Choosing Locations in “Perceval”

Writing about the near future gives me some freedom in choosing and describing locations.  Do I create a completely fictional city or use a real one?  Each has its challenges and advantages.  I decided early in the first draft that I wanted to ground Evan’s future world as much in the present as I could.  I wanted locations in Europe that I knew and that had good symphony orchestras, but I also wasn’t afraid of research.  

In Perceval, Evan’s primary physical location is Vienna, Austria, a city in which I’ve lived.  Vienna has a rich cultural life and two major symphony orchestras, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna Symphony.  It is a city of music.  Evan’s psychological location, however, is Minneapolis, where he grew up and spent most of his life.  He also had lived in St. Louis and New York City.  But from the beginning I wanted a tension between Evan’s locations — Europe and America, present and past.

Another tension in locations for me was between real and fictional.  As I worked on the first and subsequent drafts, I realized that I wanted to use as many real locations as possible, such as the Musikverein in Vienna, or the canals in Amsterdam.  Personal locations I created from imagination.  For example, the apartment Evan rents is connected to a house on Sternwartestrasse in Vienna’s 18th District.  Sternwartestrasse exists, the house and apartment are fictional.  Then I also fictionalized real locations.  For example, Judenplatz exists in Vienna’s 1st District as does the cafe Evan visits there, but I fictionalized the cafe’s name, owner, and interior. 

Characters sometimes choose locations for me.  For example, in Perceval, Viennese Police Chief Inspector Klaus Leiner needs a safe house for Evan that’s not far from Vienna.  The first place that popped into my mind as I was writing the relevant scene was a lovely town on the north side of Neusiedl Lake southeast of Vienna.  The lake is famous for its shallowness — only four feet at its deepest — and its use by refugees as an escape route out of Communist Hungary because it straddles the Austro-Hungarian border.  The town is a vacation haven and Leiner knows it well.  He takes his family there on summer weekends to sail, swim and fish.  I was drawn to this location because of its past as a refugee sanctuary.  So, Leiner takes Evan to a fictional safe house on the lake but outside of town and isolated.

An element that affects location is time of year.  For Perceval, I wanted the story to begin during Vienna’s annual music festival which occurs late spring/early summer.  Evan conducts his last tour concert during the festival.  Originally, I thought the action would take place during a year, but as I wrote, I realized the action occurred within four months, over the summer and into the fall.  Keeping in mind climate change, I researched the weather during summers in Vienna because I had not lived there during an entire summer, what would be open or closed, what cultural life was like.  As I worked on subsequent novels in the series, I discovered that I wanted to contrast the seasons with Evan’s psychological weather, and I also discovered another point of contrast that my imagination chose without my knowledge — landlocked Vienna vs. coastal cities with canals.  I haven’t yet worked out what that means, if anything, although the coastal cities could represent a physical openness which would fit thematically.

I’ve had to research some locations without travelling to walk their streets, observe their residents, smell the air.  I’ve relied on friends who’ve travelled to the locations, their impressions and photos; and people who called the cities home but were living in America.  The internet has saved me a lot of time, but I love to read books about places, especially by a good travel writer who can capture the atmosphere and personality of a place, and peruse guidebooks which are a treasure trove of information and resources.  Because I am writing about the future, I have a certain freedom but I don’t take it lightly.  I try to ground my future in the present so that it will make sense to readers.

And the research continues….


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