I was at a house-warming party a few days ago when I was confronted by someone who had read my book, "The Thirteenth Child". He had had a few drinks and wanted to correct me on a bit of geography in a particular scene. "You can't walk from the railroad tracks to the bay," he assured me. "No street runs from the tracks all the way to the bay."
First of all, let me go on the record as being both surprised and pleased that this fellow had read my book. "So this is the guy..." I thought. I had been hoping to meet him and shake his hand. But, he wasn't in the mood for handshaking, he wanted an explanation. How could I be so stupid?
"Well," says I, "it's not this town, it's 'Wessex Township'--I made it up."
Now he gives me a look from under his eyebrows--oh yeah? "Then how come the main street is called Mechanic Street just like here?"
I took another sip of my drink. I was kind of enjoying this. "It isn't," I corrected the Guy Who Had Read My Book, "It's Mercantile." Hah!
He kind of deflated a little at that. "Oh...I guess I read that wrong." He avoided me the rest of the evening.
That'll teach him to read my book.
But it didn't escape me that a fellow citizen had recognized what he thought was home in my book's setting. In all fairness, the location of the book was very closely modeled on the town I (and he) live in. In fact, I had a lot of fun recreating my little bit of heaven into a setting for dark and horrible things. And it saddened me when my editor demanded I thin out the dense forest of words describing it. Even so, my former fan had seen exactly what I wanted; after all, if he hadn't, I would have failed an important litmus test in creating the location. The only reason I didn't make it my own town (as I explained to the disappointed man) was that I would have then been tied too tightly to the actual geography, and I didn't want that kind of restriction. Though I was drawing heavily from reality, I was at the same time creating someplace completely unique.
Location certainly plays a huge role in literature. Sometimes it's almost another character: a supporting actor without dialogue. Read Janice Law's "Fires Of London" if you want an example. Brilliantly done descriptions of London during the Blitz; never labored or lengthy (But this is only one example of brilliance in Janice's novel--there are many, many others. If you haven't read it, you owe it to yourself to do so.). Novel-length fiction allows writers a large canvas on which to paint their scenes and settings; short fiction generally requires a few deft strokes to evoke atmosphere and location. Both disciplines are demanding.
I've always enjoyed certain authors for their ability to evoke time and place, Graham Greene being one of my favorites. He traveled the world in his lifetime and spent a great deal of time in foreign lands; seldom as a tourist. His novels certainly reflect this. Had anyone written a major work on Haiti prior to "The Comedians"? Who knew of Viet Nam before the "The Quiet American"? I could go on, but you get the point.
Location is sometimes a destination, sometimes home. Every character has to either live somewhere, or be someplace else. Where he or she is located is often a key part of the plot. Even the journey to arrive at someplace must become a setting in a story.
Even as I write this, a comment by Eve Fisher on a post by R.T. Lawton (also excellent at foreign and exotic locales) mentions Cecelia Holland, reminding me of another author gifted at creating a sense of place. In her case, however, the places are seldom, if ever, within her lifetime, and therefore experience. She is one of the best of those writers who pen the bewilderingly labeled "Historical Fictions". Her novels have recreated settings in medieval Mongolia (thus providing the connection to R.T.'s blog about the Mongolian New Year observance), England on the fateful eve of the Battle of Hastings, and the Iceland of two feuding brothers at the close of the Viking era. No easy feat these things. Not only must she convince us of the verisimilitude of the land she has invited us into, but she must also convincingly portray a time, and a people, that she could only know through research. When I think of the Man Who Read My Book's objection over the placement of a single street in a fictional town, I quail at the prospect of attempting what Cecelia Holland and Janice Law have both accomplished in their various works. Even Graham Greene always wrote in contemporary terms.
Have any of you reading this ever placed a story in a locale that you have never visited or lived in? Though I have been fortunate in my life to have traveled a great deal, I will admit to having practiced this in a story or two. But, I won't say which ones. So far, I've never been caught at it. In my defense, I did do a heck of a lot of research prior to attempting them. But in the overwhelming number of cases, my stories don't stray far from the towns, states, and countries of which I have, at least some, personal knowledge.
Robert Ghirardi, another favorite writer of mine adept at evocative description, said in an interview (and I'm taking the liberty to paraphrase here as I can't locate the article) that modern authors are too bound by what they have personally experienced. He was referring to the strictures placed upon the imagination in this age of near-instant knowledge through the internet and its children. Any deviation from what is generally known can be instantly fact-checked, making fiction writers cautious to stray too much from what they either personally know or can confirm. The only safe way to do that is delve into the realm of fantasy, which it seems, more and more authors are doing. It is also one of the fastest-growing genres in terms of readership, which might be a result of the dearth of truly "exotic" locales in our steadily shrinking world.
Be that as it may, location, exotic or prosaic, provides the canvas upon which we paint our stories, and our success at doing so is as important to our characters as it is to our readers. Would we accept Hamlet as a gloomy Jamaican? Wouldn't Sherlock Holmes have been a very different person as a product of 1880's Mexico?
Finally on the subject of location, I have an upcoming story in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine called, "Murder Town," that is set in the Yucatan. I'm not going to tell you whether I've been there, or based the setting solely on research--I'll leave that up to you to decide. Either way, I hope I got it right.
22 January 2013
16 January 2012
by Janice Law
Although most mystery writers would give their eye teeth for a great plot and although the big selling novels of the genre are all heavily plot driven, the story lines of mysteries are not destined to linger in memory. With certain sterling exceptions- the orangutan did it in The Murders of the Rue Morgue and Roger Ackroyd was done in by the sly narrator- we simply do not remember plots.
Indeed, memory seems to decrease in inverse proportion to the intricacy and ingenuity of the story. Thus it is easy to recall that the King killed Hamlet's father and that Oedipus was seized with road rage on the way into Thebes but very difficult to remember even one of Miss Jane Marple's ventures or exactly what Robicheaux was up to in James Lee Burke's latest novel.
And yet, fans continue to ask for their favorites whether Kate Atkinson or Donna Leon or Lee Child, suggesting that while plot is necessary for the mystery, it is not in some ways the essential ingredient. Certainly what is remembered tends to be character first, with fans developing a taste for Inspector Wallender or Marshall Guarnaccia or V.I. Warshawski, detectives whose adventures are followed with pleasure, even if, in retrospect, the details of their cases remain hazy.
He or she who can create a great character rarely wants for readers. But there is another aspect of the mystery that I think is equally important, namely the setting, including not just the physical setting which may be familiar or exotic, but what might be called the tone or atmosphere of the whole. In this as in so many other aspects, the template has to be Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. True, he has a great character in Holmes and a very good one in Watson, but without that particular gaslight London mis-en-scene, I doubt the series of stories would have had their enormous appeal. Which continues: A recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement dealt with no less that six new books about Holmes and/or Doyle, plus the newest Sherlock Holmes film.
The Holmes stories were made for cold, rainy nights, because they depend so heavily on the contrast between the warm, smoky, Victorian chambers of the two friends and the raw, damp weather in the streets and out on the windswept moors. Repetition in the form of the original stories, which Doyle stuck with despite wearying of his creation, and what seems like an unending series of Holmes pastiches, have made Baker Street and the Victorian world and underworld just familiar enough. We travel there imaginatively, knowing that we will get thrills and satisfactions of a particular quality.
Not every writer has the patience to create such a little world. I, personally, disliked adding back stories for the later novels in my mystery series, and I preferred to keep Anna Peters on the move. Clearly the creation of a little world and a stock company of characters was not on my Muse's agenda.
Other writers find creating either a little world or a consistent atmosphere very satisfying. Agatha Christie dealt St. Mary Mead more than its share of corpses - and cozy writers have been mining the territory of garden fetes and parish politics and bad behavior among the gentry ever since.
Thanks chiefly to Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald, Southern California of the 1940's and 50's enjoys a similar posthumous life. Where would we be without those alcoholic gumshoes, tuxedoed gamblers, ambitious starlets, and gat-packing thugs? Not to mention the secluded bungalows and crumbling apartments, both so convenient for stashing a corpse or two, the roadhouses with sinister reputations, and the seedy digs of the leading P.I.
More recently, Ian Rankin has focused on the east of Scotland with a few forays to Glasgow, but the non-touristy side of Edinburgh is his novels' real heart. And it's a bleak, guilt ridden, hard-drinking heart at that. Further south in the UK, there is an equally distinctive feel to P.D. James's novels, particularly her earlier ones and those set up on the coast and in the fenland of England. Even when Inspector Dalgliesh plays a minor role, the novels have a reflective melancholy that owes a lot to their often bleak and desolate settings.
Alexander McCall Smith's Gaborone is lovingly recreated in each of his novels, along with Precious Ramotswe and the rest of what is now a lively stock company. James Lee Burke has done the same for New Orleans, capturing its baroque corruption and vitality. Equally distinctive is Fred Vargas's Paris, with its layers of history, its whimsy, and its toleration for the rampant eccentricity of Inspector Adamsberg's squad.
With all, the plots are clever but forgettable. What lingers in the mind are the characters and atmosphere, which Adamsberg would probably, and sensibly, define as je n'sais quoi.