Kim Harrison, author of the Rachel Morgan novels, created a fantastical road trip for the latest book, Pale Demon. And to research her story, she actually traveled across the country. Here's her story of a fantasy roadtrip gone wrong... in a good way.
Ask an author what their favorite perk of the job is, and they might tell you it's taking vacations to exotic locations under the flag of research-which makes me wonder why I didn't set the Hollows (where my novels are located) in Australia or London instead of, ah, Cincinnati.
Don't get me wrong. I love Cincy, with her damp, forgotten subway, the late 19th century history of grave robbing, and the period architecture fit for a city that was once the fourth-largest in the United States. What better place to set a crime-solving team of supernaturals? But after eight books in the same streets, I needed new vistas for Pale Demon. My main character, Rachel, also needed some time to figure things out, and what better way than a blue Buick going west with a vampire riding shotgun and a wealthy elf grumbling in the back seat that Mickey-D's was not an acceptable lunch stop?
My husband dared me, and I called his bluff, buying a plane ticket home in exchange for the promise of his driving the entire way from Cincy to San Francisco, following the path my character would take-minus the assassins and demons. (Mostly.) I had little more than a rough idea of how I was getting Rachel to the annual witches' convention to clear her name, but I figured an actual road trip would help.
I have a funny relationship with research. I do zero on the magic, making everything up based on fantasy books that I had read as a child. It's the location that speaks to me: the rise of the land, how thick the air is when the sun rises, the smell of the dirt. It colors the pages in ways that are hard to explain.
St. Louis was the first stop, its famous arch giving me the oddly dissimilar sensation of trapped freedom. The arch is the gateway to the west, an opening, the start of great potential. But that tiny little elevator and the cramped room at the top gave me the overpowering sense of being trapped. Both feelings found their way to the pages, and might be why I simply had to trash the arch in effigy. It was a lot of fun in retrospect, and a forgone conclusion from the conflicting sentiments that the actual St. Louis arch instilled.
The Petrified Forest in Arizona was something that I've wanted to see ever since I was twelve and pored over it in my geography book. I'll admit it—I'm a sucker for odd science! The calcified remains of once-flourishing life, now exposed by water running too fast to be caught, and surrounded by nothing but rock and dust left me with the heady feelings of forgotten power, and of waiting. Add in the far horizon and the light in the sky you only see with wide spaces and wind that doesn't remember being asked to stop . . . and a feeling of loss joins that sensation of forgotten, latent power.
Again, the emotions that I pulled from actually standing upon the location found their way into Pale Demon. A member is lost, found, and rescued in that same ancient forest. . . leaving Rachel with the undeniable imprint on her soul that there is power there, power that I simply have to touch on in later books. I'm not done with the American desert yet. But now I have to go back for more than a week.
Las Vegas struck me as being the knot at the end of the rope-still in the desert but holding on to a paper-thin layer of life through the ingenuity of man. The angels at the Hoover Dam were impressive, demanding more page time then I could give them, so they unfortunately never made it into the book. The strip, though, I distilled down to one restaurant. Frantic passion would be the words I'd use to describe Las Vegas-intense and hard to control-and I'm not talking sexual passion, but passion of the need in all its many shades. So of course I simply had to burn down Margaritaville.
San Francisco, unfortunately, did not make it to our family vacation—ah, research trip, but I'd been there enough on previous book tours to have a feel for its strength, one born both in cement and the flexible minds of those who live there. You can almost feel it when you walk the streets, whether on the cement hill or the touristy waterfront. It was a natural place to set the climax of Pale Demon, and I carried the strength and flexibility of San Francisco into the pages, both of which were needed for Rachel to survive.
Rachel flew home to Cincinnati by way of a specially chartered, low-flying jet, battered, bruised, and with a new understanding of her place in the world. Me? I flew home with a notebook of ideas, all flavored with the taste of the wind, the sound of wide horizons, the feel of the dirt between my fingers.
Next time, though? Rachel's going to the Bahamas.