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November 4, 2020

            It just dawned on me how different we perceive things through words versus what we see in person. My latest book, Spanish Gold is coming out soon. Through it, I do my best to describe various places I not only visited (well, with one big exception), but actually lived a significant time. Through my words, I hope I was able to draw a vivid picture without bogging the reader down in excruciating exposition. As many of you know, I prefer action over excessive detail. At the same time, I like to convey details others would neglect. Which brings me to today’s subject, visiting historical sites.


            This past weekend, we had to skip our trip to Disneyland and find someplace else to go. We decided to go the other direction. Since we didn’t want to mess with bad weather or snow, we opted for south. We chose Tombstone, Arizona, the site of the OK Corral and Wyatt Earp and all that good ole’ cowboy stuff. There were a couple of other things in the area to see as well, so we went for a self-made package deal and took in as much as we could.

            Here’s the deal.

            What I pictured about the place was a far cry from what I actually saw.


            Let’s forget the blatant tourist trap side of things for a moment and just look at Tombstone, the reality. While it’s a vibrant and friendly little town, it’s still a far cry from the myopic images one sees in the movies, TV, and fictional books one might read. The impressions I got were completely different. Not only that, but the local terrain wasn’t even close.


            I’ve enjoyed quite a few Joanna Brady mysteries from J. A. Jance. When I actually went to her hometown of Bisbee, saw the Lavender Pit (which was named after a guy, not the color), visited the mining museum, and ate at a restaurant across the street from the museum, the place didn’t look anything like what I pictured in her books! To tell the truth, it reminded me more of Weston, West Virginia, the town my wife’s family is from, except for the desert vegetation on the mountains peeking above the buildings. Plus, maybe there was a dash of New Orleans Square in Disneyland from the little park next to the museum. What I pictured in her Joanna Brady novels was, well…now when I read the next one, maybe it’ll click different.


            Since I don’t read westerns, I may never have a chance for stories of Tombstone to ever click with me, unless someone writes a thriller or icky bug involving the little town. After all, the Goodenough silver mine runs underneath the town with literally hundreds of miles of tunnels (the mine tour guide told me that). That might make a good icky bug setting.


            No matter how we describe things, or even show them on TV or in movies…by the way, the movie Tombstone with Kurt Russell was filmed elsewhere…people are going to see things differently.

            You can use a thousand words or ten words. It’s not going to matter. People are going to draw their own picture anyway. Sure, you can bore them or mesmerize them with page after page of description, but they’re still going to fill in their own details.

            Now, if you think I’m just giving this from my own perspective think of this:

            “I thought it would be bigger.”

            “I thought it would be smaller.”

            “This is it?”

            “I’m not impressed.”

            “Wow! This is so much better than I ever thought!”

            I rest my case. A word picture is just that, a word picture. They say a photo is worth a thousand words, but I can tell you it isn’t worth much more than that because photos are just as myopic as words in their own way. They can tell a lot, but unless you’re there, a photo can only show you what the lens is aimed at. Sure, it can be worth a thousand words, but there are so many words it leaves out, so many sensations and angles the camera can’t capture.

            The only way to get that is to be there.

            As authors, all we can do is our best to describe a setting and hope for the best from our readers. We’re never going to get it right. So, with that in mind, don’t even try to make it perfect. Don’t try to beat yourself or your reader up with details. Give them enough to get the idea. If it’s a real place, maybe they’ll visit one day and see for themselves. If not, no harm, no foul. In the meantime, we have to rely on their imaginations to go where our prodding leads them.

            Happy writing!

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