On location in Monterey

DSC03175The Haunting of Alice May is set in Monterey Bay, California, an area rich in scenic beauty and supernatural folklore. Explore some of the famous locations in the novel, such as Lovers Point, Point Pinos Lighthouse, Point Lobos State Reserve, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Big Sur.

With The Haunting of Alice May, the first in a trilogy following the romance between Alice, a sixteen-year-old girl, and Henry, a 100-year-old ghost in the body of a seventeen-year-old sailor, I adapted the principles of mystery and suspense when writing for young adults. Teens can be impatient, so I was sure to keep the plot moving. A well-paced book should keep the reader’s mind occupied, and this is achieved by writing a very full story and the changing of one situation to another. They need an injection of what the famed director Alfred Hitchcock called ‘dope’. The ‘dope’ to keep young adults reading is action, movement and excitement. Passages should never stand still, but must carry the action forward.

Having written three books on Alfred Hitchcock, I specialise in mystery and suspense. The central character must have a goal or aim, and the reader should be rooting for that character. A chase is essentially someone running toward a goal, or fleeing from a pursuer. Hitchcock said, “Probably the fox hunt would be the simplest form of the chase.” But put in place a boy instead of the fox, and substitute the girl for the hunters, then you have a chase of girl after boy, which is what occurs throughout the book (more progressive than the traditional boy chases girl).
One of Hitchcock’s favorite books, which he adapted for the screen, was The 39 Steps by the Scottish author John Buchan, partly because of the rapid and sudden switches in location. Once the train leaves the station, the story never stops moving. Halfway through, the lead character, Hannay, leaps out of a police station window with half a handcuff on, and immediately walks into a Salvation Army band. To escape the police, he marches with the band, then slips into a public hall, and ends up on oratory platform and is mistaken for a speaker. The rapid movement from one scene to another, and using one idea after another, keeps the reader hooked.

So when writing my novel, I made sure to keep the reader interested by rapidly changing locations around the peninsula. I shift the locations around Monterey Bay and Pacific Grove, taking in the Big Sur coastline, Asilomar pools and Carmel Beach, as well as including famous landmarks such as the Monterey Aquarium and Point Pinos Lighthouse.

Hitchcock believed that if you are using a unique location, it should be used to its utmost. He was adamant that the backgrounds must be incorporated into the drama and made it a rule to exploit elements that are connected with a location. Never use a setting simply as background. Use it 100%. When writing my locations, I also thought how they could be used dramatically. When Alice climbs the Point Pinos Lighthouse, it twice becomes the setting for her attempted murder. Heather, the high school prom queen’s disappearance becomes the MacGuffin, a plot device that Hitchcock often used, which is the engine of the story that drives the characters in the second half of the book.

Location is also used to create atmosphere. The past, Henry’s world, is evoked in the old canneries lining Cannery Row, made famous by John Steinbeck’s novel; in the tall, skeletal cypress forests of Point Lobos State Reserve, the ramshackle cabins of Big Sur and the Victorian clapboard houses of Pacific Grove. I actually lived in 136 Forest Avenue, the very same address where Alice and her family moved, just a few blocks from the romantically named Lover’s Point.

Both Alice and Henry have a shared appreciation of nature, and see tremendous beauty in the ocean, but also realize its power and danger. I was sure to choose locations to help form the setting for the development of their relationship. When they go to the Monterey Aquarium, they marvel at the moon jellies, and go searching among the Asilomar rock pools for sea creatures during low tide. Subliminally they also have other things in common, including favourite colours like purple and the same tastes in mid 19th Century literature. When Henry writes Alice a love letter it is on old-fashioned scented lilac paper. They embark on a romantic courtship, involving ballroom dances, first kisses, coffee dates, writing love letters, walks along the beach, and having picnics.

The Monterey Peninsula is also rich in supernatural folklore. As well as my own personal experiences of the bay’s beauty, I was lucky to have a built in backdrop of ghosts and strange sightings to draw upon. Point Pinos is also the oldest operating lighthouse on the west coast, and is actually thought to be haunted. It seemed the perfect place for the novel’s climax and for pivotal scenes in the book.

A romantic novel should also maintain the mystery and suspense about a character, particularly the love interest, and mirror real life when you are getting to know someone for the first time. The central mystery of the book for Alice and the reader is who is Henry and where does he come from?

You don’t always have to wrap everything up in a neat bundle at the end of your story. Sometimes it’s better to leave things unresolved, which Alfred Hitchcock called the ‘Ice box syndrome’, referring to the moment when a couple discusses the plot or something troubling them, and they reach into the ‘ice box’ or refrigerator.

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