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

24 October 2020

Setting as Character...Really? Bad Girl Makes a Case (and gives an example)


What do we mean by "Setting as Character?"  Students always ask me that, and here's what I tell them:

Setting is important in helping to establish the mood of your story.  It should be treated with as much attention as you would give any other character.

In the 14 week Crafting a Novel course I teach at Sheridan College, we spend most of one class talking about setting.

One of the first things you must decide when writing your novel, is the reality of your setting.  Is it a real place that exists today, or that did exist in another time?  A place you can research?  Or is your setting completely from your imagination?

The trouble wtih many beginning writers is they set their novels in 'Anytown USA.'  Thus, no character, no unique feel to the place...the 'why it is different from everywhere else?' is missing.


For this reason, I usually opt for a real setting, even in fantasy novels.  No, you may not be able to go back to 4th century West Country in England (when WILL they come up with a time machine that works, already?  I'm waiting...)  But you can visit the area now, take in the beauty of the countryside, and particularly, visit the local museums to get more details on how people lived and how the land looked at the time.

That's what I did.  Here's how the location for my time-travel trilogy came about.

 All of our families have pasts.  Have you looked into yours to see if there might be inspiration there?  That's how I found my setting for Rowena Through the Wall.  In a corner of England called Shropshire, more known for sheep than people, there once stood a Norman castle of fantastic 'character.'

The original castle, erected after Harold fell to William in 1066, went to ruin in the early 1500s.  The new abode, Hawkstone Park, was built in 1556; it was forfeited in 1906 to pay off the gambling debts of my rakish relative.

My late cousin showed me around the countryside.  Tony Clegg-Hill was the previous Viscount of Shropshire and Shrewsbury.  I adored him.  He had that particular dry British wit that reminded me of David Niven.  It was his great-grandfather who lost the castle.

Tony would regale me with anecdotes about the family villains: the original Viscount Huel, who was basically a henchman for William the Conqueror.  More recent rogues like Sir Rowland Hill gambled away anything that could be taken as a stake.  It's a damning history, but a vibrant one.  But not all the family were black sheep.  One Lord Hill distinguished himself as the second in command to the Duke of Wellington at the battle of Waterloo.  When Wellington was made Prime Minister in 1924, Hill succeeded him as commander in chief of the British army.

So when it came to writing Rowena Through the Wall, I leaned back into the family history.  The original Normal castle with it's rounded turrets, crenellations and merlons had been waiting for a writer to bring it back to life.  Rowena walks through the wall to her ancestor's land, and she falls in love with it too.

"Outlander meets Sex and the City"
"Game of Thrones Lite"
Rowena Through the Wall was featured on USA Today, and was an Amazon Top 50 Bestseller (all books.)



06 February 2020

Favorite Places


I have written before about atmosphere and setting. No surprise: there are not all that many topics in writing. That mystery writers have favorite venues is one of the obvious and most enjoyable facets of the genre. Many fans have had their views of California shaped by Golden State mystery mavens from Margaret Millar to Raymond Chandler and our own Paul Marks, while Carl Hiaasen has put his stamp on South Florida, as Anne Cleeves’ has put hers on Shetland and the multitude of northern noir writers on Scandinavia and Scotland. Frenchwoman Fred Vargas, currently making Paris dangerous, also includes the Pyrenees, which take up a good deal of psychic space within the capacious mind of her Commissaire Adamsberg.

I have my favorite places, too, but thinking about the topic, I realized that I have only rarely set mystery novels in them. My first detective, Anna Peters, hung out in Washington, D.C., a consequence of her remote inspiration in the Watergate hearings. At the time of the scandal, I was convinced on that some underpaid secretary knew a whole lot she wasn’t saying. I devised such a secretary and moved her to an oil company.
Anna Peters' early environment

When Anna proved modestly popular, her speciality, white collar crime, kept her in big cities with only the occasional side trip to the sort of rural setting I really prefer. She had a visit to St. Andrews, Scotland, one of the world’s great good places, and got to Patagonia, Arizona, a favorite birding location, as well as to Trier, a shabby and historic burg whose Roman ruins caught my eye. But, basically, Anna was stuck in urban life – or well-heeled suburbs.

My second series character, Francis Bacon, the Anglo-Irish painter and bon vivant, was the urban man par excellence, and his city was London, whose light and ambiance encouraged good work. A serious asthmatic, he loathed the country and all its works. Animals made him sick and he thoroughly disliked them – despite the fact that two of his finest paintings depict a screaming baboon and a mastiff. He also did a fine African landscape, complete with elephant, but that did not reconcile him to any place without sidewalks.
Soho, Francis' favorite venue

This inexplicable distaste for the natural world and its more attractive inhabitants was, along with his tin ear for music, the hardest thing  about turning the real Bacon into my character. His rather gaudy sex life, his alcoholism, his genius were the merest bumps in the road compared to constructing a man who hated and feared dogs and found the rural landscape boring.

Perhaps in retaliation, my version of Bacon was frequently in difficulty in rural areas – no doubt confirming all his prejudices. He wound up on camel back in the wilds of Morocco, drove in terror down vertiginous French roads, and effected a rescue on horseback in Germany. His trials and tribulations culminated at a real English country house, his absolute least favorite venue, in his last (and final) outing, Mornings in London.

My own favorite landscape – the rolling woods and farmland of New York state and New England – have been reserved for stand alone, mostly contemporary, novels. Night Bus was set in a fictional town that drew from our village and the one next to it, while Voices went right back to my hometown in Dutchess County, where I am happy to say, the landscape of roughly fifty years earlier was waiting for me.
nearby rail to trail conversion

And that brings me to one of the great pleasures of favorite and familiar landscapes and, indeed, of memory, which I can best illustrate with reference to the climax of Night Bus, which required a lonely cabin in the Adirondacks. I was in such a cabin only once, when I was 18, but unbeknownst to me, the neurons, which had forgotten so much else, remembered exactly what I needed, right down to how the water supply turned on. It was one of the weirdly satisfying moments in my writing life.

It is not often that the pulp fiction writer channels Proust, but the French master of memory was absolutely right about recapturing the past. He wrote that memory, in awakening the past, frees it and the remembering mind for a moment from time. Proust mentions sounds and, that most evocative and primitive of senses, smell, as triggering memory. It is the sound and smell and sight of our favorite places that so often bring us what we need as writers, not only the momentary setting but the weight and flavor of the past.

Do you have favorite literary places as either writer or reader?
Not all favorite places wind up in print

24 August 2019

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


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?

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.

12 November 2013

The Continuous Dream


Creating vivid characters and believable settings is a complex process--or rather, it's at least two processes, since character and setting aren't the same thing.  But the these processes have something in common, and that something is the vivid dream. 
When I speak to writing students about creating vivid characters, I suggest that they start with a detailed visual picture that they then relate selectively, picking the two or three or half a dozen details that will make a character a unique individual for the reader.  The same thing goes for the setting in which their characters move and argue and strike each other with beer bottles.

Quiet Please.  Writer Visualizing.
All of which assumes that the author can see the character and setting and see them as clearly as a recent memory or a particularly vivid dream.  In the case of character, you can work from life, using your third-grade teacher or a man you saw on the bus this morning, or you can pick someone out of an ad or an old movie.  For settings, you can travel your neighborhood or the globe or pore over the writings of someone who has traveled.  Or, yes, you can make up either a character or a setting out of whole cloth.  However you start, at some point you have to see that character and that setting.  Really see them.  Your setting has to be a real place in your mind's eye and your characters real people.  (You'll also hear them and smell them and touch them, if you're writing from all your senses, but, for me, seeing comes first.)

When I write, I'm watching a movie in my head, seeing characters in the setting.  As they move about, I see what elements to mention, like the heroine's hair being pushed away from her face and falling right back again or the moving shadows from the tree above the patio table at which the murderer sits. 


Grant, Gibson, and Saint
And visualization isn't only important for descriptions.  It also helps me avoid "continuity errors," which is a movie term for little mistakes that pop up in a scene when multiple takes are edited together.  Like the Gibson cocktail that appears and disappears in front of Cary Grant while he's talking with Eva Marie Saint in the club car in North By Northwest.   These things can happen in our writing, too, when we're not visualizing the actions we're describing.  A student once gave me a chapter in which a man yanks a derby down to his eyebrows in a show of determination.  So far so good, but a line or two later, the same character slaps his forehead in surprise.  Try slapping your forehead after you've yanked your derby down.  The author had gotten caught up in the dialogue of the scene (which was, incidentally, very good) and stopped visualizing.

Am I claiming that my mental movie is identical in every respect to the one playing inside the reader's head when he or she reads my finished story?  No.  That would take more detail than even a Gustave Flaubert could cram into a scene.  Or else a kind of magic.  And yet there is a sort of alchemy at work when the reader completes the circuit and reconstitutes the freeze dried images we put on the page.  (The preceding sentence has been submitted for a mixed-metaphor award.)  I believe that if my settings are real places for me and my characters real people, my readers will pick up on it.  They'll meet me halfway, plugging in the missing details from their own experience or imagination. 

And my dream will live on independent of me.  Which is something worth seeing.  




           

28 March 2013

A Piece Missing


by Eve Fisher

  • "I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents.  Some you can see, misshapen and horrible...  And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born?  ...As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of conscience." ...  "A man who loses his arms in an accident has a great struggle to adjust himself to the lack, but one born without arms suffers only from people who find him strange. Having never had arms, he cannot miss them. To a monster the norm must seem monstrous, since everyone is normal to himself. To the inner monster it must be even more obscure, since he has no visible thing to compare with others. To a criminal, honesty is foolish. You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous.”           John Steinbeck, Chapter 8, "East of Eden"

This is a description of Cathy in Steinbeck's "East of Eden", which is imho one of the best portraits of a sociopath that's ever been written.  And it's easy (once you have experience) to recognize her from without (much of the time, but we've all been fooled) but, as he points out, what about from within?  Yes, we can figure out ways to recognize the problems, the missing pieces in others - but for us...  how can we tell?  Something is left out, and we will never know it until we're surrounded by people who have it.  And even when we recognize that we're missing something, we still might not "get it":  can a completely color-blind person really grasp Franz Marc's "Blue Horses"?  Can a completely deaf person really understand why I weep uncontrollably at "Un bel di"?

File:Franz Marc 005.jpg

Now years ago, when I first read "East of Eden", I knew that Cathy was a true portrait, and that there are moral monsters.  But I also realized that there must be a whole range of possibilities, from the truly monstrous to the relatively minor.  I came to believe that, just as almost no one is born physically perfect and flawless, so almost no one is born morally, spiritually perfect and flawless.  We are all born with at least one piece missing, and our only hope is that it isn't a big one, and it is just one, and if not, that there aren't too many missing pieces. And I started to look around me, wondering, what's missing from him?  From her?  From them?  And, eventually, from myself?

The most obvious thing to me missing from me is a sense of home, of place, of rootedness.  Now I don't know if this is a missing piece, or something that was burned out of me when I was a child. I was born in Karditsa, Greece, to an unmarried teenaged mother who hoped the father would marry her.  He was rich, she was poor, it was (then) a small town, it was the 1950's, and there was no way in God's sweet green earth that he would ever marry her.  Instead, after a year of negotiations, (in which I am sure some money changed hands...) my father took me down to Athens, where he put me in an orphanage.  Move #1.  Within six months, it had been arranged for me to be adopted to a Greek-American couple in Alexandria, Virginia, but even back in the 1950's adoptions took a while, so I was put in a foster home for the duration.  Move #2.  A year later, the formalities completed, I was put on a plane, by myself, in Athens, with a note and a charm against the evil eye pinned to my dress, and shipped over to my parents in Alexandria.  (Side note:  doesn't that sum up a paradigm shift in treating children between the 1950's and today?)  Move #3. My parents and I lived in Alexandria for three years, and then we moved to southern California.  Move #4. 

Now each time, I was moved from everything and everyone I'd ever known, and I'm not whining, but I'm sure that has to be at least part of the reasons I don't get attached to places.  Or perhaps I was born that way, and all those moves just added to it...   It wasn't that noticeable in the cities I've lived in, where most people are wanderers, and we all share in our own version of "the unbearable lightness of being."  I didn't even realize it until I moved first down South, and then out here to South Dakota, where people are rooted in the land, and it strikes them as a bit odd that I don't seem to miss any place I've ever been.  I tell them what is true:  I save my attachments for people.  And for books.  And for music.  I look at all the people around me, rooted in their homes, their farms, their ranches, who cannot even think of moving, and I cannot grasp it, because that's a piece I'm missing.

And here comes the other side of it.  I don't really care, other than as observation.  I'm perfectly happy traveling, moving, living here, living there...  Which I think is normal for abnormality.  I'm not sure we care about any piece we're missing, for a variety of reasons.  So what if people claim to have pleasures, or abilities, or visions that we will never have?  They might be lying.  They might be wrong.  They might be self-deluded.  And does it matter?  We've done just fine as we are.  Perhaps better than they are.  What does it matter?

Unless you're a writer, in which case, it's fascinating to think that each of us occupies our own worlds.  I'll never forget when I first grasped that what I call orange and you call blue may actually be the same color, and we'll never know it because we cannot truly express what we see.  Or hear, taste, feel, experience...  All we have is words, and words are assigned so young that we never ask, well, what do they describe?

Years ago, I taught a creative writing class at a community center, and the first exercise I did was to ask each person to write down the image they saw in their head when I said a word.  "Apple."  And then I had everyone read aloud the image.  Red apples, green apples, golden delicious, Apple logo, Apple Records, Boone's Farm Apple Wine (it was a long time ago), almost everyone had seen a different image.  And then we wonder why it's so hard to communicate what we want to say, whether in poetry or prose.  What if I said "disappointment"?  "Joy"?  "Beauty"?  "Desire"?  No wonder Flaubert used to roll around on the floor for three days in agony, looking for the right word.  But he had a piece missing, too…

21 March 2013

Setting as Character


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


     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. 

16 January 2012

Little Worlds



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.