Friday, November 4, 2011

Radical Departure: Book Research Trip to San Francisco

Vintage jukebox, Mel’s Diner - Lombard St., San Francisco
© 2011 by Joyce Mason
All Rights Reserved

People say “write what you know.” That includes where you know. Unfortunately for me, the goings-on in my mystery novel could only take place in San Francisco. It hardly broke my heart to realize I’d need a research trip to the city!

I left my heart in San Francisco long ago with apologies to Tony Bennett. In fact, I heard an interview of him on NPR en route about his wildly popular Duets II album. Tony’s one of my models of cool aging, getting his first number-one album at 85—very encouraging to someone starting her career as a novelist as a supplement to her Social Security and pension. Tony is the oldest living artist to debut at number one on Billboard 200. One of his duets in the album was with Amy Winehouse, shortly before her death. I heard them sing “Body and Soul” together and Tony’s touching tribute to her.

My birth mom lived in San Francisco, and for the fifteen years between our reunion in 1986 and her passing in 2001, I spent considerable time with her there. She lived in the 700 block of California Street near the edge of Chinatown. Her neighborhood was remarkably colorful, right on the cable car line. Even though I have my share of SF impressions, they’re a decade old or older—and they’re not in the neighborhoods and places where my characters have decided to live and hang out.

I was going to SF anyway to a Rick Tarnas workshop on the Astrology of Rock ‘n’ Roll. One of my astrologer friends agreed to be my local color consultant and to join me for dinner and questions on living in SF. We ate at Mel’s on Lombard Street, which was quite a treat on Halloween weekend. Kids were in costume, the place was lively, and we found one of those true rarities in the City by the Bay—a parking space. The vintage jukeboxes and teens playing dress-up seemed like the perfect transition from a discussion of the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll to my futuristic costume party. Linea has over 30 years’ experience of living in the city, and she answered all my pressing questions. The rest, I’d have to see for myself the next day to be able to write from sensory recall.

I made a point of staying in the neighborhood where my protagonist Micki Michaels lives. It’s rare for me to get a night alone unwinding, something I’m finding that’s as essential to the creative process as the writing itself. TV is my solace for getting out of my head, and the more mindless the programs, the better. I was tuned into TV-Land and old episodes of Hot in Cleveland and Everybody Loves Raymond. I had only watched Hot once before, and I became a fan that night. How could I resist with an ensemble cast that includes four actresses I love? Betty White, Jane Leeves (Daphne on Frasier), Wendie Mallick and Valerie Bertinelli. I had never watched Raymond much, and I got a vicarious trip to Italy in one of the episodes, not to mention a reminder of how all families are dysfunctional—it’s just a matter of degree.

I spent Sunday driving around the various ‘hoods, paying attention to details that would to lend authenticity to my prose.  Getting the feel of the place my protagonist lived and worked was essential for me, and it also helped me refrain from making a number of mistakes based on assumptions about places I barely knew. Monday there were rewrites!

Visuals help. I took a lot of pictures and used specific houses and properties as models for my fictional versions.  I spent a tiny bit of time enjoying Union Street, starting with brunch at La Boulange which knocked me out for the high quality and presentation of their food. I found a holiday gift at the Enchanted Crystal. This was a treat in contrast to driving the streets of San Francisco like a taxi driver for the rest of the day.

But I did accomplish my mission! I had dinner with a friend in Berkeley on the way home and came back with a new perspective on the backdrop of my novel.

I’m in the stretch with 60 percent written and just under three weeks to go till my mail-in date for the contest. Fortunately, I’m at a place where I can borrow about half of the material from the previous version of the book while interlacing the changes to the plot and ending.

My biggest challenge of the moment is fighting the flu. Keep me in your positive thoughts and intentions! My confidence in getting the job done on time vacillates, though I know it’s doable. It’s more about my faith to keep myself together to do it.

The best part of it all is the writing itself. There’s nothing like being a channel of the Creative All. I have no idea where it comes from, I just enjoy being the first one to see it and the messenger to share it.


Photos by Joyce

Liz's photo © Andy Johnson

Winner of the October Comment Contest!  Congratulations to Liz Jasper, winner of last month’s comment contest on The Radical Virgo. Liz is a sister writer, an award-winning author of paranormal mysteries and young adult novels. Check out her linked website! And if you're having a hard time letting go of Halloween, don't miss her Underdead and Underdead In Denial. Liz won a copy of Capital Crimes: 15 Tales by Sacramento Area Authors. My short story, Digital, is included with its share of gallows humor and scenes in a funeral parlor. The Halloween theme just keeps on giving!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yay! I won I won! And, I'm holding back from saying, "I'm rich! I'm rich! I'm socially acceptable!" Oops, guess I didn't hold back too well on that. Daffy Duck made me say it!