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Research is the key

Although I’ve had a fascination with Nostradamus for a long time, I don’t profess to be an expert. When embarking on a complicated plot like The First Face of Janus it’s essential that you do your research. I read all of Nostradamus’ quatrains. I even interpreted a few as they’d never been interpreted before. Take special note of when Benson Crow and Sidney Rosenfeld are talking in The Dubliner restaurant in Washington, DC.

But it wasn’t just researching Nostradamus. It was scouting the locations where my characters would visit. I believe locales are characters in themselves. I started that practice with this book and now make a point to visit every place my characters go. It’s not good enough just to see it on Google maps. You have to walk it, feel it, smell it, hear it, touch it. It’s almost like scouting a movie location.

There were several places I went that were totally different from what I imagined once I got there. Montreal was especially that way. I actually drove to Montreal from Nashville (yeah, it’s a long way). I spent a couple of days there walking every step my characters walked in the book. I found that I had to re-write a lot of what I had written because it was simply different from what it looked like from Google’s street view.

The characters in this book visit several locations in Provence, in the South of France. Avignon was completely different from how I had it on paper before I went. The streets were much narrower. Everything was so much closer together. On my last day there I was walking the narrow streets and it struck me that it would be the perfect place for a car chase. I wrote most of that scene while I was riding on the train to my next destination.

Nostradamus’ house was nothing like I thought it would be. In fact, it was a bit on the disappointing side. I had thought one might walk through his home and see it restored as it was in his day. See where he slept. See where he wrote, where he ate. The tour is not that way at all. You follow a spiral staircase to several small rooms where mannequins sit at desks and an announcer dramatically tells you something about Nostradamus’ life. I learned more from the Internet than I did from the tour. But it was very instructive to see Salon. Some key events in the book take place there and seeing the town for myself helped me bring those scenes to life.

I won’t give away anything in the book, but I will tell you that the climax scene had to be moved far away from where I’d originally set it. When I got there it was nothing like it looked from the pictures I’d seen. I almost went into a panic because everything hinged on that scene. I sat in a hotel room one night and desperately tried to find a new location. Nothing was working.

Then a key historical figure who now plays prominently in the crescendo of the story sort of revealed himself to me. That led me to a new location for the climax that actually turned out better than the original. I also cross-referenced this historical figure with Nostradamus and got a quote that became the lynchpin for the whole book. I booked a train for the new location, walked it, and it was perfect. It’s funny how things like that come together, but they only come together if you do your research and actually visit the places your characters go.

The First Face of Janus would not be nearly the book it is were I not willing to walk in the shoes of my characters. It’s a valuable lesson learned.


Phil Valentine is an award-winning talk show host, screenwriter, and documentary producer. His radio show is syndicated with Westwood One.

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