In real estate parlance, the most familiar line is “location, location, location.” Buy the least expensive property in the hottest neighbourhood and eventually you’ll make a killing. Choosing the right setting can often be a make or break deal too, for a new writer especially. The best manage to make “location” a central feature, almost a character, in their novels. Who can forget James Lee Burke’s New Orleans or Phillip Chandler’s L.A.?
An equally familiar motto for authors is: “write what you know.” And writers who are intimately familiar with their landscape, many having grown up in the setting they’ve chosen, often craft work that really resonates and convinces the reader that she is entering a real world.
In The Witch of Babylon, I chose to ignore all this good advice and write about Iraq, a place I’d never seen and couldn’t travel to. The novel opens during the initial invasion of Baghdad and still today is extremely dangerous, even for heavily armed troops. That I was able to write about it all is due almost entirely to the tireless and casualty laden work of journalists and photographers. I watched hours of footage, primarily on CNN, read blogs, newspaper articles and books of photographs about the war. The vivid images and hair-raising descriptions of the calamities that befell Iraqi people during the initial bombing campaign and then through the long, slow disintegration of their society, affected me deeply. I hoped that in a very small way, the pale imitation reflected in my own writing, would give some impression of that landscape of terror.
|Scott Taylor in Iraq|
|Nuri Kino, Palme D'Or recipient|
The title of this piece – on location – is thus ironic. For I was anything but. I depended on other eyes and hearts for a glimpse of what combat was really like. Aside from the military, journalists like Scott Taylor and Nuri Kino are the first to arrive and often the last to leave active war zones. 140 journalists have died since the onset of the Iraq war. I stand in awe of the sacrifice they’ve made and the hardship endured to bring the stories and images of battle to our living rooms.
D. J. McIntosh is a Toronto-based writer of novels and short mystery fiction. Her first novel, The Witch of Babylon, was published by Penguin Canada in June 2011. It won the 2008 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished Crime Novel and was a finalist for the 2007 CWA Debut Dagger Award. The Witch of Babylon is an antiquities thriller featuring John Madison, a New York art dealer caught in the aftermath of the Baghdad Museum looting.
This is the last of the Summer Gettaway location-themed posts. Next up, There Must be 50 Ways to Kill Your Lover: How mystery and suspense authors "off" their characters (it's not as easy as it looks).