I have been on my first ever research trip for a work of fiction. Officially it was called a holiday, otherwise my Other Half and travel companion might have objected, but our travel route was, to large extent, determined by my story and what I needed to know about the eastern part of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.
Here’s the thing. My female main character works on the Andaman Coast of Thailand. I know the area fairly well. Her love interest, Nick, is a wildlife photographer and he’s supposed to be somewhere else. The long distance and time apart is a strain in their relationship. I needed him out of the way for long periods of time, but perhaps not on the other side of the globe. So I checked the map, considered where I could put him. Which places did I know well enough to be able to add convincing sensory details to my story?
Sabah stood out. I’ve been there before and I liked it. There’s still a lot of rain forest left and enough wilderness for Nick to fall off the radar while he’s on assignment (to my main character’s great concern. Writers are evil creatures. Good thing we’re taking it out on our characters, not real friends and family. We enjoy overwhelming nice characters with all kinds of shit. When they think they’ve weathered the storm we throw an even worse hurricane in their face. Poor things.).
Hubby was surprisingly easy to convince. We’re Namibian desert rats and used to sand dunes and dry savannas. Dripping wet forests are so exotic and different we simply had to see it. So we traveled to Tabin Nature Reserve, the place I’d plan to base Nick, and we went on our jungle treks.
“Soak it up,” I told myself. “Taste it, sniff it, touch it, breathe it.” I let the others walk ahead and sat down on a trunk watching the dappled sunlight through the canopy, listening to the birds. And it just felt so wrong. The trees in the secondary forest were too small and they had too little moss growing on them. There wasn’t a leech in sight. The track was dry, there wasn’t a drop of water anywhere. The disappointment floored me.
Hubby turned around and came back for me. “What’s up?” he asked.
“This isn’t it. Nick loves his fieldwork area. He wouldn’t like it here.”
Hubby raised his eyebrows and a slightly concerned frown developed. “You know he only exists in your imagination, right?”
“Doesn’t matter. He wouldn’t like it here.”
“Right…” He took a 360 degree turn to absorb it all and sank down on the log next to me. “Honestly, I’m kinda disappointed myself too.”
So we were sitting there, on the trunk, and reality gnawed at me. My story was falling apart. This was the end of it all. No, not really. My my inner drama queen enjoyed making the worst of it.
Back in our bungalow, I was staring blindly at my Scrivener screen wondering what the hell to do now. Because the thing is that, despite that my story is a work of fiction, I prefer to work with settings I have personal experience with. And what to do, when the real deal doesn’t correspond with the imagined location?
I could probably wangle it. Once my drama queen was done ranting I could tuck her away, forget the scenery in Tabin and just go on with things. I could remove the name of the nature reserve and be deliberately vague in my descriptions. Or, I could take a chance and use the name and give myself freedom to add details to the place and hope that none of my future readers have been to Tabin and that they’d blindly accept my descriptions, not questioning the accuracy. There’s a pretty good chance I’d get away with it. Borneo isn’t exactly the center of the world, after all. But the geographer in me, not just the drama queen, objected to this.
So I pulled out the map instead and let my eyes wander over the area that was within reach for us. A few hours drive away there was another nature reserve called Danum Valley. The only accommodation within the park was a luxury resort way above our travel budget.
“Let’s go there,” I said and slided the Lonely Planet across the table to Hubby.
He flinched. “Seriously? One night equals a month pay.”
“We’ll have to eat plain rice for the rest of our trip. Live in dorms. You sure about this?”
“Nick better be worth it. I can’t believe I’m doing this for another guy, real or fictive.” Stern look.
But since he’s the kindest man in the world and used to my stints of madness by now, he eventually went along with it. We counted our coins and packed our bags and headed to Danum Valley. On our way in we promised ourselves we would not sleep while we were there. At that rate each hour was too precious to be spent snoring.
It was the right decision. I knew it the moment I stepped out on the veranda in our fancy bungalow with the private jacuzzi and the whole shebang. Everything was more intense and wilder. The trees were taller, the gibbons were louder and there were orangutans chilling in a fruiting fig tree just five minutes walk away from the lodge. The slopes were steeper, the mud more slippery. The morning mist was so thick we could have sliced it with a knife or spooned it up as drinking water.
“This is it,” I told Hubby.
“You think Nick would like this place?”
“He’d love it.”
“I do too.”
Then the Namibian desert rats turned into crazy monkeys for a little while and went skinny-dipping in the small creek, and if any of the well-mannered guests at the lodge happened to see us I’m sure they’d be appalled. The relief of discovering that Nick’s fieldwork area does indeed exist, just under a different name, was too much to keep inside.
The experience taught me a couple of things.
– I’m a “Write-what-you-know” writer. The personal experience of a place gives me confidence and adds depth to my writing.
– I’m rigid and demand accuracy from myself. Something that is in stark contrast to the freedom we have as writers of fiction. We’re not expected to report the truth, we’re expected to tell stories. Yet, I need to set those stories in scenery I can relate to and describe in detail. It’s how I’m wired. I need to know, in my heart, that this is an honest and real presentation of how I perceive it. The scenery or location is the backbone I need to hold the rest of the story upright. Then I can play around with historical period, characters and the events, but for me the location is the defined framework I create within.
This is probably why I’ll never attempt to write fantasy. Although the Borneoan rain forest is so weird and wonderful it’s perhaps not that farfetched to use it as a backdrop for stories that go beyond contemporary romance (Think Avatar).
– And lastly, I discovered, the hard way, that I’m not Tarzan’s Jane and cannot gracefully swing myself into a shallow creek holding on to a liana. Luckily, bruises fade, like disappointments and reality checks do once you’ve recovered from the initial shock.
Cayenne Michaels in a Norwegian expat living in Namibia. She’s a scuba diving desert rat and a Jack of All Trades, master of…er…none? A couple of years ago she woke up with the crazy idea of writing a book, and she’s been hammering away on the keyboard ever since. It’s a crazy project, a gigantic slice of life type of story and based on the word count it can probably be sold as a brick instead of a book, if it ever get as far as proper book form.