Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Traveling Tuesday : : Research by Immersion

Anne McAllister just got back from a week in California and was reminded of why she likes the weather out there and why she's glad she no longer lives there. It's all about the 20 million or so other people who love the weather enough to make SoCal home.

I just came back from California. It wasn't a leisurely week. It was actually one of those "if it's Tuesday, this must be Monterey" weeks. Usually I'm not crazy about those sorts of trips. But this one was special.

It began with a wedding and it ended with the interment of my mother's ashes. Both were celebrations of a sort -- one of a beginning of a young couple's life together, the other a celebration of the end of a long and well-spent life.

In the middle I did four days of research. It was a quick intense sort of research. "Immersion research," if you will, in which I threw myself into life in Santa Barbara, reconnecting with my own past (I lived there for six years) and digging up details that will, I hope, enable me to create a believable 'world' for my new book.

It's a method of research I've come to discover works for me in places I used to know well (Santa Barbara or New York City, for example) and also in places I've only read about and need to get a feet-on-the-ground feel for (like Cannes).

In the case of Cannes, I read a lot beforehand, knew where I needed the story to go and thus made a list of places I wanted to check out. In the case of Santa Barbara, I knew where the story was set primarily and I needed to go back there to get a present-day feel for it and see if it had changed. Then I needed to just wander around, find interesting holes-in-the-wall, set myself a task or two and see how it was to accomplish them, and just be open to the serendipitous detail that might capture the realism and vitality of a scene.

If you aren't familiar with Santa Barbara, it's gorgeous. Set between the mountains and the sea, it lies on a narrow shelf of land where the sun usually shines, the early morning fog really does burn off before noon, and the late night fog doesn't show up until 'late night.' (I've lived in places in California where the two blend about 2 in the afternoon and you never see the sun at all).

While it was a home for the Chumash and other Indians for hundreds of years, the Spaniards first appeared there in the early years of the 17th century, and by the late 18th century it was the site of the Presidio (fort), the mission (of Santa Barbara) and the beginnings of the pueblo (town) that grew up around them.

We toured the mission and its gorgeous grounds. Took lots of pictures. But the thing that caught my eye (though heaven knows if I'll be able to use it) were the rows of 'in the wall' full tombs of the Franciscan friars who lived at the mission. Some of them were Spaniards. Many others were German and Irish. It was a diverse community even then.

But while their names caught my eye, it was a photo on a wall in the museum that brought them to life. There were seven or eight of them in the photo -- and they were all men whose tombs I'd seen minutes before in the crypt. I had faces to go with the names -- and a great desire to head straight to the record books and see what else I could learn about these men. It made me wonder if 'creating characters' in books is another way I do 'family history' -- just not about my family!

From there we wandered down State Street, the main shopping street, and through the many small passageways of the Paseo, much of which was built long ago and has since been renovated and restored and now houses elegant shops and galleries and professional offices.

The Presidio, which had crumbled almost to dust when I was a student in Santa Barbara, has been being reconstructed over the past 30 years or so. It's an authentic, meticulous reconstruction that allows visitors to see what the early fort would have been like and to watch as archaeologists sift, literally, through the rubble left from the original occupation. Only part of it has been reconstructed. Much else is left to do. But it puts visitors and townspeople alike in connection with the history of the area and shows how it grew.

Lots and lots of things have changed in Santa Barbara -- the university there, UCSB, part of the University of California's state-wide system, has grown almost beyond recognition. Certainly my husband and I were stunned by it. But while all around it has changed markedly, I'm here to tell you that married student housing is exactly the same as ever -- right down to the color of the paint. It was like being in a time warp. And yes, I will be using that -- with my heroine's mother -- in the book.

Montecito, with its tree covered hills and high hedges and gates, is home to many of the wealthy who value their privacy as much as they do the climate and the setting. It's hard to see behind the gates. We didn't see much. That hasn't changed. So I'll be digging into my own past for that part as I used to teach in a school created on one of those estates.

One thing that is still there is the elegant Biltmore Hotel. It's now the Four Seasons Biltmore, which I suppose means that a corporation has taken it over. But the ambiance is still the same: low-slung Spanish style buildings set amid real-life garden of eden flowers and lawns, overlooking the sand and the sea. It's the perfect setting for a perfect meal.

We had one. Research, you know!

And afterwards we wandered in the twilight through the grounds to watch young boys playing croquet and to see the private cottages set back in the trees, giving hotel guests their own small slice of heaven on earth. Want room service in one of those cottages? A member of the staff will bring it via bicycle. I think I can use that, too.

And the task I assigned myself? I stood in line -- twice -- at the court house to get a copy of our marriage certificate.

I can't think of a more beautiful place to stand in line. And I got to experience bureaucracy -- Santa Barbara style -- first hand. It was surprisingly easy and relatively painless. Last time I was doing something bureacratic in Santa Barbara (getting the license in the first place) I got stung when I stepped on a bee! Another detail? Perhaps.

We were in Santa Barbara from Sunday night until Tuesday morning. We did beaches, mountains, fine dining, shopping, prowling, climbing, real estate looking, bookstore browsing, historical site touring, nostalgic wandering, and getting lost.

Lost is good. It's a lot like plotting -- the way I do it, anyway. It's a way of discovering the little bits of serendipity that you don't go looking for, but sometimes mean more than all the other things you intend to do.

I loved my trip to the past and to the present in Santa Barbara. I highly recommend it as a destination (or a place to live if you can afford it). I wish I could have spent more time there, but as a research trip it was just enough. It whetted my appetite to return, which I will do as soon as I finish writing this and can get back to my story again!

It wasn't long enough for a real vacation, but it was great for my 'immersion' experience.

What's you idea of the perfect length of time for a trip -- and the perfect vacation spot? I would love some more ideas of great places to visit (and write books about).

Anne is back at work on her Santa Barbara book. In the meantime, her Cannes book (which also went to Greece) came out in UK in May or June (she can't remember which) and comes out in the US as a Presents in October.

It's called
The Virgin's Proposition and she loves the cover. With luck she will get an excerpt up on her website sometime this week.


  1. A lovely piece and beautiful photographs to go with it, Anne. My husband does so much travelling with his work, the last thing he wants to do is go away on vacation. That means the rest of the family don't leave home much, but as we live in a pretty spectacular spot it doesn't much matter. As long as we're all together!
    Though speaking personally , I do love Italy and the Italians...

  2. On a rain-drenched morning in Scotland, thank you for transporting me to other side of the world with those beautiful photos.
    I'm trying to write a medical romance based on a cruise ship and recently spent a week cruise the med with the family, it was fabulous but I think the staff in the medical centre were sick of me asking questions!

  3. I'd already heard about some of your trip - but that was mostly the 'meeting relatives' part - I'm so glad I got to see the goregous pictures. It makes me want to visit for myself. And did you find out anything about those friars? That would be fascinatig. Perhaps one of them was your heroines long-ago ancestor?

    Thanks for sharing

  4. Anne, lovely pictures and a wonderfully evocative post... I went on a two-week road trip to California a few years back with my best mate and we had a fabulous time camping in Yosemite, swimming in a hot springs pool in Tacopa, driving Death Valley, wine tasting in Monterrey, staying in a yurt in Big Sur... But we missed Santa Barbara! So I guess I'll just have to go back again and do it next time. LOL.

    I've just come back from a family holiday in Italy and I'd recommend the mountains in La Marche - remote, non-touristy and breath-takingly beautiful with great boar ragu pasta! Am already planning a story there (without the family!)

  5. Christina, There is a virtue to staying home for holidays. It's usually more restful -- thought not if you try to put a new roof on the house at the same time, I fear. I, too, love Italy and there's still so much of it I haven't seen. Can't wait to go back.

    Susan, glad you put your cruise to double duty and got lots of research out of it as well as enjoying the experience. The best sort of research. Yes, Santa Barbara is usually sunny and warm, so I hope you'll bask in the pictures this rainy day in Scotland.

    Kate, yes, there was more to the trip than relatives -- though I thoroughly enjoyed them, too. Santa Barbara is lovely. You should go!

    Heidi, definitely go back. It's worth the trip just for SB. A yurt in Big Sur? Who'd a thunk it? Well, I guess, given what I know about Big Sur, I should have. But somehow it never occurred to me! Thanks for the suggestion about the mountains in LaMarche. Never done that.

  6. I know I'm way late to this blog, but I had to chime in and sing the praises of Santa Barbara. It is one of my favorite places in California!

  7. Lovely blog, Anne. I've never been to Santa Barbara and I'd love to go there. Maybe next time I come to the States. Not that I can ever set a book there, but it looks like a great place for a holiday.
    Looking forward to reading the book.