The Fun of Researching a Book

Inside, the terminal was bouncing. That was the only way Leilani could describe it. Greeters jumped and shrieked their welcome at arrivals they had not seen in a while. Children squealed as they played, running through throngs of people.

She had never been at any airport as lively, its ambiance more like a carnival. The plane from Hong Kong had been full of Pacific Islanders, many of them American immigrants returning to this country for a visit. Loud relatives with big smiles were now swarming around them with open arms.

IMG_0425The above is a scene from Welcome Reluctant Stranger (WRS) when the heroine returns to the Pacific island country she left when she was nine.

These descriptions were not hatched in my imagination. They were borne out of the interesting process of researching a book. Thus, they are based on information from a young woman (we’ll call her Virgie for purposes of this post) I came across on the internet.

Virgie lives on a Pacific Island that had been inhabited for centuries before the Spaniards invaded it in the early 1500s. Her stomping ground is a city older by a few decades than the oldest city in the US. She and I exchanged a series of emails. She answered questions I posed to her about living in her country—presumably the same one where the WRS heroine was born.

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Costa Mora, Leilani’ birthplace is fictitious. But it is patterned after some islands that do exist. Virgie’s islands. In fact, Virgie suggested the name Costa Mora.

Why—you might ask—create a fictitious country? Why not use Virgie’s real country as the location for Leilani’s birthplace? The main reason is I include events in the story that are made up. Yet, events like those mirror others (see what this reviewer has to say) that have actually occurred. Events that touch sensitive political and social issues which have arisen in many countries—ones the Western World often label and dismiss as “third world.”

Virgie provided much more objective info than what I ended up using. To narrate the scene quoted above, I could probably have gone online and found some airport that would fit into my story. But I was more interested in Virgie’s specific impressions of the airport in her country than a physical description of it. Character’s reactions give life to descriptions of locations.

The airport where she lives is only one of the things I asked Virgie. I also wanted to get a good feel of what life was like for her on her island and her old city. For instance, where friends often like to meet, what they do in those places, how people get around, and what dishes they typically serve.

I took little details of her fascinating account and wrote them into a few scenes. While I have not taken her account verbatim, the details I chose, along with the tenor and flavor she conveyed, infused my narrative with a ring of authenticity to Costa Mora and the events in it. I must have succeeded enough that a reviewer remarked:

Also, I googled the name of the country, Costa Mora, but it doesn’t seem to exist? Could anyone pinpoint me to it?

In the end, I decided to make Virgie a character in the book. I had not initially planned on doing so. The story called for Leilani to reconnect with her roots, so reuniting with an old friend (Virgie) helps that process. This is an instance of serendipity that, to me, is one of the fun parts of writing fiction. The trajectory of a story leads the writer into a specific direction and the story almost writes itself.

To flesh out her character, I used some facts Virgie shared with me about herself. With her permission, of course. The real Virgie does indeed have a husband and young daughter and she likes to go mountain climbing. I did stop short of using her real name.

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