(This posting originally appeared on The Melt-Ink Pot)
Last Thursday, my friend R. and I went to Kimball, Nebraska, to do research.
Of course, I did a little homework beforehand, so I knew that Kimball is a town of about 2,500 people, and that it is laid out on a grid centered around the intersections of Highway 71 (north-south) and Highway 30 (east-west). I knew from childhood trips that there is a Catholic church, and I looked up the location of the library and a list of restaurants (there aren’t dozens but we won’t starve) and shops (ooh, antique mall, yep, we’ll need to go there!). I discovered that there are two elementary schools and one combined junior/senior high school. There are even two grocery stores.
When I told my cubicle neighbor where I was headed, his Google-fu discovered that Kimball is home to a wind farm. Okay, good to know.
Those are the sorts of things you can learn from the Internet. And they’re good things to know about a town, if you’re setting a story there (or even just having a character that comes from there). Technically, there’s probably not a lot more that you need to know.
But there are lots of details you can only learn by going there.
For instance, you can see the wind farm from several miles away. It’s up on a hill to the north of the town, on the “wrong side” of the railroad tracks. (99% of town is south of the railroad tracks.) You have to drive on a dirt road, past the hill that they’re strip-mining for gravel, to get there. There’s no visitor’s center, just a sign telling about the project, and a locked gate. But the windmills are huge and majestic and graceful, spinning lackadaisically in the breeze. I don’t know why, but I’m drawn to them.
Depending on your timing, you might drive into town, see a lot of boarded-up windows and damaged siding, and think that the economic downturn has hit this little town especially hard. It’s not until you realize that only the windows on the south sides of buildings are either broken or boarded up (which has the unfortunate effect of making it appear as though the Super 8 Motel has completely gone out of business), and that a lot of cars either have plastic over their rear windows or lots of cracks in their windshields that you figure out that what you’re seeing is actually hail damage. The proprietor of the antique mall told us that the hailstorm happened three days ago, and that the tornado warning sirens went off, and that the hailstones were the size of golf balls.
The library was built in the 1950’s, and technologically-speaking, it hasn’t progressed much since then. You still check books out using paper cards, and there is still a card catalog. And a microfilm reader. And a microfiche reader. The few computers you can see look like they’re vintage 1995. Flatscreens? What are those? We didn’t check to see if there was WiFi, but I’m betting not.
But you’ll also see two display cases near the front door. One contains a collection of salt cellars, the other, cream pitchers. And there’s an ongoing used book sale, like just all libraries have these days. You have to walk through the staff room to get there (a bonus for me, since this is the library where Phoebe Caldicott supposedly works!), and when you do, you find all sorts of fun things, like a book on soapmaking.
You see churches on practically every other street corner, a lot of churches for a town this size. We counted twelve or thirteen, including two different flavors of Baptist (though one of those was for sale). [The picture is of the Catholic church.]
As you drive up and down the quiet streets, you see a lot of very cute houses, most in well-kept yards (though the hailstorm definitely hurt the early flower crop). You even find one that looks a bit like an old southern manse (though smaller). There are some less-attractive houses, too, and a share of trailers and even a few apartment buildings. But mostly, it’s a pretty little town. There’s a bowling alley, but no roller rink (that we could find) or movie theater (there probably used to be one). There is a country club on the outskirts of town, complete with golf course; the signs directing you to it are hand-lettered, not professionally done.
There are two parks, with the requisite playground equipment and tennis courts. But one of them also has a…ummm…feature we were unable to classify. Is it a rocket? A missile? A weather station? We don’t know.
When you talk to the lady in the antique mall (which consists of four small rooms and a hallway, and half of one of the rooms is given over to a display of cell phones, because it seems as though most businesses do double-duty in these parts), you find out that the humidity that you’ve been finding oppressive really is unusual for these parts. When you take a closer look at the items she has for sale, you also discover that not everything here is politically correct.
The food at Greg’s Grub is very good, but the service is … rather leisurely. (It took us an hour and a half to eat our late lunch). We could have tried the new restaurant in town, the one that went in where the Frontier used to be (which is rather obviously where the Burger King used to be), but it didn’t open until the next day. Timing is everything.
On the other hand, if you had a preconceived notion in your head that the grocery stores would be small, poorly stocked, and expensive, you would be wrong on all three counts. The local co-op market may not have had as much of any one item as my local supermarket, but they have a better selection of items, at prices that are competitive with what I’d be paying in Denver. (In fact, ground beef was cheaper.) They even carry a flavor of tea I’m not able to find anywhere in the greater Denver metro area. (Yes, I bought some.) And when you’re done shopping, they transfer your groceries to special two-wheeled carts and the bagboy takes them out to the car for you, just like they used to do at Steele’s Market in Fort Collins. No carts cluttering up the parking lot, and they’re providing entry-level employment to boot. Nice!
Everyone we met was easygoing and friendly. Even the ones like the librarian, who probably thought we were batty.
While we were there, I picked out a house that could have been the one Phoebe’s parents owned, and another that could have been the house she was renting (see picture) until she got swept away on her great adventure. It’s not really necessary to know that about a character, and I doubt it will ever come out in a story, but I found it very satisfying to have that kind of grounding for her.
And, as sometimes happens when you travel, you might even learn things about yourself. I learned, if I didn’t know it before, that I felt like a real dork slinking around trying to take surreptitious pictures in a small-town library. I’m also way too shy to walk up to the librarian and say, “Hi, I’m an author, and I’m doing character research for a book I’m writing. Would it be okay if we took some pictures?” (I mean, how pretentious would that be? Maybe once I’ve published something, it’ll be different.)
Still, it was a productive trip: not only did it provide character background for an existing work, but now I have the seeds for a couple of other stories kicking around in my head.
Anyone else up for a research road trip?
(Note: Click on any picture to link to a larger version on my Flickr account. Or click hereto see the whole series.)