Settings that Inspire Stories

by | Aug 25, 2019 | Karna Small Bodman, On writing | 4 comments

. . . by Karna Small Bodman

As Dr. Seuss put it:

     The more you read
     The more that you know
     The more that you learn
     The more places you’ll go

How true.  When authors conjure up ideas for stories, many also endeavor to visit their chosen  locations to immerse themselves in the local culture, meet some of the people, ask questions about their concerns and challenges, take photos and make notes to ensure they write accurate descriptions — all things you can’t find out on Google Earth.  (And sometimes these trips are considered “research” and deemed tax-deductible).

However, on the flip side, an author might visit or work in a particular location,  and much later the place itself inspires a story. This was the case when I decided to sit down and craft my own thrillers. After serving six years in The White House and having an office inside the Situation Room complex, I was inspired to write my first novel CHECKMATE about missile defense systems which were  discussed in the conference room  there many years ago (And today are deployed all over the world).

White House Situation Room

As you can see, it hardly resembles any of the Hollywood versions with their computer banks (ours were outside), flashing lights and gigantic screens.  It still was an exciting place to see and hear Top Secret discussions and plans.  I’m sure many of you have read terrific novels with scenes set in the Situation Room – and yet I wonder if those authors have “been there, done that” – or at least relied on official White House photos rather than the glamorized film versions.

My second thriller GAMBIT was written several years after I was sent on a government trip to the Far East — Manila, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul — where  I had the pleasure of staying at the home of our Ambassador to South Korea. I had one free afternoon and was asked if there was a particular place I’d like to visit. I suggested a trip up to the DMZ.  I boarded an Army helicopter for the very short jaunt to the border with North Korea where I was given a briefing by our CIA officer in charge and stood on this viewing platform to watch the North Korean soldiers guarding their turf and facing off against our troops.

DMZ – Demilitarized zone between N and S Korea

Besides the obvious tensions throughout the area, I was told that whenever we bring visitors to the border for briefings, which often included Members of Congress as well as civilians on “Good Will” tours, the North Korean soldiers would rush up to check out the westerners.  And the two times when the most North Koreans came to stare was when our visitors were Miss Universe and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders!! As for the constant tensions between north and south, imagine the great stories that could be written focusing on that very area and the troops stationed there.

China turned out to be one major setting in thriller #3, FINAL FINESSE. I went on a business trip to Beijing and was amazed to experience that intriguing city.  It’s easy to see how an author could come up with scary, even wild scenarios involving Chinese officials, possible corruption, plans to dominate economies or expand influence around the globe! At the same time, the visitor is usually blown away by their architecture, innovation and technology (translate some of that to “spy machines”) — fodder for many great novels – right?

Add Beijing

I have to admit that I never had the chance to travel to a key setting in book #4 CASTLE BRAVO, which was Kazakhstan.  This is where a ton of research comes in — which means I learned a lot about a country with an incredible history traced back to the Stone Age, according to archeologists.  More “recently” Genghis Khan established his Mongol Empire there in 1206.  We tend to consider him a marauding villain, but I learned that after “setting up shop” there, he only taxed the people 1/2 a percent. Contrast that to the confiscation of the peoples’ assets and agriculture by the Russians in the 1900’s which created tremendous suffering, especially at the hands of Joseph Stalin when one million Kazakhs starved to death and 80% of their livestock perished. Later Russia did store much of their nuclear arsenal there, and that’s where I got the idea for book four.

Almaty – Capital of Kazakhstan

 In addition to reading books and scouring the internet for information, I called our most recent Ambassador to Kazakhstan and asked for an interview. I told her I was writing a novel about that country and her instant reply was, “What fun. Let’s have lunch.” (I find that officials may not want to talk to a news reporter, but they will usually be happy to talk to an author.)

One more book was inspired by a location — this time it was a picturesque place where we had a home for several years  before I wrote the recently released TRUST BUT VERIFY.  The setting is Jackson Hole, WY.  Most people think of Jackson as just a ski resort, which it certainly is….home to the mighty and gorgeous Tetons.  It is also a great summer resort where 100 people at a time can ride up the mountain on a tram to take in the sights and see all the way to Idaho.

Tram up Rendezvous Mountain, Jackson Hole

Now imagine being on board that tram when the ‘bad guys” plan to blow up the control tower as you’re over this particular gorge.  Thriller material indeed.

So here’s a question for you: what novels have you read that have “transported” you to unique and exciting places — where you not only learned about those settings, but enjoyed a great thriller at the same time?  We Rogues always like to share suggestions about great books with our readers.  Leave a comment below or on our Facebook (icon is at the top left of this page). And thanks for visiting us here on Rogue Women Writers.

. . . Submitted by Karna Small Bodman 

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  1. Lisa Black

    I love researching new places, by whatever means possible. But I don’t think my #1 day trip request would be the DMZ. I’d be all like, “Take me where ever I’m LEAST likely to get shot.”

  2. Robin Burcell

    Were you allowed no Selfies of yourself at the DMZ? Or were photos forbidden? I think I'd want to visit that as well, just because. But I'm with Lisa regarding safety. Where would I not get shot? And can I go somewhere not in a helicopter? (I've been in one once. Once was enough!)

  3. Rogue Women Writers

    I certainly know what you mean about riding in helicopters, Robin — the Army one I was in had us strapped in, sound-deadening headphones on, BUT for some odd reason, they left the doors open….on the one hand I was thankful it was a short ride. On the other hand, that means the people of Seoul, Korea are a "stone's throw" away from the border with North Korea, midst all of their missile-launching shenanigans! (More fodder for novels, I guess)….Karna Small Bodman

  4. Chris Goff

    I've done it both ways–traveled for research once I've chosen a location AND traveled somewhere and been inspired while there. Your day job provided an amazing amount of travel ops and ideas. But, because it was your day job, do you have to run things past anyone at The White House before you can write about them? I know that people in the CIA and FBI have to have their stories cleared. As for the DMZ, some of my best and most interesting memories are surviving places I dared to go. I think I would have loved your job.