Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Tasting Tahoe

For me, one of the best things about writing is research. And by that, I don't mean cracking dusty tomes in county libraries, or even (in our tech savvy world) surfing the Internet. I'm talkin' about the kind of research that requires me to pack a suitcase, hit the open road (or sky or sea) and TRAVEL. See, touch, hear, feel taste, and smell--use all my senses--to explore locations that appear in my books. I loved telling audiences how I was "forced" to "dress in sequins and do the Chicken Dance in shipboard discos worldwide" to research my cruise mystery series--and it was true. Every port, every lifeboat drill, and . . . every gooey dessert in those books were authenticated by this author. After all, I owe that to my readers, right? You betcha. And now, for my new SHIFT IN FAITH medical drama series, I'll be researching locations in my native Northern California: Gold Country, the Pacific Coast, and San Francisco. Hence this past weekend (for my readers, of course) I grabbed a plane to Reno, Nevada, and then drove through snow-capped Sierra Mountains up some 6,000 feet . . . to research one of the most beautiful places on God's earth: Lake Tahoe. Because two scenes in The Healer's Heart take place there, and I wanted to be certain I had the details exactly right. Here's a snippet of one of those scenes, which takes place at a fictional restaurant, inspired by the fabulous real one pictured above--Sunnyside Lodge on the lake's west shore. After fishing on the Truckee River, heroine Claire Avery and Dr. Logan Caldwell are having lunch:

“See,” she said, settling into the chair opposite Logan and raising palms still damp from washing. “Perfectly respectable. No one would know I . . .” she narrowed her eyes and smirked, “caught the biggest trout of the day.” She laughed at his groan and then glanced around the umbrella-studded deck and at the other patrons, glad she’d been able to freshen her makeup and pick the pine needles out of her hair.

The marina restaurant, a favorite with both locals and tourists, was casually upscale with men and women sporting trendy resort wear and sunglasses no doubt worth half a nurse’s biweekly paycheck. A jazz combo, bass thrumming deep, played at the edge of the deck its music blending with the patrons’ soft laughter, tinkling glassware and the crisp flutter of sails in the marina below. In the distance the majestic Sierra Mountains, many peaks still white with snow, seemed to rise from the glassy blue surface of the lake itself. Claire closed her eyes for a moment and let the sun warm her face. This was not her typical day, for sure. She opened her eyes as Logan spoke.

“So what would you be doing right now if you weren’t here, humbling me with your fishing prowess?”

Claire laughed. “Huge, important things. Like buying Smokey a catnip toy. The one that looks like Jiminy Cricket. That might get him to purr.” She frowned. “The poor cat had a raccoon scare.”

Though I spent many summers at Lake Tahoe and ate at this particular restaurant countless times, it had been a dozen years since I'd last been there and I was eager to see if I'd captured the imagery on paper correctly. Overall I was pleased, except that I'd missed two key details: first, the tangy scent of the oil-based preservative on the wood decking of the lake's piers. That one struck me the moment I walked out onto Sunnside's marina-view deck, and (as scents often do) brought back a host of memories--swims in the icy water, lying on those fragrant, sun-warmed piers and slathering on Sea & Ski lotion. And the other (how could I have forgotten?) was the taste of Sunnyside's famous battered and crispy-fried zucchini sticks drenched in ranch dressing. Which, of course (for my readers) I had to try again--zucchini sticks, not the icy swim! My dedication doesn't go as far as hypothermia.

But, for me, that's what research is all about--getting the details right so I can put my readers into the scene, make them see it, touch it, smell it, hear it . . . even taste it. So that someone in, say, Indianapolis or Chicago--who may have never seen the Sierra Mountains--will be suddenly looking out at the blue of Tahoe, smelling pines (and the wood decking), feeling the brisk alpine breeze across sun-pink shoulders, and . . . tasting a fried zucchini stick.

Pass that ranch dressing, wouldya?

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