Travel for Writing Research

Two years ago, my husband Will and I spent a couple of weeks in Los Angeles and San Diego, California. After we got home, I started a novel about two women who travel from Calgary to southern California on a quest. About half of the novel turned out to be set in an undescribed location roughly a two-hour drive southeast of LA and a similar distance north of San Diego. It was an area I had never visited.

This  January, we had another opportunity to visit San Diego. To research the book, we tacked on a four-day road trip to explore my story setting. I still intended to keep the locale an imagined place, but wanted to pinpoint it and make it more believable and authentic, with local colour and details like vegetation suitable for the setting and time of year. The story takes place in January.

We left Calgary in minus twenty degrees Celsius weather, with light snow, and arrived to sunshine and above twenty degree C temperatures in San Diego. My characters will also experience that pleasant jolt from winter to summer – flowers in bloom, palm trees and roads that never experience snow or ice. We picked up our rental car, changed into shorts and drove the freeway to Murietta Springs, a resort community, and the towns immediately to the north of it. I realized I would have to modify my concept of the story setting, which included (1) a holiday retreat between two valleys, isolated from the surrounding world – retreat visitors couldn’t see out and others couldn’t see the retreat from a distance (2) lots of trees blocking the views out and in and lining the entry dirt road (3) within the retreat, Mediterranean vegetation such as citrus trees (4) a small lonely older town outside the retreat, with a single motel, that serves as the retreat gateway. 

Right away, I saw my desired isolation was going to be a problem. I should have realized that this part of California is endless suburb stretching from LA through Anaheim (Disneyland) until it meets the San Diego suburban belt.  I had some hope between Murietta and Perris when we passed pockets of farmland not yet developed. There was a dirt road to low rolling hills that might, with a stretch, conceal a retreat. 

Trees, other than planted ones, are almost non-existent in this region, which is, essentially, dessert. Irrigation would be needed for my citrus and other crops.  The retreat gardener, a major character, would mention irrigation in the book.  

We spent our first night at Lake Elsinore, a holiday boating town. Dinner at a Mexican restaurant reminded me to include Latinos among my local characters. 

The second day we drove through Corona, a pleasant looking place we fantasied about spending a month in some winter. Corona merged into Riverside, where we visited the California Citrus State Historic Park, a tourist attraction that I highly recommended. Around the time of the California Gold Rush, entrepreneurs planted the first Californian oranges in Riverside. In the long run, citrus and other produce turned out to be the real California gold. In addition to taking you through the world history of citrus, the park includes walks through citrus groves like the ones that covered the whole region before suburban development. We picked oranges and grapefruits to sample on the spot. The park made me really want to keep the citrus trees on my retreat, with the added feature of guests being allowed to pick and eat as many as they like. 

That night, we stayed at the Riverside Mission Inn, a large, rambling historic hotel that, with its decor, odd crannies and walkways, made us feel away-from-it-all in the heart of the city.  It may be possible, I thought, to create a retreat that feels isolated from its surrounding world and encroaching suburbia. 

Surely, that thought justifies the splurge of the Mission Inn as research.

Day three took us high into the San Bernardino mountains. Thousands of feet of elevation led to an  environment more reminiscent of Canada than southern California. Pines and large deciduous trees. An alpine village on a lake. Mounds of snow. We followed the steep, winding roads to the Mojave desert on the other side of the mountains. Here was vast flat land dotted with sage and scrub – no place for my retreat to hide and the land is too high and cool for citrus trees. I was ready to turn back, when we arrived at Pearsblossom, a small town that struck me as perfect for the town in my story. Single motel. Small houses scattered among cacti. To the left, rolling hills where my retreat might nestle. 

We took a side road into the hills and, within minutes, saw a sign for a religious retreat. We turned in, but were too shy to look around. So, retreats can be here, hidden by hills and the enormous San Bernardino range. Continuing along the road, we passed ski and toboggan slopes packed with families from the Los Angeles area out to experience their one day a year of northern winter.

I could re-set my novel here, an easy drive from LA. The region has the isolation I want for the story and a town even more suitable than the one I envisioned. But no citrus. Would olive trees work? Would the mountains shade the retreat too much? I want sunshine – a feeling of California. 

After a spending the night in Riverside, we drove the San Moreno valley – more suburbs – to farms, a golf course, rural land. Finally, we were outside the Los Angeles and San Diego metropolitan zones.

We reached San Jacinto and Hemet, two older towns now popular with retirees and young people seeking affordable homes. Luxury houses staggered up the hillsides, next to citrus groves. One of those valleys might contain my retreat. Valle Vista, past Hemet, was too modern for my gateway town, but might work. Trees to conceal the retreat could be planted. Irrigation would come from streams falling from the mountains backdropping the region. 

My setting will need some modifications. In addition to changing the nature of the town, I’ll have to shift the citrus groves to the other side of my retreat valley. But now I’ve found the spot, picked up details for local atmosphere and had a fun and memorable trip.

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