Showing posts with label setting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label setting. Show all posts

19 May 2020

Where To Start?


"You're starting in the wrong place" is something I've told many an editing client. Sometimes authors start their books or short stories too early in a scene, trying to show too much of the normalcy of the world we're entering. It's a good goal, but you can't do too much of it or else you risk the reader becoming bored, waiting for something interesting to happen. So if you start your story too early, you might need to chop off the first few pages. Or chapters.

I recently told a client when I read her sample pages that I didn't know where her story started, but I suspected it wasn't in the first two chapters I had read, which were all backstory. I told another short story author a few years ago that the reader didn't need to see the main character growing up. Let us learn about the relevant parts of her life when they become necessary to the story, but start the tale where the action is. She lopped off the first seven pagesthe first seventeen years of the character's lifeand the story was all the better for it.

Starting in the wrong place is not a problem I usually have myself. I just looked at all my published stories, and in none of them did I ever have to cut off the beginning pages to start the story in the right place. So imagine my surprise when I realized that in the story I'm currently trying to writethe story I began a couple of weeks ago, but the opening scene just hasn't been workingI'd started in the wrong place. I hadn't begun too early in the scene or in the main character's life. I'd started in the wrong place literally. I had the wrong setting.

It was a lightbulb moment. The opening scene hadn't been working because I'd felt the need to show several aspects of one of the main character's personality because of where the action was happening. In that setting, he definitely would be reacting by thinking several thingstoo many thingsand that was causing the pace to be too slow. But now that I've figured out a better setting, I can trim away all those extraneous thoughts and allow the meat of the story to come so much sooner. By starting in the right place literally, I am allowing the story to start in the right place for storytelling purposes too.

As SleuthSayers columns go, I know this is pretty short, but I hope my insights will be helpful to you as you write. And I'd love to hear your thoughts about starting out your stories, both how you decide where in the storytelling to start as well as where to set that opening scene.

23 May 2017

Don't Settle on Any Old Setting


I was recently reading a comment on a novel on Amazon in which a reader said that she didn't like books set in fictional towns if the setting plays an important role in the plot. If the setting is important, she wrote, the author should take the time to research and properly use a real place. Not to do so is lazy writing.

Well, that stopped me.

I can think of a number of reasons why an author might choose to use a real place, a fictional place, or a fictional place based on a real place in his/her books. And none of those reasons are lazy reasons. But rather than expound on this point myself, I figured I'd go straight to some author friends who take different approaches to see why they do what they do. In all cases, they chose their settings with care.








Let's start with LynDee Walker's Headlines in High Heels mystery series. It's set in Richmond, Virginia, and features newspaper crime reporter Nichelle Clarke. LynDee lives in Richmond and chose to bring her adopted hometown to life in her books. She loves exploring the city and learning about, and sometimes using, local history as she works to get the details in the books right, she said.

But using a real city can be tricky. "I try to avoid mentioning specific businesses when I can, largely because if a place closes, it dates the book," LynDee said.

And she also doesn't want to make any real businesses look bad. "I get creative with made-up, non-specific, or abandoned public places for body discoveries. I would never put a corpse in the freezer at Capital Ale"--a popular Richmond pub--"or have someone get poisoned in a real restaurant. I don't want to hurt anyone's reputation, even if I am making it all up and it's clearly marked as such."

Sasscer Hill, author of the new Fia McKee mystery series, mostly uses real places in her books too. Doing so adds realism, but it also adds to the workload.

"The difficulty about writing a real place is you must get it right," Sasscer said. "That takes research by phone, internet, and road trips. If you don't carefully check for the accuracy of your setting's description, there are plenty of readers who will be happy to point out that you got it wrong."

Sometimes authors choose to use a made-up setting to avoid making inadvertent mistakes, as well as to avoid angering real people. Maya Corrigan is a good example.

"With a fictional town, I don't have to worry that the place where I set a scene (restaurant, secondhand shop, clothing store), will go out of business before my book is published," said Maya, author of the Five-Ingredient Mysteries series set in a fictional town on Maryland's Eastern Shore. "Also, with a fictional place, I won't get irate messages from actual town police and county sheriffs because my character interacts with less-than-ideal law enforcers."

These are legitimate reasons for choosing to make up a setting. But with these pros comes the possible con that readers familiar with the area in real life might find it hard to accept the fictional town.

"My main problem with a fictional location is with the interface between it and real places," Maya said. "How long does it take to get from Bayport, which doesn't exist, to Baltimore or Annapolis? I can't leave it vague because timing can be crucial in a mystery. I'm afraid a reader familiar with the area may complain that a twenty-minute drive from some real location will put me in a cornfield or in a real town, not my fictional one."

To avoid Maya's cornfield problem, some authors try to straddle the line. They make up a town to set their series in, but that town is based on a real place. And sometimes the fictional town is set in exactly the same spot on the map as the real one.

Sherry Harris, author of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale Mystery series, sets her books in fictional Ellington, Massachusetts, including the adjacent fictional Fitch Air Force Base. Readers won't recognize these places by name, but they may by description.

"Ellington is based on the real town of Bedford, Massachusetts," Sherry said. "Fitch AFB is based on Hanscom AFB, which adjoins Bedford. Anyone familiar with Bedford or Hanscom will recognize places they know in the books. But by making a town fictional, I can move things around, add things, and change how buildings look as needed."

As any author knows, being able to manipulate the setting can be important. But it also can be dicey.

"People are very proud of their towns. Moving things around can cause outrage," Sherry said. "By fictionalizing Bedford I can add businesses, rearrange the base a bit, while staying true to the real versions. I wouldn't want a murderer to work at a real place and have the real place take offense (or legal action). I do use real places in the books, though. Sarah goes to Concord, Lexington, Bedford, and Boston."

Barbara Ross took a similar approach with her Maine Clambake mystery series, set in fictional Busman's Harbor, Maine, which is based on Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Barbara chose to create a town based on a real one "because I wanted to move some things around, borrow some shops and restaurants from nearby towns. The pros are that when I need a new business downtown, like a frame shop or a jeweler, I can add it to my Main Street without any worry. The con is, I am sure the bookstores and libraries in my town and other nearby towns could attract even more readers if I used the name of the real town."

So in Barbara's case, we see the author choosing to fictionalize a real setting in order to enable her storytelling to work better.

Sasscer Hill took that approach with two specific settings in her first series about a jockey in Maryland.

"Shepherds Town was based on Charles Town Racetrack in West Virginia, and Dimsboro was based on the old Marlborough Racetrack in Upper Marlboro, Maryland," she said. "Charles Town racetrack was significantly upgraded and rebuilt while I was writing my stories, and I wanted to write it the way it was, not the way it became. The old Marlborough Track, before it was torn down, had turned into the seedy training track I describe as Dimsboro. I didn't want to anger people who had fond, nostalgic memories of Marlborough Racetrack before it went downhill."

Jack Getze, author of the Austin Carr series, also relishes the freedom of writing a fictional town based on real places. "My fictional Branchtown is based on several towns near the ocean in central Jersey--Red Bank, Eatontown, Long Branch, Rumson, Sea Bright. My characters say bad things about a few of the local police and other authorities, much of the criticism based on real lawsuits and criminal trials. I figured I'd skip the chance of libel," Jack said. Plus "I like the 'feel' of my Branchtown encompassing all these different areas. Different kinds of people. [...] I wanted the fictional [town] to sound like one single town, not a conglomeration, and thus the wrong streets are in the right locations, and the police and fire houses are where I need them to be for my story."

And these are all excellent reasons why authors choose their settings. Whether their books are set in actual places, completely fictional places, or fictional places based on real ones, these authors all chose their settings with care. And that's really what's important when writing fiction. When making the decision of when to use real places and when to make them up, the goal should be serving the story. In the end, that serves the reader.

So, dear reader, do you have any books with settings that you find memorable? And are they real places, fictional, or fictional places based on real ones? Please share in the comments.

31 March 2015

Does Your City Cut It?


by Jim Winter

In the before time, in the long, long ago, I decided I would never write a story set in Los Angeles or New York. (I've since broken that rule with New York City.) No, I was going to be different. I was going to be unique. I was going to set my crime fiction in Cleveland.


OK, so Les Roberts had been doing it for about twelve years at that point. So his series was going to run out of steam soon. Right?

Er... No. He's still writing about Cleveland-based PI Milan Jackovich. But that's one series set on the North Coast. How many does New York have? Cleveland? Boston is lousy with crime fiction. Even Detroit, Cleveland's fellow declining Rust Belt city, has Loren Estleman and Elmore Leonard, and those are just the most notable Motor City authors.

Cleveland proved to be good fodder. My Cleveland is not Les's Cleveland is not Michael Koryta's. Cleveland. And that's pretty cool. Some have asked me why I haven't written in Cincinnati.

Well...

The city never really grabbed me the way Cleveland did. Ditto for Ohio's other big C, Columbus. I'm sure I could go nuts with Cincinnati, particularly with the West Side's well-defined culture that even they make fun of. I've taken stabs at it, but Cincinnati was always a place to live for me, not a place to tell stories. And I know that's not fair. Jonathan Valin spent the eighties writing about Harry Stoner's adventures in the Queen City.

So what is it that draws us to write about certain cities? LA and New York get a large share of stories simply because they are the two largest cities in the US. But what about the smaller cities? Why Cleveland for me and Les and Michael? What makes Stuart MacBride have his cops prowl the streets of Aberdeen, one of Scotland's lesser known cities, instead of, say, London or across the sea in Dublin?

A lot of it has to do with where the author is from. When we travel and pass through a city, we see a collection of tall buildings in the middle of urban sprawl. Every town has a McDonald's and carpet stores and the same gas station chains. I remember when one author came to Cincinnati for a signing, I suggested a place to eat simply because I liked eating there.

"Naw, that's a bit too chainy."

So it was. We hit the neighborhood bar across the parking lot from the bookstore. But these are the things that make cities interesting. Nick Kepler's favorite deli really exists on St. Clair. And while Milan Jackovich's Vuk's doesn't exist, it wasn't that long ago you could find two or three bars in Slavic Village similar to it.

As with fictional cities, it's that lived-in feel that makes even real-life cities come alive for the readers.

Cleveland

26 July 2014

Stranded Again


by John M. Floyd

As I was trying to decide what to write for today, it dawned on me that some of the columns I have enjoyed the most by my fellow Sayers of Sleuth were those that revealed the "story behind the story" for certain pieces of their fiction. In fact I've always been interested in behind-the-scenes, how-I-do-it peeks into the processes writers use to come up with their creations. So, to make a long story short (pun intended), I'm going to try to do some of that today.

First, a little background . . .

In November 2011, not long after SleuthSayers began, I posted a column called "Stranded." In it I mentioned one of my short mystery stories, "Turnabout," that had recently been published in The Strand Magazine. Since then, I've been fortunate enough to have five more stories in The Strand; the latest, called "Molly's Plan," appears in the current issue (June - September 2014). Down here in the Southern hinterlands, I saw a copy of this issue for the first time at our local Barnes & Noble this past weekend, and bought one for me and one for my mother (my Biggest Fan).

The glimmer of an idea for "Molly's Plan" began long ago, when I worked for IBM. My job title for many years was Finance Industry Specialist, which sounds more important than it really was; what I did was work with IBM banking software applications, like teller networks, ATMs, check processing systems, etc., which required me to spend most of my time with clients at their business sites. For me, those sites--or work locations, if you want to call them that--were banks.

One of the zillions of financial institutions I visited in the course of my career was a big gray lump of a building with white columns along the front, at the end of a narrow street that was always jammed with traffic. It was a branch of a regional bank, but it looked more like the fusion of a plantation home and a medieval prison. Even its layout was strange: it offered very few parking spaces, no drive-up windows, and limited access in just about every way. Simply stated, it was hard to get to and hard to leave. Because of this--and because my devious mind leaned toward deviousness even back then--it occurred to me that this bank would be extremely difficult to rob. Or at least difficult to escape from, after being robbed. I mentioned that to the branch manager one day, who confirmed my observation. He told me there had never ever been a robbery there, not even so much as an attempt, and probably never would be. As I later noted in the short story that resulted from all this, "Smart rustlers tend to avoid box canyons." The manager was so confident he didn't even bother to have a rent-a-cop on guard duty.

Bottom line is, my impressions and memories of that real-life location formed, years later, the setting for my story. As you might suspect by now, the plan in "Molly's Plan" was to steal a fortune in cash from the vault of this bank, and get away with it.

In the eye of the beer holder

The only other thing I might mention about the story is that, unlike most of my mysteries, this one includes a lot of different points of view. One scene is from the POV of an unnamed narrator, several are from the bank robber, others are from his wife, from a police officer, from a teller, etc. That's a lot of POV switches, for a story of around 5000 words. Most of my short mystery stories, certainly most of the ten that have so far appeared in The Strand, have only one POV--that of the main character.

So why are there so many points of view, in this story? The answer is simple: I felt it would take that many to properly tell the tale. In this case, I wanted to introduce suspense on several levels, and even though I understand the advantages and intimacy of the first-person and third-person-limited points of view, the one big advantage of third-person-multiple POV is that it allows the writer to build suspense and misdirection in ways that are not possible otherwise. Handled correctly, it can be a win/win situation: the writer can conceal certain facts from the reader by revealing only what a particular character sees and knows at a particular time--and the reader, by seeing the action through the eyes of several different characters over the course of the story, can know things about the plotline that the other characters might not yet know. Maybe there's a burglar hiding in Jane's basement, or the money John found under the park bench belongs to the mafia, or the friendly neighborhood cop is actually one of the killers. Or--as Alfred Hitchcock once said in an interview--oh my God, there's a bomb under the table!

Does that approach work, in this instance? I hope so. All a writer can do is try to sell the editor or publisher on his story, and then trust that if it's accepted the reader will enjoy it as well.

Questions:

Do you, as writers, find yourselves calling on personal experiences to come up with most of your fictional settings? If so, how close do you come to the real thing? Do you think that kind of familiarity is necessary, or do you let your imagination supply most of what you need? How much detail do you include?

What type of POV do you use most, in your fiction? Does it depend on the form--flash, short, novella-length, novel-length? Or does it depend mostly (as in my case) on the plot? I once heard someone say that your choice of POV should be dictated by how much you want your reader to know and how soon you want your reader to know it.

Have any of you tried submitting to The Strand? If you've not sent them something, I hope you will. They publish three issues a year with four or five stories in each, and their guidelines say they prefer hardcopy submissions of 2000 to 6000 words. (All of mine so far, I think, have been between 4000 and 5000.) Contact information: Andrew Gulli, The Strand Magazine, P.O. Box 1418, Birmingham, MI 48012-1418. And here's a link to their web site.

Try them out--it's a darn good publication, with a great editor.

As for me, I hope to be Stranded again someday. One never knows.