Showing posts with label settings. Show all posts
Showing posts with label settings. Show all posts

24 August 2019

VEGAS, BABY! In which Bad Girl explains how an imaginary Vegas hotel rocks the latest Goddaughter


by Melodie Campbell

Whether to use a real setting or make one up? That is the question.

Butchering Shakespeare aside (which I do cheerfully, if not cleverly) all authors have to decide whether to set their novel in a real place or not. There are advantages and disadvantages to each.

In the Goddaughter series, I set the books in a real place – Hamilton Ontario, also known as Steeltown, or The Hammer. Everyone who has ever been over the Skyway bridge on the way to Toronto (one hour from Buffalo) will experience a taste of Hamilton.

“I live in The Hammer. Our skyline includes steel plants. We consider smog a condiment,” says Gina Gallo, the mob goddaughter of the series.

I don’t have to describe much to put you in that setting. It’s sort of like New York or Paris. Give a few landmarks we all know, plus in this case assault your mouth and nose with metallic fumes, and the author has put you there without endless sleep-inducing description.

The problem with using a real setting is you need to know the place well, because if you make an innocent error, like forgetting that some streets are one way, you will get hundreds of irate emails from readers who know the place better than you do.

Luckily, I know Hamilton. I know where to buy the best cannoli (always my test re how well you know a place.)

I use real settings whenever I can. Readers who live in the place love to see their town highlighted. You can often get local media interested in your book. And people new to the location often get a kick out of coming to know it, in a literal way.

So when I moved book 6 of the Goddaughter series to Vegas, I had a dilemma. Here’s the thing. So many people have been to Vegas, that you have to be very careful to ‘get it right.’ I was there a few years ago, and am very aware that things change.

It takes about 6 months for me to write a Goddaughter book. Off it goes to the publisher, who takes about 15-18 months to get it out to stores. That’s the thing about books. Anything on the shelves right now was probably written two years ago.

In two years, things in Vegas change. Hotels redecorate, and maybe change ownership. It became clear to me, that while I wanted this book to be clearly ‘Vegas,’ I needed to be careful. I’ve stayed at the Mirage. I could have used that as a base. But when writing the book, I couldn’t predict how things would look there two years from now.

The answer? Create a new hotel! Make it the newest and hippest thing, so of course no one has seen it before. And that’s where I had fun. What hasn’t been done, I thought? What theme would present a whole lot of fun, yet be completely whacky, in keeping with the Goddaughter series?

Whoot! It came to me immediately. Hotel name: The Necropolis! Theme: Morticia meets The Walking Dead. We could ramp up the loopiness by throwing a Zombie convention. And then add a Viking Valhalla casino, a bar called Embalmed, the Crematorium Grill steakhouse…

da book, on AMAZON
So The Goddaughter Does Vegas is a hybrid. The setting is the Vegas you know. The hotel is a new concoction, but fitting with the fantasy atmosphere that Vegas is famous for.

I got away with it this time. I think.

How about you? Do you use real settings or do you make them up? When reading, which do you prefer?

21 March 2013

Setting as Character


by Brian Thornton

Setting. Everyone knows about it. Few people actively think about it.

And that's a shame, because for writers, your setting is like a pair of shoes: if it's good, it's a sound foundation for your journey. If it's not, it'll give you and your readers pains that no orthotics will remedy.

Nowhere is this more true than with crime fiction. In fact strong descriptions of settings is such a deeply embedded trope of the genre that it's frequently overdone, used in parodies both intentional and unintentional as often as fedoras and trenchcoats.

Used correctly a proper setting can transcend even this role–can become a character in its own right, and can help drive your story, making your fiction evocative, engaging, and (most importantly for your readers) compelling.

Think for a moment about your favorite crime fiction writers. No matter who they are, odds are good that one of the reasons, perhaps one you've not considered before, is their compelling settings.

Just a few contemporary ones that come to mind for me: the Los Angeles of Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. The Chicago of  Sara Paretsky, Sean Chercover and Marcus Sakey. Boston seen through the eyes of Robert B. Parker. Ken Bruen's Ireland. Al Guthrie's Scotland. Carl Hiassen's Miami. Bill Cameron's Portland.

And of course there are the long gone settings highlighted in the gems of the old masters. These and others read like lexical snapshots from the past.Who can forget passages like:

The city wasn't pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters' stacks.
—Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest

Or this one from Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely:

1644 West 54th Place was a dried-out brown house with a dried-out brown lawn in front of it. There was a large bare patch around a tough-looking palm tree. On the porch stood one lonely wooden rocker, and the afternoon breeze made the unpruned shoots of last year's poisettias tap-tap against the cracked stucco wall. A line of stiff yellowish half-washed clothes jittered on a rusty wire in the side yard.

And no one did it better than Ross Macdonald:

The city of Santa Teresa is built on a slope which begins at the edge of the sea and rises more and more steeply toward the coastal mountains in a series of ascending ridges. Padre Ridge is the first and lowest of these, and the only one inside the city limits.

It was fairly expensive territory, an established neighborhood of well-maintained older houses, many of them with brilliant hanging gardens. The grounds of 1427 were the only ones in the block that looked unkempt. The privet hedge needed clipping. Crabgrass was running rampant in the steep lawn.

Even the house, pink stucco under red tile, had a disused air about it. The drapes were drawn across the front windows. The only sign of life was a house wren which contested my approach to the veranda.
— Ross Macdonald, Black Money

In each of the passages excerpted above the author has used a description of the setting as a tip-off to the reader as to what manner of characters would inhabit such places. Even hints at what lies ahead for both protagonist and reader.

With Hammett it's the stink of the corruption that always follows on the heels of a rich mineral strike. With Chandler, it's a life worn-out by too much living. And with Macdonald, it's a world and its inhabitants as out of sorts as those hedges that need clipping.

Brilliant thumbnail sketches each. If you haven't read them, you owe it to yourself to do so. And each of them was giving the reader a glimpse of a world they had experienced first-hand, if not a contemporary view, then at least one they could dredge up and flesh out from memory.

With the stuff I write it's not that simple.

In his kind note introducing me to the readers of this blog, our man Lopresti mentioned that when it comes to fiction, my particular bailiwick is historical mystery. In my time mining this particular vein of fiction I've experienced first-hand the challenge of delivering to readers strong settings for stories set in a past well before my time.

How to accomplish this?

It's tricky. Here's what I do.

I try to combine exhaustive research with my own experiences and leaven it all with a hefty dose of the writer's greatest tool: imagination.

"Counting Coup," the first historical mystery story I ever wrote, is about a group of people trapped in a remote southwest Montana railway station by hostile Cheyenne warriors during the Cheyenne Uprising of 1873. I used the three-part formula laid out above.
  1. While pursuing my Master's in history, I'd done a ton of research on the western railroads, their expansion, and its impact on Native American tribes in the region, including the Cheyenne.
  2. I've visited southwestern Montana many times, and the country is largely unchanged, so I had a good visual image to work from.
  3. Imagination!
An example of the end result:

Wash and Chance made it over the rise and and into the valley of the Gallatin just ahead of that storm. It had taken three days of hard riding to get to the railhead, and the horses were all but played out.

The entire last day finished setting their nerves on edge. What with the smoke signals and the tracks of all the unshod ponies they'd seen, there was enough sign to make a body think he was riding right through the heart of the Cheyenne Nation.

Stretching away to north and south below them lay the broad flood plain of the Gallatin. The river itself meandered along the valley floor, with the more slender, silver ribbon of rail line mirroring it, running off forever in either direction. The reds of the tamarack and the golds of the aspen and the greens of the fir created a burst of color on the hills that flanked the river on either side, their hues all the more vivid when set against the white of the previous evening's uncharacteristically early snowfall. 

"Suicide Blonde," another of my historical mystery stories, is set in 1962 Las Vegas. Again, the formula.
  1. I did plenty of research on Vegas up to and including this time when Sinatra and his buddies strutted around like they owned the place.
  2. I lived and worked in Vegas for a couple of years and have been back a few times since. I am here to tell you, Vegas is one of those places that, as much as it changes, doesn't really change.
  3. Imagination!
Which gets you:

Because the Hoover boys had started tapping phones left and right since the big fuss at Apalachin a few years back, Howard and I had a system we used when we needed to see each other outside of the normal routine. If one of us suggested we meet at the Four Queens, we met at Caesar's. If the California, then we'd go to the Aladdin, and so on. We also agreed to double our elapsed time till we met, so when I said twenty minutes, that meant I'd be there in ten. We figured he had a permanent tail anyway, but it was fun messing with the feds, regardless.

The Strip flashed and winked and beckoned to me off in the distance down Desert Inn as I drove to Caesar's. It never ceases to amaze me what a difference the combination of black desert night, millions of lights, and all that wattage from Hoover Dam made, because Las Vegas looked so small and ugly and shabby in the day time. She used the night and all those bright lights like an over-age working girl uses a dimply lit cocktail lounge and a heavy coat of makeup to ply her trade.

Howard liked Caesar's. We didn't do any of the regular business there, and Howard liked that, too. Most of all, Howard liked the way the place was always hopping in the months since Sinatra took that angry walk across the street from the Sands and offered to move his act to Caesar's. Howard didn't really care to run elbows with the Chairman and his pack, he just liked talking in places where the type of noise generated by their mere presence could cover our conversations.

You may have noticed that in both examples used above I've interspersed description of the setting with action, historical references and plot points. That's partly stylistic and partly a necessity. I rarely find straight description engaging when I'm reading fiction (in the hands of a master such as Hemingway, Chandler or Macdonald that's another story, but they tend to be the exception), so I try to seamlessly integrate it into the narrative. Also, since I'm attempting to evoke a setting that is lost to the modern reader in anything but received images, I try to get into a few well-placed historical references that help establish the setting as, say, not just Las Vegas, but early 1960s Las Vegas. Doing so in this manner can save a writer of historical mysteries a whole lot of trying to tease out these sorts of details in dialogue (and boy, can that sort of exposition come across as clunky if not handled exactly right!).

So there you have it: an extended rumination on the importance of one of the most overlooked and powerful tools in your writer's toolbox: setting. The stronger you build it, the more your readers will thank you for it, regardless of genre, regardless of time period.

Because setting is both ubiquitous and timeless. Easy to overdo and certainly easy to get wrong. But when you get it right, your story is all the stronger for it!

11 September 2012

Settings


by Dale C. Andrews

     Fiction, at its best, does more than just tell a story -- it tells a story in a setting.  Good fiction immerses the reader – we are propelled into the narrative and into its setting.  And the setting crafted by the author reflects the world around the author, or the author’s characters, at the time of the story.  The story told in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is part and parcel with the French Revolution.  A Dickens novel is often almost as much about setting as it is about story.  Oliver Twist is dependent on the injustices that were a side effect, and a very real side effect, of the industrial revolution.  And as I noted some months back, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in fact grew out of a non-fiction essay that Dickens wrote addressing the deplorable mid-nineteenth century working conditions in England and the need for child labor reform.

    No surprise, then, that setting is also a major component of great mysteries.  Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes cannot be separated from Victorian England.  I add the proviso of “Doyle’s Sherlock” since, to my mind, the BBC series Sherlock does a sensational job of re-imagining Holmes in modern day London.  But even there, it is modern day London, with its Blackberries and computers, that provides the setting backbone to the stories. 

The Doorbell Rang (NOT the newest Clint Eastwood sequel!)

    In Rex Stout’s 1965 Nero Wolfe novel The Doorbell Rang, which The Nation described as “the best civil liberties mystery of all time” the story is dependent on then-current FBI abuses under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover who, famously, Wolfe leaves standing on the stoop of his brownstone at the end of the book.  Similarly, Ellery Queen’s The Glass Village, and its theme that accusation must never be a substitute for evidence, is dependent on its setting -- the McCarthy era that pervaded the mid-1950s when the novel was written. 

    To read these books is to experience what it was like to live in the eras depicted. It is no surprise that all of this remains true today.  Two recent (and sensational) new mysteries by a pair of gifted writers, Tana French and Gillian Flynn, who are separated by many thousands of miles, tell stories in different  settings, but settings that are still eerily analogous and in each case reflective of our time.  More on that below, but first, some background on each author.

Tana French
Gillian Flynn
    Gillian Flynn grew up in Kansas City Missouri, a state in which her three mystery novels are set.  Before she became a novelist Flynn was was a television critic for Entertainment Weekly. She was educated at the University of Kansas, and received a masters degree from Northwestern.  Her first novel, Sharp Objects, was a 2007 Edgar nominee for best first novel.

    Tana French in fact received the Edgar for best first novel when In the Woods, was published the following year  Although she was born in the United States, Tana French spent most of her early years abroad.  She received a degree in acting from the University of Dublin, and since 1990 has resided in Dublin, where each of her four mystery novels is set. 

    So, other than leaping into the world of mystery fiction within one year of each other there is very little that either of these women share.  Yet each has crafted their most recent novel in settings that, while thousands of miles apart, nevertheless resonate with common themes.

    A teaser on Gillian Flynn’s website describes her new book, Gone Girl, as follows:
On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick Dunne’s clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River.
And here is the description of Tana French’s new book, Broken Harbor, as set forth on her website:  
On one of the half-built, half-abandoned “luxury” developments that litter Ireland, Patrick Spain and his two young children are dead. His wife, Jenny, is in intensive care.
    The principal setting of each novel is therefore very different.  What, after all, does a small Missouri town  have in common with the outskirts of Dublin?  But there is an undercurrent in each setting that is the same and that is reflective of the times in which we live.  Each author has taken the pulse of the present and has built a setting for her novel that rings true and, as a result, ensures that each story rings true. 

    Broken Harbor is set in a community of new homes on the coast of Ireland that failed as a result of the economic downturn that has shaped many lives in recent years.  The home that the unfortunate family lives in is surrounded by abandoned or half finished homes, and the couple at the heart of the novel has had to grapple with the horrors of losing a job in an economy where jobs are increasingly hard to find.  From that setting, which is to say from their world, the story springs.

    And that community of “McMansions” that is the setting for Gone Girl?  Well, there are remarkable similarities between Gillian Flynn’s Missouri housing development and that depicted in Tana French’s novel.  The couple at the heart of Gillian Flynn’s novel also find themselves in a development that is a casualty of world-wide economic downturn.  Like the family in Broken Harbor, the couple in Gone Girl is surrounded by homes that are abandoned and in foreclosure, and other homes that stand as half completed derelicts.  As in Broken Harbor neighboring homes are abandoned as a result of foreclosure, or sit half completed.  And in each book there are wandering homeless people living or gathering in the empty homes.  And here, too, the central characters in the mystery have lost their own jobs as a result of economic downturn. 

    I have written before that I hate spoilers.  So you will get no more of the plots of these wonderful newly-published novels from me.  But they are both great reads, and like many mysteries and other well written books over the years, they gain strength from the fact that they are set in a world that we know.  The heart of each story beats to the world’s pulse.  The setting may be a bit bleak in each case, but, after all, that never stopped Dickens.