THE GEOGRAPHY OF A NOVEL
The setting of my thriller A Bridge to Treachery is deeply rooted in the geography of the Hudson River Valley stretching from Newburg, New York, a town on the Hudson River north of West Point all the way south to Manhattan. I used actual locations because this fuels the feeling that this story could actually have happened there.
Geography drives most of the action in the novel. Once the characters are placed in a scene and need to move to another location, the actual terrain, roads, etc. determine exactly how this is accomplished. You could look it all up on a topographic map.
I didn’t need to research the geography of the region. I lived in it for nearly thirty years, starting when at age nineteen I departed my home in the suburbs of Chicago and traveled by train to attend the US Military Academy at West Point, 40 miles north of New York City. It was the first exposure I had to terrain that was not flat.
West Point is situated at a bend in the beautiful Hudson River that flows through the heavily forested and rugged foothills that rise on either side. Within a day of arriving at West Point a pretty scruffy teenager, I was formed up in immaculate dress gray trousers and pressed white shirt for the swearing in ceremony in front of Trophy Point, from which you can look out to the north at the river stretching out between towering hills, a perfect vista for the artists of the Hudson River School. It is here where my protagonist Lou Christopher reflects on his days as a cadet, and makes a decision that dictates the climax of the novel.
As a cadet at West Point, I became very familiar with the rocky local terrain during a summer of intense military training at the beginning of my sophomore year. As a junior in Engineering Class, I would travel to the Bear Mountain Bridge to check out how the massive cables were anchored in the surrounding rock. Later, I would stand on a smaller bridge and peer down into the chasm in which Popolopen Creek flows. Here in the novel, Maggie Christopher galvanized herself for action.
When my military service was over, I settled with my family in Bergen County, NJ from which I commuted to Wall Street. Daily, I walked the streets from the World Trade Towers and through Trinity Churchyard, and in the summer, ate brown bag lunches on the benches of Bowling Green. I rode the subway to Grand Central Station in midtown. These are the places where, in the novel, Lou finds temporary refuge.
An activity that absorbed a lot of my family’s time in my thirties is the sport of Orienteering. I was fascinated with navigation by map and compass, and the joy of traipsing the hills that surrounded us. I organized a club, put on tons of “meets”, and eventually administered much larger meets. Putting on meets requires producing orienteering maps from scratch. I spent hundreds of hours in the field, plotting every boulder, stream, cliff and trail on detailed maps. This is how I know what it’s like to traverse the terrain around Bear Mountain, an important part of A Bridge to Treachery.
Tell me if you think geography is as important to a novel as I do. I’d love to hear from you.