Peter Lerangis, a self-described "travelaholic" and author ofLost in Babylon, recounts the research behind his far-flung stories.
is Peter, and I am a travelaholic. This year so far, I’ve visited almost two
dozen cities, from Fort Collins to Kuala Lumpur to Ulaanbaatar.
writer I enjoy sticking my characters into perilous situations in exotic
places. It’s also great to go to the
places you write about, of course. Scents, scenarios, body languages, cultural
cues, music, driving habits, food preparation--all of it informs your
prose. While writing The Colossus Rises,
the first book of The Seven Wonders series,
I drew on my travels to the island of Rhodes. Everything I needed to know was
tucked into memory--the slant of the coastline, the whitewashed houses
of a breathtaking village called Lindos, a madcap conversation with a
cabdriver, a picnic with a long-lost cousin and his family, the tastes of fresh
grilled fish, the bustle in the streets.
though, it’s not so easy. For instance, a few years ago I learned that I would
be writing a 39 Clues book (eventually
called The Viper’s Nest) that was set
in South Africa. I panicked. I had never been there--how could I possible
write about it? Fraud alert!
to write about Russia, where I’d been recently, but my editor was
adamant--my research skills would pull me through! Freaking out, I began
thinking about what I used to do for a living. As an actor, I’d played a
Russian Jew in a shtetl, a Civil War soldier, a gold miner, a pirate, a woman,
and a Polish boy who sings to his Puerto Rican girlfriend, Maria. None of these
were close to my own experience. My job was to find whatever it was in myself
that animated my character, serving the story in a way that was emotionally
real--and that would be real enough.
Real enough for the story. That was it. If I could imagine
it, I could make it real. So I dug into history and travel books. I interviewed
South Africans in the U.S. and friends who had been there. I listened to
patois, read travelogues, scoured tourist YouTube videos to get a sense of
everyday life on the streets. My characters slowly became comfortable in their
surroundings. As did I.
tense scene in which the evil Holts threaten to detonate a bomb they claim to
have planted in dear Uncle Alistair’s hat, I needed a place in Pretoria that
was secluded, quiet, with appropriate tree cover. But did such a place even
exist? Using Google Earth’s satellite and ground images, I zoomed around the
city--and my eyes landed on Boom
Street. Okay, in Afrikaans, “boom” means something completely different,
but how could I resist?
day, I’m still not sure if I got it right. But I hope my readers will forgive any
errors in description for what I think turned out to be a ripping story. And if
I ever do get to Pretoria--and I very much hope I do (wink wink, editors)--I pray I won’t cringe at the choices I made.
No matter what, though, it will be a great excuse to do the thing I love most--hop on a plane and disembark into a world of adventure and learning.
for what happened to Uncle Alistair, well, you’ll have to read the book.
quick list of some of my favorite books, set in some amazing places: