Monday, March 30, 2009

Guest Blogger Susan Page Davis on Research in Alaska

One of the biggest thrills I’ve had as a writer is traveling to the scene of the book while doing research. Last fall I was blessed to spend the week before the ACFW conference in Alaska, preparing to write a series of three contemporaries set there for Heartsong.

I’ve wanted to visit Alaska for a long time, but never made it before, although my brother lived there for five years. Things came together, and I flew into Anchorage. A big blessing that helped make the trip possible was an old friend and her husband living at the edge of the city. This couple used to be in my home schooling group, and they met me at the airport and welcomed me into their home.

Luann and I prearranged to travel together by car to Homer, a small town on the coast, where my brother was stationed during part of his Coast Guard service in Alaska. We were invited to stay at Homer-by-the-Sea, a lovely home on the hillside overlooking the volcano-rimmed Kachemak Bay and Homer Spit, an arm of land running out into the bay. Out there on the spit is the Coast Guard dock, where a large buoy tender makes its home. Of course I wanted to see it, since the first of my three books would focus on a young woman serving in the Coast Guard. I’d also set up a coffee meeting with my brother’s former commanding officer, now retired.

Let me pause and tell you a couple of things about Alaska. First, Alaska is BIG. Really big. Bigger than the next three states combined. There is no way to see even one tenth of it properly in a short trip. I read that if they cut Alaska in half, Texas would be the third-largest state. I’m not slamming Texas. I’m just saying. . .

Alaska is varied. They have coastal rainforest in the southeast part of the state and. . . well, you know what they have up north. Their roads are few. You can only get to their capital by plane or boat. That’s why about one in 60 Alaskans has a pilot’s license. They’re the flying state in the union. Of course, you know it’s colder than wherever you live, and the day lengths are all out of whack, but when you actually see that, it hits you, and you wonder, WHY do these people live here? How do they stand it? But then you get out and see the grandeur and begin to pick up the frontier-independence feeling, and you start to “get” it.

Our drive to Homer was an adventure in itself. When we’d arrived and unloaded at our lodging, of course we bundled up in heavy sweaters and went down to the spit. It was late in the afternoon, and because September is past the tourist season in Alaska, there wasn’t a lot of traffic, and a lot of the shops were closed.

Even though Homer Spit is not that big a place, we were so ignorant that it took Luann and me a while to figure out which dock was the Coast Guard dock (as opposed to the ferry dock) and which ship was the Coast Guard ship. While my brother was in Homer, he served on the Sedge. That ship has long since been decommissioned, and the 225-foot buoy tender now home ported at Homer is the Hickory. A smaller cutter (110 feet, I think) “lives” there as well. (You can tell I’m a landlubber, can’t you? My dad was Navy and my brother CG, but it didn’t rub off. That’s why I have to do so much research when I write about the military and anything nautical.)

We were too timid to disobey the signs that said authorized USCG personnel only, but we hung around the dock’s entrance for a few minutes, watching some men working near the ship. One got into a pickup truck and backed up toward us. I said, “Luann, he’s got to turn around when he gets out here. I’m going to talk to him.”

I was scared to death, but when he backed the pickup around and paused, I ran over to his window. That is, Boatswain Scott MacAloon’s window. He was a peach. When I told him rather breathlessly that my brother used to serve there (of course he wanted all my brother’s particulars) and discovered he well knew the retired captain I was meeting the next day, he offered to give us a tour of the ship in the morning.

Luann and I were so keyed up that night! At 8 a.m. we arrived at the dock and walked warily out to the ship. The earnest young man on the bridge said they couldn’t give tours that day, because they were preparing to leave on a six-week deployment. We gulped and told him the boatswain had promised. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later our hero arrived. He gave us a thorough tour of the Hickory. It was fantastic. Seeing his interaction with the other personnel was as helpful as seeing the equipment they worked with.

An hour later, we left the dock euphoric and headed for coffee with Captain Dave MacKenzie. He was also extremely helpful. I took tons of notes and asked a thousand “newbie” questions. Things like, “If my hero is a BM2 on one ship and my heroine is a BM3 on another ship. . .” and “What exactly does the boatswain’s mate do during his shift on the bridge?” and “When a team from the law enforcement cutter goes to inspect a fishing boat, do they carry guns?” It was great. I gave the captain one of my books and promised to give his regards to my brother.

Of course, that evening when Luann and I were eating our supper in a restaurant, my brother kept calling me on my cell phone, wanting all the details of our interview. Then he wanted to know if I’d been to Alaska Berry Company yet. Then he’d remember something else I just HAD to see. . .I think he was wishing he’d gone along on the trip. But even under much pressure from him, I refused to buy and drink some juice concoction known as “Homer spit.” No. Absolutely not. Gag.

There were so many other wonderful sights on the trip. Museums, a musk ox farm, Islands and Oceans Center, a flight up the glaciers in a small plane, seeing a bear in the wild. Luann even took me to her favorite bookstore in Anchorage—Title Wave. It’s huge, and a mix of used and new books. I could have stayed there all day. I could have lived there.

One other huge thrill for me was visiting Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla. My second book will focus on dog sledding, and this visit was very helpful. I picked up some books and couldn’t resist souvenirs for the kids after I’d done some reading, video viewing, and chatting with the lady on duty that day. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Sarah Palin wasn’t in Wasilla when I was there. She was too busy campaigning in the Lower 48.

I could talk all day about Alaska. It’s an extraordinary place, and I’d love to go back and see more of it.

My advice for those planning a research trip is: limit your focus. Don’t try to see and do everything. You can’t. If possible, concentrate on the places, events, and people central to your book’s plot and setting. You’ll discover lots of extras to add to your story. And take extra money for books. You’ll find resources locally that you never knew existed. If you need to, mail yourself a box of the books, brochures, and other research materials you accumulate.

And if your trip is to Alaska or another cold place, here’s an idea that saved me some money and headaches: Luann asked friends my size to loan a jacket and heavy sweaters so that I didn’t have to carry an extra suitcase full of bulky clothes on the trip. I arrived in Anchorage to find my “new,” temporary wardrobe hanging in my closet. That was wonderful. Less luggage, more space to pack books to give my hosts and people I interviewed!

Thanks for coming by today. My first Alaska book, Always Ready, will come out in the Heartsong Presents book club in July. Come see me at my Website:

The view from the deck at our lodgings in Homer, looking out at Kachemak Bay and Homer Spit.


Cecelia Dowdy said...

Wow! I'm impressed with your researching skills! Sounds like you had a great time!

My parents lived in Alaska a long time ago since my dad was stationed there. My older sister was born in Alaska. My parents still talk about living there, especially those weird days and nights! They said it could be two o'clock in the morning and the sun would still be shining and the birds would be singing!

Susan Page Davis said...

Thanks, Cecilia! Of course, when I went in September the days/nights were more equal, but it still stayed light until about 9 p.m.

Margaret Daley said...

I loved Alaska when I went up there. I had a friend who lived there, and it was neat seeing the place with her as a guide.

Kit Wilkinson said...

Looking forward to your release. I've always been intrigued by Alaska and our often forgotten servicemen in the CG.

I'm thinking of setting my next book in Hawaii. I'll probably need to visit for a few weeks, don't you think?

CatMom said...

Thanks for sharing your trip with us, Susan! I've always been "infatuated" with the state of Alaska, but now after reading your post I want to visit there even more! ~ Looking forward to reading your Alaska stories. :)
Blessings, Patti Jo Moore

Susan Page Davis said...

Oh, yes, Kit, I absolutely think a minimum of two weeks would be needed to research Hawaii properly. Especially the beaches. Thank you all--and if you have the chance to take one of these adventures, GO FOR IT!

Mary Connealy said...

Susan! I'm so jealous! You got to go to Alaska for research.

I would love to do stuff like that. I've got to get more adventurous. :)

Vickie McDonough said...

Sounds like you had a wonderful time, Susan. You have a lot of guts approaching those seamen and insisting on your ship tour. Can't wait to read this series. I'm sure it will be great!

Susan Page Davis said...

The truth is, I was a lot braver than normal, since I had my friend with me. So. . .if any of you is planning a research trip and you need a buddy along to give you confidence, I'm up for it!

Crystal Laine Miller said...

I love your writing, Susan, and this was like a look behind the pages (ha ha.)

I have a really good friend who lives in Anchorage and her husband is a pilot. Everything you've said rings true with what she has talked about over the years.

Also, like Cecelia, I liked hearing how you do your research. That was helpful.

nancy said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.