I had an exciting experience today: I visited the location where important parts of my story take place, to get a deeper sense of place and atmosphere. I can strongly recommend the experience to anyone who has that opportunity. After driving for 2 hours, taking 200+ photos, capturing ambient sounds, and spending nearly an hour tramping around and soaking up the feel of the place, I can say it was absolutely worth it.
My story centers around a fictional old hotel located on the Devil’s Nose, a bump of land on the southern shore of Lake Ontario on the western edge of Hamlin Beach State Park, about 30 miles from Rochester, NY and about an hour from where I live. I confess that I fell in love with that spot when I stumbled across it on Google Maps, based only on its name and the isolated, wooded location I saw in the satellite images. I dropped a fictional hotel there, gave it a name and a history and a staff, including my protagonist, but I knew I wanted to find out what it was really like. Since my story takes place in the first few weeks of November, I decided to take advantage of a fall Saturday, windy but dry, to go out and get a feel for the place.
I came away with 211 photos, including several sets of panoramas capturing a 360-degree view in key spots. I listened closely to what the place sounded like and recorded 30 seconds of the sound of wind, leaves, and waves (I would have recorded longer if the sounds weren’t so steady). I thought about the bouncy feel of the thick carpet of crunchy leaves I walked on and the bite of wind catching under my hood and making my fingers stiff when I tried to use my phone. I tried to catch a sniff of rotting leaves or old moss, but it was too cold and windy for much in the way of odor, which is useful information itself. I tried to notice (and photograph) any interesting details: the bright red tennis ball half-buried in the packed earth, the pile of discarded cinder blocks off the path, a tree that would be perfect for a key bit of action in the story. I know I will have the details I need to bring my scenes to life as my characters live them.
I have to say the Devil’s Nose was different than I expected. From the satellite images I hadn’t realized how high the Devil’s Nose is above the level of the lake. Most of Hamlin Beach gently slopes just enough so that there is sand above the water, but there’s a steady rise from there up to the Nose. Signs warn to stay away from the dropoff, and with good reason; it falls pretty steeply to the water. Since my Devil’s Nose is fictional I could drop it down level with the lake if I wanted to, but this view from a small height gives me new ways to think about the location, opening up interesting ideas that will work well with the draft I’ve already written.
If you get the chance to visit a story location, or even to visit something that is close or that reminds you in some ways of a story location, I strongly advise you to go for it. I’m really glad I did.