On the Road with Mike Mullin

Mike Mullin is the author of Ashfall, and the upcoming sequel, Ashen Winter, novels about the Yellowstone supervolcano. Last week, Mike shared his experiences researching Ashfall. Today, he talks about the road trip he took with his wife, travelling the escape route of his protagonist, Alex, and learning that Google Maps can’t always be trusted.

I’ve read several articles advising writers to use Google Earth, Maps, and Street View to research their novels. And it’s good advice—I used all three tools while writing my novel Ashfall. But if I’d stopped there—hadn’t taken the time to physically visit the places I depict in my novel—then Alex, my protagonist, would have started his journey in a house that couldn’t exist and ended it in a town that doesn’t.

Ashfall is about Alex’s struggle to survive and find his family after the cataclysmic eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano. The first draft was set in Indianapolis, where I live. (Write what you know, right?) But as I researched the Yellowstone supervolcano, I discovered that the disaster wouldn’t be bad enough in Indiana. Maps of past eruptions show the heaviest ashfall ending roughly at the Mississippi River. I decided that Ashfall had to move west, closer to Yellowstone.

I got out an old Rand McNally road atlas and drew a circle with a 900-mile radius around Yellowstone—close enough to make survival difficult, yet far enough to make it plausible. My circle neatly bisected Waterloo, Iowa. I had the starting point for my novel—now I just needed the end. I used Google Maps, searching for a small town 100-150 miles east of Waterloo, preferably one with a state park or forest nearby. I found Apple River Canyon State Park in the right general area and chose nearby Millville, Illinois as Alex’s destination.

Apple River Canyon State Park

About two-thirds of the way through the second draft, I got stuck. I didn’t know enough about Iowa—the people or the terrain—to set a novel set there. The solution? Road trip!

The problems started as soon as my wife and I arrived in Waterloo. We couldn’t find Alex’s house. It needed to be a two-story Victorian home in a neighborhood trendy enough that Alex could have gay neighbors—in other words, someplace similar to our neighborhood in Indianapolis. Maybe we just didn’t happen upon the right street, but we never did find a starting point for Alex in Waterloo. A side trip to Cedar Falls proved more fruitful—we found the perfect house near 9th and Olive.

Alex’s neighborhood in Cedar Falls, Iowa


Four days later, we reached the end of Alex’s journey—Millville, Illinois. Or at least we’d found the spot where Millville was supposed to be. At the intersection Google Maps directed us to, there was nothing but fields covered in fall corn stubble.

Puzzled, I drove into Apple River Canyon State Park to ask for directions. The ranger on duty was grizzled and nearly toothless, but friendly enough. “Millville?” he said. “The last of its foundations washed away in a flood ‘bout ten years ago. Was a good-sized town in the 1880s.” And that’s how Alex came to end his quest in nearby Warren, Illinois.

Main Street, Warren, Illinois

In the end, both the opening and closing setting of Ashfall had moved twice because, as powerful as Google’s tools are, they couldn’t give me the accuracy and level of detail I got from having my eyes on the horizon and wheels on the road. Which is good, because a road trip just wouldn’t be the same if you could take it without leaving your computer chair.


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