So often when trying to figure out what to do writing-wise, I rely upon what I like to read—what pulls me into a novel, and then what keeps me reading. Character and Setting are always my first thoughts. Of course, plot is important. However, I might have in my hand the most intriguing story every written, but if I don’t like the protagonist, or at a minimum, care about what happens to him or her—and most importantly, if I’m not mentally or emotionally “taken away” to where they are in the world—I won’t read the book. Which leads me to “setting,” sometimes referred to as “location.” Though, in my mind the word location is limited to “the place,” while setting encompasses more in my mind. It is the metaphorical envelope for a story.
By my way of thinking, setting done well is a key ingredient—I go as far to say, an essential ingredient—for an enjoyable story. A story a reader wants to read. A book a reader is pulled into. And as a writer, a novel I can feel comfortable putting my name on.
Here’s a quickie list of some of my thoughts about setting from the perspective of a reader and writer:
- Fully developed, setting adds the underlying layer for a story—the glue so to speak, that holds everything together. (Maybe not the best metaphor, but similar to the background in a photo.) It establishes the protagonist for a reader firmly on the time-space-continuum, in a particular place in the universe.
- Where a protagonist “is,” determines in a multitude of ways, what and how the characters face and deal with the dilemmas life throws their way—such as what physical items and constraints are available, not only in daily life, but also on hand to maybe save a life? Or solve a crime?
- The comparison between a protagonist’s current setting versus ones from the past can add an emotional level—e.g., guilt from deeds in a past setting, hope for a future different from where they are now, used to interpret their present world.
- Setting descriptions can also enable a reader to experience through a character’s eyes, the tastes, smells, sounds, sights, and feel of their world. And at its best, provides an emotional and visual picture a reader can’t forget. (I have several such pictures from books I’ve read that I will never forget.)
- Indeed, setting is a key way to show personalities--how they deal with their environment. If your character can see, feel, love or hate a desert, a lake, a city, or???—that response to the landscape can be a key to a reader loving or hating them. And not just your hero, but your villain, too.
On a personal level, setting has often also been my story inspiration. Whether walking through a lush green evergreen forest in the pacific northwest, or mesmerized by the sight of long abandoned structures, silhouettes against lower Sierra foothills by a brilliant sunset, or mentally captivated by a rundown mini-mart, neglected and lonely in the Mojave desert, or standing in awe, taking in the expansive view from a Michigan Avenue high-rise apartment of Lake Shore Drive and the lake beyond. Add a few more setting items like abandoned A-frames, Quonset huts, mining caves—the list goes on; all with tales to tell, stories fanciful or real. Setting is the key to that inspiration.
The authors I consistently read with anticipation and joy are the ones that have memorable characters that take me to a place--setting--I don’t want to leave. A place where I’m sorry I have to leave at book’s end. Developing “setting,” I think is well worth the time and effort. Challenging, I think; but aiming for a strong sense of place, I also think, is a key ingredient to the “art and craft” of storytelling.
My latest two books take place in Shiné, a fictional town in the setting of California’s Mojave Desert. In my Rhodes books, I’ve certainly tried to “take the reader there.”
Author Page on Amazon link: https://tinyurl.com/yaysqwl9
Madeline (M.M.) Gornell’s mystery novels include—PSWA awarding winners Uncle Si’s Secret and Lies of Convenience (also a Hollywood Book Festival honorable Mention), Death of a Perfect Man, and Reticence of Ravens (a finalist for the Eric Hoffer 2011 fiction Prize, the da Vinci Eye for cover art, and the Montaigne Medal for most thought provoking book). Counsel of Ravens (a London Book Festival Honorary Mention and LA Book Festival Runner-Up) is her first sequel, and was a continuation of Hubert Champion’s Mojave saga. Rhodes — The Movie-Maker is her second sequel, and the continuation of Leiv Rhodes’s Mojave saga.
She continues to be inspired by historic Route 66, and this her second Rhodes novel, reflects that continuing fascination. Madeline lives with her husband and assorted canines in the Mojave High Desert near the internationally revered Route 66.
Rhodes The Movie-Maker synopsis:
From the cover synopsis of Madeline's latest book, "...one such flood of human events plays out in The Movie-Maker. This tale is not a murder mystery, though there are in fact several murders—but there is little-to-no mystery surrounding who the perpetrators are. Neither is this tale meant to be a literary treatise addressing age-old philosophical questions or current day conundrums. This tale’s primary goal is fun and escapism. Nor is The Movie-Maker a police procedural, though happenings do occur that require police activities. Nor is this tale an action drama even though dramatic actions do unfold. A romance? Not exactly, though several love stories—past and present—flavor happenings and decisions. Rhodes—The Movie-Maker is simply one of many human event stories playing themselves out in the Mojave Desert along historic Route 66."
Ken Burn’s recent documentary on the Vietnam War has kept many viewers glued to their television screens. That war divided the country and created scars that are still visible. I know people who fought in that war, who died in that war, and who were broken apart by that war—people who came home with PTSD before most knew the meaning of those four ominous letters.
Before I started writing OUTSIDE THE WIRE, the second hardboiled police procedural featuring LAPD Homicide Detective Davie Richards, all I knew about the plot was that it would have something to do with Vietnam. That initial inspiration became Davie’s investigation into the murder of a retired Army Ranger and Vietnam War veteran. Little did I know that Ken Burns was filming a documentary that would again bring that history to the forefront.
OUTSIDE THE WIRE is a military term that refers to a soldier leaving the relative safety of the base camp and venturing into hostile territory. The title is thematic for many characters in the book but also for Davie Richards. It was cathartic writing this novel. I hope readers feel the same way reading it.
So, why did the author of four novels in a humorous amateur sleuth series go to the dark side? My writing career began on a whim. While in graduate school working on my MBA degree and inspired by Susan Isaac’s book After All These Years, I decided it would be fun to write a humorous mystery novel about Tucker Sinclair, a business consultant who had an MBA and an uncanny ability to solve crimes. That inspiration became FALSE PROFITS.
Deep into that first book, I needed to write a scene in a police station, but I’d never been in a police station. That’s a good thing, right? Some research is difficult. It’s not likely that you could walk into a busy LAPD division and ask for a tour. But by a stroke of divine providence, my wishes were fulfilled. While attending a Neighborhood Watch meeting, the LAPD Senior Lead Officer suggested I apply for the volunteer program. I was accepted, and one of my first duties was to lead a tour through the station! That led to a 15-year stint as a volunteer and Specialist Reserve Officer for the Los Angeles Police Department.
Tucker Sinclair was smart and fun to be around. But after those early carefree days before publication when I could spend an entire afternoon reworking one paragraph, dreaded deadlines now plagued me. To complicate matters, my mother was in poor health and it fell to me to manage her care. Time allocation became a problem, so after the fourth Tucker book, my writing was put on hold.
That’s when I began a novel about a female homicide detective that would become PACIFIC HOMICIDE. By that time I had worked with the department for fifteen years, the last five of those years in the detective squad room. I knew a lot about police procedure. I took my time crafting those pages because I wasn’t a sworn police officer and I didn’t want to get it wrong. I had too much respect for the people I worked with to risk disappointing them.
PACIFIC HOMICIDE was a huge departure for me. First, it was written in third person, not first. There would be humor, of course. I couldn’t imagine a book without moments of levity, but the tone was hardboiled and darker than my previous books. People warned me it might be difficult for fans to accept this new character, but a writer has to write what a writer feels, and I felt darker. When the book was finished I sent it to a homicide detective friend to read. I held my breath until I heard him say, “You nailed it.”
Publishing is a fickle friend. In the last few days, two people have asked me if I would ever consider writing books that weren’t mysteries. I guess the answer is—it depends on how I feel.
About the author: Patricia Smiley is the author of four mystery novels about amateur-sleuth Tucker Sinclair. The first novel in her new police procedural series, PACIFIC HOMICIDE, debuted in November 2016, and features LAPD homicide detective Davie Richards. The second book, OUTSIDE THE WIRE, is set for release on November 8, 2017.
Patty’s short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and the anthology Two of the Deadliest. She has been on the faculty of various writers’ conferences in the U.S. and Canada and has served as vice president of the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and as president of Sisters in Crime Los Angeles.