Researching for Fiction Locations using VR

While I have used a type of virtual reality for years now, it’s always been on a screen in front of me. Things like Google Earth, Google Street View, and apps like Second Life have been familiar and useful to me when I want to get a unique feel for a place that I cannot actually visit in person. 

Now, especially during the great pandemic of 2020, that is especially true.

Then, one day a few weeks ago, my good friend and podcasting partner Joe started telling me about how much fun he and his wife have been having with their Oculus Quests, and that no, you don’t have to hook it to a $2500 gaming PC. It’s a self-contained $300 piece of tech.

Go on, I said. I’m listening.

The latest one, he told me — the Quest 2 — has even higher specs for an even lower price. The way he was talking, it made me think that perhaps VR hardware stood on the brink of being mainstream. The real kicker, though, was not about gaming — he told me that if I got a set, we could hang out in a virtual theater and watch videos on a screen that rivals the best of the best physical movie screens. They’re huge, he told me. It’s like being there.

In other words, Joe talked me into it.

Now, I did already have a headset, but it was one of those ones where you put a smartphone into it, and I had used it maybe three times before putting it back in its box and sticking it on a shelf — where it still sits today. I’ll just say it was an underwhelming experience.

But Joe emphatically told me the Quest 2 was different. 

Now those who know me will tell you that when I get into something I find really interesting, I don’t just stick my toe into it. I get on a high dive and do a full cannonball right into the deep end. Not only did I buy myself one, but after trying it out, I immediately bought one for everyone in the family. 

This, I thought, was real deal. A total game changer.

The next big thing.

Here’s the problem, though — it’s such a transformative experience that there’s no way to really relate it to someone who’s never done it. It’s kind of like losing your virginity. It’s crossing a major threashold into an entirely new level of experience.

I’m not so sure about earlier VR headsets — the cell phone based one I have only slightly hinted at this — but the Oculus Quest 2 put me into a whole other world. Your mind almost instantly accepts this new space you’re in as real. It’s the closest thing to actual teleportation I have ever experienced, and I know it’s not just me — my family members said the same thing. The weirdest part is not when you “go in” to the experience, it’s when you take the headset off and look around and realize, wow, I’m back. That for some reason is even more jarring — going from this big, Disneylandesq space, or the huge movie theater, or from beside a lake with a fishing pole in your hand, to suddenly being in the dimly lit little cluttered room in your house that you suddenly realize needs a good dusting and probably vacuuming.

One might at this point ask if we’re at the level of the movie Ready Player One.

Emphatically NO. But you can see it on the horizon. It’s there. Whether or not we want to go there is another question, and that is a whole other discussion.

When I told you I dive in like a cannonball, I’m not joking, because based on my Oculus Quest 2 experience I almost immediately did something I had already decided not to do — I bought the VR headset produced for my Playstation 4 Pro, because I wanted to see what it was like to actually immurse myself into the alien worlds I visit in the game No Man’s Sky

I’m glad I went with the Oculus first, because it is far superior to the Playstation headset, with one exception — the Playstation headset is more comfortable to wear. Despite it’s lower image quality, I must admit it still gives me a very good feeling of what it’s like to walk the surface of alien worlds, with huge moons in the skies, and wondrous archways of planetary rings — and sunsets with sometimes two, or even three suns.

Which brings me to the actual subject of this artical. Research.

I’m the type of writer who likes to write what I know. I don’t like to guess. But until now, I have never been able to say I know what it’s like to walk on an (admittedly fictional) alien world.

I do now. And I’m using that experience in my writing.

But, also, in the Oculus Quest, I have a program that pulls in Google Street View, and allows me to take meandering walks in frozen time, down just about any street in the world. And it’s not like viewing it on a screen, it’s like standing right there on that street. I feel what it’s like to be there.

What an awesome tool!

That’s right. Tool. Not toy. This is an incredibly useful tool for researching locations for fiction. That app in the Oculus store only cost $9.99, and it is going to save me literally thousands upon thousands of dollars in travel expense — and probably prevent me from contracting a certain troublesome virus.

And you’d better believe I’m going to write all this off as an expense on my taxes.

Now, it’s not going to completely replace travel. When the pandemic subsides, there are a few places I really need to visit. And I will. But until then, I’ll be donning my headset and teleporting to places — here on Earth, and elsewhere in the galaxy.

If you ever needed an excuse to try one of these out, especially the stand-alone Oculus Quest 2, I say give it a go. You won’t really know what it’s like until you do it yourself.

Mom’s Phantom Visitor

Being that this is Halloween month, it’s time for a ghost story. This is a story that my mom used to tell back before she, too, became a ghost. (Miss you, Mom. And Dad. And Brother. I’m the only member of my original family unit who still doesn’t know what it’s like “on the other side.”)

The little girl woke up to see a man standing in her doorway.

It was dark in her room, and there wasn’t a lot of light from beyond the doorway. All the little girl could see was an outline of the man’s figure. He came forward into the room and spoke her name, and his voice was familiar. It was the voice of her favorite uncle. “How is my little sweetheart?” he asked her.

She rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “Okay,” she told him.

Her uncle came closer, but not too close. “I’m sorry to wake you up, but I wanted to say goodbye. I’m going away for a while, so I’m not going to be able to see you so often.”

“Oh.” The little girl didn’t like that news. He was the one who always brought her candies and new dolls. “Where are you going?”

“On a trip.”

“Are you going to be a long way away?”

“A very long way away. That’s why I woke you up, sweetheart. I wanted to say goodbye before I leave.”

“Okay.” She was just a little girl, and didn’t know what to say. “Goodbye.”

Her uncle seemed to want to come and hug her, but wouldn’t allow himself to. This was odd. He sounded very unhappy, too. “Goodbye my little sweetheart. You take care of your mommy, now. Okay?”

“Okay. Bye-bye.”

“Goodbye. You go back to sleep now.”

“Okay. Goodbye.”

“Goodnight.” Her uncle backed away from her, edging toward the door.

The little girl settled back into her bed, and glanced for a moment at the clock. She could just barely make out the time. It was after 11:00 PM, very late indeed. When she looked back up at the doorway, her uncle was gone.

The little girl went back to sleep.

In the morning, her mother was unusually silent, and spent a lot of time staring off into space. She’d burnt their breakfast eggs. While the little girl was eating, she suddenly remembered her uncle’s late visit. “Mom,” she asked, “where is uncle going?”

Her mother seemed shocked by the question. “What?”

“When he was here last night, he told me he was going away. Where’s he going?”

“Uncle was here? Last night?”

The little girl nodded.

“When?” There was an edge to her mother’s voice.

“It was really late. My clock said after eleven.”

Her mother went pale, and her mouth hung open. It took her a few moments to say anything. “Your uncle loved you very much. I don’t doubt he stopped by here to say goodbye to you.”

“Where’s he going?”

Her mother fumbled with a pack of cigarettes, pulling one out and putting it in her mouth. Her hands were trembling when she lit it. The flame wiggled and she had a hard time keeping it at the tip of the cigarette. “Your uncle went to heaven, honey.”

“Heaven?” The little girl didn’t understand.

“He was killed in a car wreck last night.” Her mother began crying, and so did the little girl. It wasn’t until a few days later, after the funeral, that she overheard her mother telling relatives in a hushed voice about the late night visit from the uncle. The other relatives gaped at the news, astonished, and gave the little girl strange glances. It was then the little girl learned that her uncle had died at about 7:00 PM that fateful evening, while driving home from a restaurant. The person who had come into her room at 11:00 PM could not have been her uncle, unless…

That little girl, as you probably guessed by now, was my mom. She swore up and down that this was true.

Ca11igraphy

She has the most beautifully rounded font
I have ever beheld
And I caress every curve
Of her W
With my eager gaze
Her M and her Y
Give me a capital I
Even her E and her 3
Really do it for me
She has the most beautifully rounded font
It is my favourite.

First Draft: Finished

I typed “The End” on this bad boy this morning, after writing the last chapter and part of the epilogue at my local pub last night. I was actually at home trying to finish the epilogue after I got home but I fell dead asleep at the desk and woke up at 2:30AM, stared at the bizarre mishmash of semi-words I’d apparently typed in my sleep, and shrugged and went to bed.

This morning, armed with a double-strength coffee and a banana, I cleaned up the epilogue and typed “The End.”

This doesn’t mean the book is done, though. I’m going to work on something else for a month or so, then come back and do a rewrite.

Seriously, it’s in the rewrite that the magic happens.

Trip Without Destination

She calls out his name
The brown sedan keeps driving
There shines no brake lights

She sits, cold concrete
Does not want to move or talk
He is gone for good

Motor sounds, smell of exhaust
Many shoes crunching endless paths
A bus pulls up, stops

She looks, driver smiles
Doors open and then breathes warm air
Standing, life goes on

Leaden feet carry her
Up three steps, walk down the aisle
Bus seat is grimy

Long hours pass the day
Trip without destination
She stares out window

Familiar streets now
She gets off the bus, walking
Shock, his car is home

Running to the door
He meets her in the doorway
The love is still there

The Tracks

We were boys trying to fathom the mysteries of women.

Summer morning, and I’d awaken and jump out of my bed, eat a bunch of sugary cereal, and then jam on down the street toward the train tracks to meet my friends. I had a Stingray bike with a tiny front tire, a banana seat, and a tall sissy bar. 5-speed, straight shift. Front wheel had a drum brake like a motorcycle.

The bike was “boss.” It “burned rubber.”

I’d race down the dirt of the levy road, dodging shadows and fallen branches, then leap over a mound of dirt and rumble down a rocky trail to the tracks. Turning north I’d follow the tracks to the second bridge where the creek was wide and deep. Usually I was the first one there, but not every time.

Randy would show up, sometimes with his neighbor Philip. Sometimes Larry would be there. Other friends came and went; I don’t even remember their names. All us boys were in-between the 4th and 5th grades. Lizard hunters, proto-motocross riders. Creek swimmers. Train challengers.

This was the lost Tom Sawyer boyhood of my youth.

The railroad bridge was a quiet place. Overgrown with trees and brush, the creek ran gurgling at a good pace. There were mini-rapids both upstream and downstream, but right around the oily, wooden bridge supports it was almost a pond. Deep enough to swim in, and if I stood it would come up to my neck. Because of broken glass, swimming with shoes was mandatory.

There were always new things to see or find. We’d catch at least one snake a day, but rarely do anything besides hold it for a while then let it go again. Only exceptionally cool snakes would be taken home so that they could escape and scare the bejeezes out of our moms. But there were also alligator lizards, and skinks (with really pretty red or blue tails), dozens of bluebellies, massive bullfrogs, and the occasional swimming turtle. They had the tendency to bite, though.

The really fun stuff was more dangerous. One of our favorites was to jump our bikes into the water. I only did this when I brought my second “junk” bike out. We would zoom down the short hill from the tracks, up a big lump of dirt, and fly 15 feet through the air and into the creek. Another favorite was to huddle under the bridge as a train went by. There was talk of actually lying down the middle of the track and have the train go right over us, but thank God no one actually tried it.

Then one day we found the hiding place of a genuine railroad hobo. Abandoned during the day, apparently this hobo returned at night to sleep in a corrugated metal pipe that ran under the tracks. There was clothes, cans of food, bottles of water, blankets, and a pile of really nasty, dirty magazines. They weren’t like our dad’s Playboy magazines. They were lurid and sleazy; wide open and shocking. We were fascinated, like deer unable to look away from oncoming headlights.

We didn’t know what to do with this forbidden treasure. We were afraid if we simply left it, it would disappear. But no one would dare take it home. We could all imagine the nightmare of it being found. So it was decided we had to find a new hiding place for it.

We searched the surrounding area for a likely place. There were piles of old railroad ties, and boards under grass, and areas where there were piles of concrete. We were surrounded by farmland, and we found what we thought was a perfect place: another corrugated metal pipe on the other side of a barbed wire fence, right below a small tree. It was perfect. It was about a foot wide and hidden by tall grass.

The next day we came out and yes, the treasure was still there. We’d all pour over it, joke about it, ask each other question which none of us truly knew the answer (though it didn’t stop us from bluffing and stating our guesses as fact). We were boys trying to fathom the mysteries of women. We were trying to integrate our knowledge of our mothers, sisters, and girls next door with what we’d learned from the dirty magazines. It was difficult and ultimately frightening.

I think we were all a bit relieved when several days later we came out to find the pipe holding our forbidden treasure was under water. As it turned out, the field was a rice field, and the farmer had come and turned the valve, flooding the area with water from the creek. The water had carried the magazines out into the acres of rice paddies and they were obviously ruined and lost. Our only consolation was that the next day we were treated to the joyous show of a biplane flying right over our heads, dropping sprouts into the fields of water. The daring of the pilot earned our undying admiration, especially after he waved at us from about ten feet off the ground.

After that it was back to normal at the bridge. Snakes, lizards, bicycles, and swimming. Seeing how long we could stand on the train tracks while a train bore down on us. Stupid boy things like that. I’m sure we spent the whole summer out there, but when school started again and the weather grew colder, the place wasn’t as much fun. Things changed, bulldozers pushed things around, and the old wooden railroad bridge was replaced by a new, modern, concrete one. And for some reason they cut down all the surrounding trees.

It was over. The next summer the tracks didn’t hold the same magic, and it took many years to find a place like that again. By that time I was a teenager in a different crowd of friends, and girls were involved, and there was not much innocence left. People had jobs and responsibilities. Car payments had to be made. It was different.

Like Tom Sawyer, we were doomed to grow up.


This has been an excerpt from Jerry’s book All This and a Bucket of Toads. If you enjoyed it, there’s more just a few clicks away! Available in paper and ebook at Amazon.

Eternal Summer Dream

Creatures of shadow, light and dark,
Weighing nearly nothing
Drifting like wind-borne mist
Past the fitted stone and ancient archways
The long grass under the tangled branches.

When the afternoon sun beats down
With the pressure of a dry August heat
They rest in a quiet summer dream
Of past years and childhood games
Of restless yearnings and the touch of someone fond
A time spent long ago.

When the sun drifts down, finally
They stir in the evening twilight
And wander aimlessly, sleepwalking
Dimly aware of who they were
And what they are now.

When footsteps quietly come
To them it drums like thunder
All still, they watch
As a young couple wanders
Arm in arm through the courtyard
Hardly more than children

There’s a hush as they pause and kiss
There’s a rush of life and joy
Then as the two walk aimlessly along, they follow,
They follow along, just follow, watching,
Watching, the night itself watching,
Just watching

As the sun brightens the sky
And as the lovers sleep
They pause to wistfully touch the life
So fresh and so warm
Then drift past the cold archways
And etched stone
To the place they lie dreaming
Just dreaming, holding onto what they’d touched
Until the sunlight melts it away.

The Hole in the Field

Little did we realize that we’d created the perfect tractor trap.

We didn’t mean any harm. Seriously. We were just kids.

I think I was about 10 years old when we first moved to Stockton, California, and our first house was right on the edge of town in an area being developed. Directly across the street was a large empty field, a perfect place for us neighborhood kids to play. With this huge field of dirt, all we needed was a shovel. I provided the shovel, and we took turns digging. We all wanted to see just how big a hole we could make.

The project took weeks. At first we called it “The Hole,” as in, “Let’s meet at The Hole after school.” “Mom, we’re going to go play out at The Hole.” “I did more work on The Hole than you did!”

The Hole became quite large, and then someone came up with the coolest idea. With all the construction going on in the neighborhood there was plenty of wood around (scrap and otherwise) so day by day we were able to start covering The Hole with a roof. As the roof was built, dirt was piled on top of it so that it couldn’t be seen. It was at this point it stopped being The Hole and became “The Fort.”

With The Fort in place amid all the weeds and tall grass, it was the best place on Earth to play Army. We armed ourselves with cap guns, squirt guns, plastic battle axes and swords, and the filled that field with wars, insurrections, rebellions and general free-for-all mêlées. The Fort was a nexus for our little battles until summer, when a rival gang of kids, older and meaner, took it from us. Our interest in it waned, as we’d discovered new places to play (a creek with a railroad bridge, God help us) and so we finally gave up on The Fort.

We let the bullies have it.

Then I remember the day we spotted a farmer’s tractor out in that field, lumbering and squeaking through the tall grass. I stood on my front lawn with my friends, watching in fascination as the tractor pulled its plow back and forth across the field, edging closer to The Fort with each pass. Then there was this magic moment when the entire tractor suddenly disappeared from our view. From across the field came a terrific Wham!.

Little did we realize that we’d created the perfect tractor trap.

The tractor driver came up out of that hole hopping mad, and we ran. Later someone came door to door, inquiring about whose kids had dug a big hole in the field. My mom kept her mouth shut, no doubt fearing a lawsuit. Later it came out that the bullies who’d taken it away from us got blamed, and were in big trouble.

Ah, karma.

It took a huge semi-truck looking rig to pull that tractor out of The Hole. We stood on my front lawn watching that, too. Come next summer, they’d started building more houses there and soon the field was a block of brand new triplexes. It didn’t take five years for the whole area to deteriorate into a low-rent slum.

Frankly, I liked it better as a field.


This has been an excerpt from Jerry’s book All This and a Bucket of Toads. If you enjoyed it, there’s more just a few clicks away! Available in paper and ebook at Amazon.

Snake Alley vs. Lombard Street: Which One is More Crooked?

Last Summer, during a meandering and somewhat aimless road trip with my sweetheart, we came across “Snake Alley” in Burlington, Iowa.

It reminded me so much of Lombard Street in San Francisco that I had to do some research. Which came first, and which one is more crooked?

Well, having been built in 1894, Snake Alley existed 28 years before Lombard Street. And below I’ve put together the two using Google Maps images. I will let you be the judge of which one is more crooked.

May I Take Your Order, Please?

Something I wrote to get my head around a scene that I was working on in Eleven Days on Earth.

A waiter walked up to the table
Wearing a suit jacket that was far too small—
There was no way he could button it, and the
Sleeves came halfway up to his elbows
He sported a overlarge red bow tie
Black curly hair with oil in it, and
A large, obviously fake mustache
Which curled in waxed spirals at the ends.

“May I take your order, please?” he asked.

Before we could answer
A nude woman holding a pomegranate, with a
Bayoneted rifle slung over her shoulder
And flanked by two huge yellow and black tigers
Complained that she had been stung by a bee
And wanted her money back.

We sat for eleven minutes waiting
Then realized that ants were eating the silverware.