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Location, location, location

⬆︎ Gragg, North Carolina, with Grandfather Mountain (altitude 5,945 feet) in the background

If you’re shooting a movie, shooting on location costs a lot of money. But if you’re writing a novel, good locations cost nothing. The author is limited only by what he can imagine and describe.

As a rule, I like for the locations in my novels to be places that I actually have been to and seen. Book 1 of the Ursa Major series, Fugue in Ursa Major, mostly because the story is just getting started, doesn’t stray very far from Phaedrus’ cottage in the Appalachian backwoods — places such as Charlottesville, Washington, and the national forests of West Virginia.

Book 2, Oratorio in Ursa Major, travels much farther — the coast and highlands of Scotland, an oil rig in the north sea, and an enormous space ship in deep space billions of miles from earth.

Book 3, Symphony in Ursa Major, which is in progress and which I plan to release next year, will get deeper into the Appalachians and will return to Charlottesville and Washington. But we’ll also go to London for some scenes at Westminster, and we’ll also go to New Delhi. And we’ll get even deeper into space and learn much more about galactic history and politics when we visit the galactic capital.

Back in the 1980s, on my first trip to London, my Welsh friend in London, who was a lawyer and policy wonk, wanted to impress me, so he requested tickets from his member of Parliament to visit Parliament on the prime minister’s question day. The prime minister was Margaret Thatcher. The tickets were for the sergeant-at-arms’ private box. So I have seen a good bit of Westminster, including of course the greatest abbey in the world, Westminster Abbey. And I’ve heard Margaret Thatcher getting rough with the opposition in the House of Commons. In my archives, I have a copy of the Times of London from the next day, which includes a story on what Thatcher was asked and what she said.

I was in Delhi in 1994, and though I have not seen the government buildings in Delhi, I’ve seen plenty of Delhi’s streets and markets including, of course, Connaught Place.

In Oratorio in Ursa Major, there is a brief visit to the place I call the Pisgah abbey. In Book 3, we’ll return to the Pisgah abbey. This place is deep in the Pisgah National Forest of western North Carolina. The abbey is imagined, but the location is real. I searched out the location using Google Earth. I was looking for a small clearing in a deep valley, surrounded by high mountains. I wanted a location reachable only by winding, treacherous roads. I settled on Gragg, North Carolina.

On a trip to Asheville last weekend, I went to Gragg. The place is so remote that GPS cannot be trusted. At one point, GPS wanted me to turn left on a nonexistent road that would have sent me crashing down a forested mountainside. But I finally found a way into Gragg by going to the little town of Linville. From Linville, GPS gave me a route down into Gragg on roads that actually existed. The road — narrow and unpaved with lots of one-lane bridges — looped and wound down a mountainside and gave up about a thousand feet of altitude in five miles. There is a small settlement of people at Gragg and even a small lake. Gragg seems to possess the only fairly flat parcel of land for many miles. The road to Gragg is so steep that, when I climbed back up toward Linville, my little Smart car stayed in 2nd gear (of five) for almost the entire drive.

Writers and readers know how important a story’s settings are. Writers and readers also know that, for some reason, stories just work better when the plot moves characters from place to place. When characters are in the middle of nowhere, the author is probably exploring the characters’ inner lives, their motivations, and their inner obstacles. But if the story deals with larger, planetary issues, then you can expect the characters to show up in places where planetary power is concentrated. In Symphony in Ursa Major, that will be Washington, London, and Delhi.

Many writers (and films) have imagined what a galactic capital might look like. In Symphony, I’ll have my go at that.

⬆︎ A resident of Gragg, with his hoe.

⬆︎ The Blue Ridge Parkway, one of my favorite roadways in the world.

⬆︎ Gragg viewed in Google Earth

⬆︎ Westminster


  1. Henry wrote:

    Thank you for the insight re location. Even though Ive never been to N Carolina I easily imagined the locations you spoke of. Some of the remote towns in N California resemble your descriptions

    Monday, April 17, 2017 at 3:50 pm | Permalink
  2. Jo wrote:

    Sounds like a nice weekend trip. You covered several miles as Asheville is some distance from Linville. The mountains in western North Carolina are beautiful. One of my favorite memories is getting lost on one of the dirt roads in the area, while trying to get back to Blowing Rock. We met a pickup truck and asked our location. The driver informed us they were visiting from Florida to film the fall foliage, had no idea where we were and did not care either. My thought at the time was this couple knows how to live life. All roads lead somewhere and we eventually got back to Blowing Rock. I have never forgotten the encounter with the young couple from Florida. Look forward to your next book.

    Monday, April 17, 2017 at 3:57 pm | Permalink
  3. Jo wrote:

    Forgot to mention in my post that a young woman was in the bed of the pickup with a camcorder, filming the beautiful foliage. I feel sure that young couple remembers their trip – as I do.

    Monday, April 17, 2017 at 4:52 pm | Permalink
  4. daltoni wrote:

    Jo: Its such a beautiful area up around Linville and Grandfather Mountain, isn’t it? The ideal way to get to Asheville is to stay on the parkway. But that takes me six to eight hours, so when I go to Asheville it isn’t always by the pretty route.

    Henry: Yes indeed, particularly the areas around Yosemite. Also, even in Marin, the back road up Mount Tamalpais is incredible.

    Monday, April 17, 2017 at 5:33 pm | Permalink
  5. Cynthia wrote:

    If you are up for another drive and more field research you may want to check out Flag Pond on April 29. (just over the state line) There is a gathering of old time fiddlers happening that day. Prizes to the fiddlers include a peck of fine potatoes, a bushel of apples and a cake of soap, and one plump laying hen. Even if they decide to go all Hollywood with the event this year, the music is traditional, and the mountains haven’t changed. (also it smells better than the wild ramp festival)

    I’m still enjoying your blog!

    Friday, April 21, 2017 at 8:39 am | Permalink

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