What does a writer do when she can’t visit the place she’s writing about?
A lot, as it happens. Alter Ego takes place on Earth, and while I’m familiar with many of the real-world settings, I haven’t visited them all. I wrote the majority of it long before the ability to travel diminished for so many of us, but my personal ability to travel was hampered by a student budget, shortly followed by a young-family budget.
Not one to be discouraged, I decided to forge ahead with my plan to write about a superhero with a celebrity persona. Living in Malibu. Where I’d never been. As I saw it, the exploration of celebrity, masks, and the like probably wouldn’t be much enhanced even if I did have a chance to take a bus tour past Orlando Bloom’s mansion. (Note: I don’t know that he owns a house in Malibu, but as I said, we’re here for the spirit of the thing.)
Still, I’ve spent very limited time in Los Angeles. Even with friends who live there and are kind enough to answer millions of questions, writing a car chase through Santa Monica posed an extra challenge.
About halfway through Alter Ego, Eloise (a secondary main character in the series, and one of my favorites) grabs a motorcycle and takes off after a van of escaping bad guys. She then chases them through Santa Monica, a place I’ve never visited — though presumably at least some of my readers have.
Thank you, Google Maps.
It sounds like a simplistic solution, I know, but it truly is an excellent tool.
First, I used the street view in Google Maps to follow El’s route down Santa Monica Boulevard. I wanted to put myself in her place, and imagine what her surroundings would be like. Not that the book needs to name every real-life laundry list of details (especially with Eloise streaking by so fast) but a feel of the place is key. I lived in New York City for ten years, and I still hate it when a show or movie gets the gist of the city wrong.
So I continued along my street-level tour of Eloise’s route, and I’ll admit I was pretty giddy to find the Third Street Promenade: a pedestrian market street that intersects with Santa Monica Boulevard. What better place for a fan full of bad guys to wreak havoc?
If you’ve read the book, you’ll know I made very particular use of the vendor stands dotted along the promenade. (This is actually a spoiler for the book, so I’ll refrain from explaining.) Even though I couldn’t visit Santa Monica in person, I was able to take inspiration from the actual place. Isn’t technology grand? Bumpy cobblestones, busy cafes, the smell of designer boutiques. It’s there, even when I’m not.
I plotted Eloise’s route along the map, and I followed it on the street view so I could have her accurately chase her mark off the pedestrian mall and down to the beach. I also looked up pictures of Santa Monica to get a feel of the place from different angles and at different times of day.
And if I got the city wrong in any way, well, that’s just because Alter Ego presents a fantastical version of Earth. Any mistakes were totally intentional. Yup. 🙂
But what else goes into a car chase? Surely that’s not all…
This part was even more fun. I watched car chases.
I regularly study movie fights and martial-arts demonstrations for action scenes, so I figured the idea would translate. I thought about the length of the scenes and how it might translate to the novel, how to make sure the action sequence stayed character-centered, and what kinds of complications arise.
Novels aren’t typically suited to explosions, acrobatics, or the kinds of flash-and-bang effects that movies can pull off — not unless the character remains at the center. Still, I assembled lists of action verbs and brainstormed ideas to make it interesting.
Some of my favorite car chases show up in: Black Panther, Ant-Man, and Blues Brothers (classic!).
The car chase ended up as one of my favorite chapters in the book. Maybe I’ll write another one someday.
Fun fact: I actually added the car chase chapter late in the game. I usually write linearly, but when I reread the book, I felt Eloise’s perspective needed more development. Without this scene, she doesn’t have much of a chance to demonstrate her superpowers, which are central to the plot of the series.
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