Thursday, May 11, 2017

Throwback Thursday: Locations Real and Imagined, and Sometimes Both

Although I write fiction, I like grounding my stories in real locations. My Firsts and Forever Series is set in San Francisco because it’s a city I know well. I lived right in the heart of it for five years in the 1990s, and even though a lot of time has passed, I love the fact that it’s still so familiar whenever I go back for a visit. 
Every now and then, I do make up a location, such as Villadembursa in Sicily. That’s the town where Nana Dombruso was born, and where she, Jessie and Nico went on vacation in All I Believe. I did actually research the coast of Sicily extensively before writing that book, but since I was making up its history, I didn’t want to use a real town. 

And occasionally, I send my characters to a real place I have yet to visit. That was the case with the Old Faithful Inn and Yellowstone National Park. I wrote about it in Coming Home, book nine in my Firsts and Forever Series, and I did a lot of research before I sent Chance, Finn, Colt and Elijah there. I studied the lodge in detail from photographs and watched videos of Old Faithful geyser and the surrounding environment. I even looked up menus for the dining room. It was important to me to be as accurate as possible in describing this iconic location. 

Old Faithful Geyser (all photos by Alexa Land)

A lot of those details didn’t make it into the book. I didn’t want to bog down the story line by over-describing the setting. But it was important to me to have a strong understanding of where my characters were. That made them feel more real to me. And I think when they feel real to the author, they also feel real to the reader.

Exterior Shots of the Old Faithful Inn by Alexa Land

I’ve always loved our national parks and their rustic lodges, and I’ve been lucky enough to visit many of them. Crater Lake, Zion, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite are particular favorites. But it wasn’t until earlier this week that I finally made it to Yellowstone and saw the park and the Old Faithful Inn for myself. My son and I spent four days there and stayed at the historic inn. As we were eating in the dining room one night, I had this feeling almost of déjà vu. But it was more than that. 

It was a feeling of two worlds coming together, the one in my books and the one I live in. I could pick out the exact table where my characters had been dining in Coming Home, even though that detail hadn’t made it into the book. I was seated just two tables over. It was so easy to imagine Chance and Finn and Colt and Elijah sitting there, enjoying their first dinner as a family.

 The Historic Dining Room at the Old Faithful Inn, photo by Alexa Land

In the following scene from Coming Home, my characters have decided to stop off at Yellowstone and the Old Faithful Inn on their way home from Chance’s ill-fated road trip. Chance and Finn are just starting out as a couple, and they’re bringing Chance’s kid brother Colt and Colt’s boyfriend Elijah back to California with them, after finding out the boys have been living on their own and barely surviving for the past several months:

We all grabbed our backpacks before the boys and I  followed Finn into the breathtaking lobby. It was a rustic composition of dark wood and high ceilings, with four tiers of balconies opening around a huge common area dominated by an absolutely enormous rock fireplace. 

“Holy shit,” Elijah whispered. His eyes were huge as he looked around, and he held on to Colt’s arm with both hands. 

“This is amazing,” my brother said. He turned to Finn and asked, “Are you rich?”

Finn shook his head, a look of amazement on his face as he took in our surroundings. “Not by a long shot,” he said, his eyes traveling up the absolutely gigantic fireplace. 

After Finn checked in, we dropped our backpacks in our room and headed out to explore. I took out my phone and snapped a few candid shots of the boys. Elijah was really shy and never let go of Colt, practically hiding behind him as we negotiated the clusters of people outside. They seemed even more childlike in this setting as they reacted to everything with wonder. “Let me get a picture of the three of you,” I told my companions, framing up a shot with the lodge in the background.

A voice beside me said, “Why don’t you get in the picture, too?” 

I turned to look at the older woman with short silver hair and an engaging smile, and said, “Yeah, okay,” before handing over my phone. 

I stood between Colt and Finn with Elijah on Colt’s opposite side, and we all smiled for the camera. The woman took several shots, and when she gave the phone back, she told me, “You have a beautiful family.”

“Thank you,” I said softly. When she’d gone, I scrolled through the pictures she’d taken. We really did look like a family. A non-traditional one, sure, but no less a family. I stared at the screen for a long moment and smiled before turning to Finn. He took my hand, which surprised me a little since we were in public, but he just grinned at me.

 “What’s going on over there?” Colt asked, indicating a crowd that was gathering a short distance away. 

“Let’s go see,” I said, and we joined the spectators. I knew what we were looking at, but the boys didn’t so I decided to let them be surprised.

“It’s about to happen,” someone nearby exclaimed as we found a spot at the edge of the wide walkway. 

“Wait for it,” I murmured, and winked at Colt when he glanced at me. He turned back around just in time to watch Old Faithful erupt, shooting steam and water a hundred and forty feet into the air.

My brother exclaimed, “Oh my God,” as the crowd cheered. Elijah clapped and let out a burst of surprised laughter before grabbing Colt’s hand. 

Finn looked no less enchanted. He had a huge, delighted smile on his face, his eyes bright and sparkling. I took a few pictures so I could always remember him in that moment of perfect happiness. I snapped a few of the geyser, too, but Finn was more captivating.

The eruption lasted about two minutes, and when it was over, the crowd applauded before beginning to disperse. “I can’t believe I just saw Old Faithful!” Colt exclaimed. “I heard about it and saw pictures, like, a billion times, but seeing it for real was epic!” He turned to Finn and said, “Thanks for bringing us here.”

“You’re welcome. Come on, let’s explore a bit before it gets dark,” Finn said. 

A few people stared at us as we strolled on the walkways through the steaming, bubbling geyser field, since Finn and I were once again holding hands. Fuck ‘em. Whenever someone tried to give us a disapproving look, I stared them down, and Finn ignored them. The boys followed our example and held hands too, and Colt did the same thing I was doing, glaring at anyone that dared look at him judgmentally. He caught me grinning at him at one point, and said, “Finn’s really big. If anyone hassles us, he can punch ’em in the face.”

Finn chuckled at that. “I could, but I’m not going to.”

When it started to get dark, we went to dinner in the lodge’s big dining room, which was decorated in the same woodsy style as the rest of the place. I probably looked a little shell-shocked when I saw the prices on the menu, and Finn must have noticed because he said, “Dinner’s on me. Order anything you want. That goes for all of you.” Colt and Elijah thanked him excitedly, while I mentally added the boys’ and my meals to the ever-increasing running total of all I owed Finn. 

I just ordered a bowl of soup, but the boys went nuts and ordered a ton of food. After their diet of fast food and ramen I could see why they’d be excited, and I didn’t try to discourage them. They were both so skinny, and it was their first real meal in ages. 

Somehow, they both polished off dessert after their huge dinners, and then my brother moaned and said, “Oh man, I’m so full that I could pop like a tick! Is it okay if we go lay down in the room?” 

“Sure,” I said, and handed Colt my key.

Elijah pushed back from the table. He’d said next to nothing throughout the meal, but now he glanced at Finn from under his lashes and said quietly, “Thank you, sir. That was the best meal I ever ate.”

 Interior shots of the Old Faithful Inn: the lobby and the stone fireplace; 
the log construction in the original part of the building. Photos by Alexa Land

Aw, I love those boys! I’m looking forward to writing Elijah’s book sometime in this next year, and Colt’s book after that. 

As always, thank you for reading.