp or sulfur. Feel is usually sticky. Sweltering-sticky in the summer just after it rains, mildly sticky in the mornings, cool and sticky in the "winter"...and so on. And now let's discuss seasons! Someone once joked that Florida does have four seasons--summer, love bug season, hurricane season, and tourist season. Some of these overlap. For instance, summer and hurricane season are almost the same time. Love bugs...if you don't know what they are, Google it. Love bug season is just ending here.

    We don't have fall. I miss that. The few trees that drop leaves do it around March. The funniest thing about Florida is hearing all the wintery Christmas songs when it's 60-70 degrees out.

    Tastes--well, some southern, some not. My dad says the middle of Florida is southern and the edges are Yankee. It's kind of a mix. That goes for people, too. Buildings are quite old in my city, but specifically in my area not so old. Plants are...well, palm trees, ugly green-and-yellow bush things, more palm trees, exotic-looking flowers, and some cactus. Tomatoes and blueberries grow quite well, as do some other vegetables (just don't ask me which ones). And...that's about it, I guess! Hope it's useful to someone!

    1. My sisters joke that Florida has two seasons, green grass season and brown grass season. :) I was just talking about how there are alligators in Florida and one of my friends didn't believe me. Florida is an interesting state.... :)

    2. Great job, Amanda! I've been to Florida, and I still didn't know some of those things. I remember the humidity. And big yellow spiders. *shudders*

  7. I lived in Hawaii for a while. The weather was always warm, but it could rain at an instants notice and yet the sun would shine while it did. There were a lot of double rainbows. Everything plant was very green. The ocean was always a green-blue color, not at all like the atlantic. There were a lot of flowers. There were a lot of Asian people there as well.

    1. The ocean is so beautiful in Hawaii. And I saw a double rainbow when I was there too! I had no idea they happened often. How neat.

  8. great post! I started a story about eight years ago in Northern Michigan and had no idea what it was like so there were a lot of issues in the story with it because i was only familiar with my area of South East Michigan in the city. When I turned 18, I moved to Marquette and it is wayyy different! You can only use google and the stories of others to a point.
    Stories about the Upper Peninsula in Michigan is always a great setting. Here's my sensory observations from living there for a few years now:

    sight: In the heart of town, it is very hilly. The roads are very steep. From any hilltop you can see lake superior and very often a large barge out on the dark water. A few miles away in munising, the water is bright blue with sedimentary red and tan and grey cliffs and caves. In the winter, there is snow EVERYWHERE. Im not kidding, its on a thin peninsula so there is a ton of lake effect snow starting very early in the year--around october all the way through early may. There are also a lot of "mountains"--they're mostly just like really big hills. Deer, rabbits, crows and chipmunks, everywhere! I've also seen a few bald eagles there too. If you go on a bit of a hike, there are a lot of waterfalls, too.

    sound: Its very quiet, surprisingly. Trees rustling. You can hear crows a lot--they're the most obnoxious thing there. The water is fairly calm unless it is storming where they can get big and loud. The wind can get pretty howl-y in the winter and spring. The waterfalls can be anywhere from small drippy little ploppy things to giant roaring, thundering beasts.

    smell: fresh. Faint pine sent in a lot of places. On the beach it can get a little fishy depending on where you are at. On the muddy backroads it can get a little decay scented from rotting wood.

    feel: very warm on your face in the summer, on some days it can get humid and muggy and feel kind of sticky. In the winter the harsh wind can bite your face and make your eyes hurt and your lips crusty and dry.

    taste: light and airy all year round.

    people: There are three kinds of people who live in marquette, your typical camo wearing, truck driving " 'murica!" hunter type fellows with big grumbly truck with smoke stacks, college kids who come from all over the midwest--lots who are kind of "one with the earth" type kids who like to hike and write folk songs and grow long beards, and (typically older) Finnish immigrants who have been there for generations. They say things like "don' cha know, eh?" (think minnesota mom) The accent is very specific--kind of like the moose from brother bear.

    buildings: aside from the college campus, the town has amazing tudor style buildings. Big brick houses with turrets and lots of cool history. Eternally trapped in the early 1900s.

    plants: Lots and lots and lots of pine trees. Still considered a mixed forest between coniferous and deciduous trees. Not a whole lot of open fields and such. On the beach there is a lot of thick prickly grasses.

    1. I used to live in Marquette, when I was very little. I was born in Ishpeming. :-) I remember nothing of Michigan, so thanks for the beautiful glimpse into my toddler years, Natalie!

  9. Great post, Jill! I love the idea of sharing all the different places. I've lived in NW Ohio all my life, and in a small town for about the past 8 years.
    Sight: The land is flatter than imaginable. When you get up on an overpass on a highway, you can easily see five miles. There are miles upon miles of soybean and cornfields, interspersed with wheat or tomato fields. The country roads are mostly very straight, and evenly spaced between the fields. It's essentially a drained out swamp, so there are 3-5 foot deep drainage ditches on the side of most country roads. The roads have very narrow berms, which makes driving nerve wracking. There are drainage ponds all over and the soil is dark and rich. The nuclear power plant can be seen for dozens of miles. The lake is gorgeous and about half an hour away.
    Sound: It changes all year. In the winter, it is very quiet, except when the wind is (literally!) howling off Lake Erie at upwards of 30 miles an hour. Then all the trees creak. In the summer, the same wind rustles the leaves and birds sing everywhere. The roar of the highway is never too distant, and if the wind blows from the right direction, you can hear the semis as they go over the overpasses. In late summer, the crickets and cicadas sing all night.
    Smell: In spring, it is damp and earthy. The smell of rain is never too far away, and flowers make the air almost too sweet. Summer smells like fresh cut grass slowly baking in the sun. If you go up to the lake on a hot day, it smells like fish and water (don't know how else to describe it). The fall smells like fallen leaves and the crops, very earthy. In the winter, you can smell the smoke from the butcher's shop down the road.
    Feel: From May to September, it is almost constantly humid. It feels like you're wading through a wet blanket and it's hard to sweat. In early spring and most of fall, it is damp and rainy, the type that soaks into your bones. In winter, the wind howls and slices through you. If you go out and it's snowing on a windy day, it feels like your face is getting sandblasted. Thunderstorms roll up suddenly in the summer, and it feels like you can jump into the wind and fly.
    Taste: Our region was settled by a lot of German immigrants. Potatoes, sauerkraut, and beef are popular. Homemade, hearty American food (barbeque, mashed potatoes, etc.) are popular, too. We have a lot of migrant workers near where I live, so Mexican food has become increasingly popular as well.
    People: During the summer, it's not uncommon to hear a bit of Spanish flying around. Otherwise, mostly very German people who can't tan to save their life (me included). We have MANY farmers, so if you can tan, you end up with a farmer's tan. You see plaid almost everywhere, and it's not strange to see camoflauge. Almost everyone has a pickup truck or old beater car, but there are some nice ones, too. Lots of people wear ball caps in the summer to keep the sun off their faces.
    Buildings: Everything from the town's original log cabin to a modern subdivision. Lots of old brick houses. The downtown area is essentially a row of old-style connected buildings on either side of the street.
    Plants: The endless fields are interspersed with stands of (mostly) deciduous trees. A lot of them are dead--ash trees destroyed by the emerald ash borers of a few years ago. Near the lake, it turns into scrubby grasses. There are some wildflower meadows and places where they are restoring the original marshes.
    Animals: Deer galore! Everyone drives with their brights on at night. We have a lot of migratory birds like egrets and herons that go fishing in the river. We also have a lot of songbirds, sparrows, squirrels, and rabbits. It's not uncommon to smell or see (one walked right down the sidewalk in front of my house one morning!) a skunk in the morning, or to see a bald eagle flying over the river. Ground hogs and chipmunks are easy to find, too.

    1. Wow! Great job, Rachel. You all are making me want to come and visit you. :-)

  10. Thanks for sharing, everyone! I love hearing about other places! (And I realized I forgot to mention that where I live in Florida, there are LOTS of Hispanic people. Depending on the neighborhood/area you'll hear more Spanish than English!)

  11. Colorado:
    1. Sight: you can see Pikes Peak from pretty much anywhere, usually with snow on the top. You can see antelope, cows, and horses in fields along the roads sometimes. Garden of the gods is pretty: big red rocks. We have lots of brown and green, and a good amount of trees.
    2. Sound: at my house, you can hear dogs barking almost all the time. Sometimes we hear the marching band from the nearby high school practicing, and sometimes we hear their bells. Traffic noises too.
    3. Smell: fresh and cool after rain. I don't know what else!

    Got to go, maybe do the rest later!

    1. I love that marching band detail, Katie. That's awesome.