If you’ve been keeping up with Helen Ginger’s Straight From Hel blog (and why wouldn’t you?) you know she undertook a quest at my suggestion to find and photograph Slip F-18 Bahia Mar, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Along with 221b Baker Street, the abode of Sherlock Holmes, Slip F-18 is one of the most famous addresses in mysterydom,. It’s where Travis McGee docks his houseboat, The Busted Flush. Both addresses are fictitious but their locations are real.
I don’t think I’m an obsessive fan, but if I ever visit London, I will surely go to Baker Street. I have walked the block of Marlborough Street in Boston where Spenser lives, though I could not identify which apartment was his. (Bob Ames of the Bullets and Beer website believes he’s figured out which one is Spenser’s. You can read how he did it here.) I have Googled Woodrow Wilson Avenue in Los Angeles where Harry Bosch lives and, using the street view feature, have found some likely candidates.
Why does it matter where our protagonists live? It’s actually the rare story in which the protagonist’s home is relevant to the plot. If the home figures into the story, it’s usually where the story begins, where we see the hero in his or her ordinary world; and it’s often where the story ends when the hero returns to the ordinary world. In between, the hero might return home to catch his/her breath or lick his/her wounds.
If home is not important to the plot, it is, nevertheless, important to character. Where they choose to live and what they choose to surround themselves with, tell us a lot about the characters and what they value. We never learned much about Philip Marlowe’s pad except for the ever-present, unfinished chess game, but that tells us a lot about his spare, focused personality. Spenser’s Back Bay apartment reflects his appreciation of substance and quality. The location is near the center of his world. In contrast, Harry Bosch chose a house high up in the Hollywood Hills with a deck that overlooks the city he serves. His job takes him into the pit of hell every day, so it’s understandable that he would want to rise above it, literally and figuratively.
The main character of my current project, Ava Rome, lives in Waikiki because she likes to be near the activity. Waikiki, however, is a densely populated area full of high-rise apartment buildings, which, in my opinion, lack character. Ava thinks so too, and refers to their collective style as “Californication.” I looked long and hard for a place in Waikiki that would suit Ava and finally found it on Pau Street. It’s a two-story apartment building that looks like it was built in the early 60’s before the high-rise building boom. It’s next door to a single dwelling home that could be even older and might be the last single home in Waikiki. Pau Street is a one-block street on the western end of Waikiki. Even the name resonates with meaning. Pau means “end” or “finished” so this out-of-date apartment on this tiny street represents a last stand against whatever needs to be stood up to. And that’s what Ava does. She’s the last stand for people who have messed up their lives. Her apartment has one other feature that makes it desirable for my story. The stairs going up to her door are painted red, so blood stains won’t show.
The Busted Flush, Travis McGee’s houseboat, is as much a part of his character as his cynical outlook. It's how we picture him, sitting on deck, waxing philosophic on love, friendship, gin and women. Of course everyone knows he's not there. But if he were there, he would have greeted Helen Ginger and her husband with a cold martini. Then he would have listened sympathetically to her account of the highway clogged with traffic and the ocean views ruined by development and he would have had very harsh words for the people who destroyed his Florida.
So writers, how did you choose where your characters live? Readers, what fictional abodes would you visit if you could?