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Talking Location With Robert McCaw – HAWAI’I
11th July 2020
#TalkingLocationWith… Robert McCaw, author of Fire and Vengeance – Hawai’i.
Fire and Vengeance, like the other books in the Koa Kāne Hawaiian Mystery Series, is set on the Big Island of Hawai’i. Most of the action takes place there, and the Big Island itself is a principal character in the book. From the first page, when a volcanic vent on Hualālai Mountain near Kailua-Kona erupts beneath an elementary school, the Island’s explosive nature shapes the narrative.
Bringing the Big Island and the novel’s other settings to life required me to use a wide range of research techniques starting with detailed visual analysis. Readers “see” through an author’s eyes, so I try to visit and walk the grounds of my settings, capturing their intriguing details, to bring my stories to life. When my protagonist stands on the slopes of Hualālai and looks west, observing the 1801 lava flows, the Māmalahoa Highway, Keāhole airport, and the coastline, he sees what I surveyed standing on the mountain. That’s not to say that I don’t add or embellish details to further the storyline, but those are nearly always in the context of an actual place.
Aside from the book’s central volcanic theme, many scenes also take place in Hilo, Laupāhoehoe, Hōlualoa, and Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Over the years, I’ve personally explored each of these settings, often taking photographs as memory aids to use when I write. I typically undertake in-depth research in advance to understand the history, vegetation, and wildlife of the place to achieve a degree of authenticity. Few comments please me as much as a reader who says, I feel like I’ve actually been there.
Buildings in urban settings, especially those of historical significance, frequently make great stages for critical events. For example, on one of my wanderings through Hilo, I came upon an art exhibit housed in the 1930’s East Hawai’i Cultural Center. The Center itself was more captivating than the exhibition. With a bit of research, using, among other sources, its nomination documents for a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, I quickly realized I’d stumbled upon a gem. Before being repurposed as a cultural center, it served simultaneously as the police station, the sheriff’s office, and Hilo’s only courthouse, and thus became an ideal setting for the penultimate scene in a police murder mystery.
In general, the plot, players, and settings in Fire and Vengeance required both contemporary and historical context. In the case of Hualālai volcano, I studied every scrap of geological data available, including extensive USGS materials relating to every previous eruption in recorded history, as well as current monitoring efforts. I wanted to make my human characters feel the heat, smell the noxious odors, and experience the sounds of my imaginary volcanic eruption. This research also enabled me to put my volcanic event into a believable historical context. Along the way, I picked up the terminology that my human characters might reasonably use in dialog about the activities in which they participate.
In the course of my Hualālai research, I delved into the Hawaiian legends about the mountain and discovered that my imaginary eruption wasn’t its first volcanic disaster. Through this research, I was able to weave both historical events and delightful Hawaiian lore, involving both King Kamehameha and Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, into my story.
All of my location-specific research also needed a broader historical context. I spent hundreds of hours reading and researching the fascinating history, culture, and legends of the Hawaiian Islands. Ultimately, my efforts encompassed the first Polynesian explorers who crossed 2000 miles of hostile ocean from Tahiti, the consolidation of the Hawaiian kingdom under Kamehameha, and the expropriation of the Islands by the United States in 1898, among other topics. My research entailed trips to the extraordinary Bishop Museum and the University of Hawai’i library on O’ahu, where I gained invaluable insights into indigenous fauna and flora, Hawaiian kapa or bark cloth, Polynesian tattoos, and ancient Hawaiian proverbs.
I am fond of saying that for a novelist, life is research. I lived part-time on the Big Island for more than 20 years, and nearly every waking moment enhanced my understanding of Hawai’i. Speaking with friends, I learned how the locals describe the weather, how they “talk story,” and how they interspersed their conversations with Hawaiian words. I learned that the Islands have a significant Micronesian population, that cinder cones are called pu’us, and a thousand other tidbits of local lore that pop up throughout Fire and Vengeance.
My life-is-research thesis extends to my human characters, too. I am always on the lookout for new personalities. One of my favorites is Hook Hao, a giant fisherman who wields a short-shanked gaff as an extension of his arm. He is, in fact, an adaptation of a fish auctioneer I once encountered who used to run the local Hilo fish auction. Another favorite is Zeke Brown, the Hawai’i County prosecutor, who is a composite of lawyers and prosecutors I’ve met during my career as an attorney. Indeed, most of the people you meet in Fire and Vengeance are mix-and-match variations of the personalities, quirky encounters, and experiences I had with real people. You might even find a little of me buried in one of my favorite characters.
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