I read a lot of mysteries, naturally, because friends write books and there are always new and exciting mysteries to dive into. But sometimes I take a break from these and read other books: non-mystery novels, biographies, and nonfiction in general. I also belong to a book club, and the choices of the members are often different from the books I read on my own. Since I’ve become a writer, I’ve become much more aware when I’m reading a book of the skill of the author in taking me into a place or time so fully that I feel as if I am actually there.
I recently read a book by Sigrid Nunez called THE LAST OF HER KIND, which takes place in New York at the end of the sixties and into the seventies. This was a book that plunged me back to that time. It was a time of civil unrest: the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, riots and takeovers of buildings by university students, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King, among other events. There is an evocation of an LSD trip by the woman experiencing it that made me remember how assiduously I had avoided trying the drug. The book made me uncomfortable in the same way that I remember being uncomfortable then, as though I had been dropped back almost fifty years and somehow entered a strange planet full of people who were entirely different from those I thought I knew.
Some books bring me such a sense of actually being in the setting among the characters that a return to the mundanity of life is almost painful, returning to earth from a fantasy trip and being forced to pick up my bookmark to mark my place and go back to work or to whatever task faces me. I was like that as a child, always lost in the world of a book, reluctant to face the monotony of long division or algebra.
James Lee Burke’s Louisiana mysteries bring me into the oppressive heat of New Orleans; Tony Hillerman’s description of the Navajo world makes it come alive; I don’t remember the settings of Agatha Christies’ book because I was always too immersed in the puzzle; but Ellis Peters’ medieval tales evoked the monastic setting and the period; and Elizabeth George created a fascinating English world including an entire Oxford college in one of her mysteries.
Recently I visited my friend in Florida where I have set my two mysteries: A REASON TO KILL and SO MANY REASONS TO DIE. We made a trip to Vero Beach, a city north of where my friend lives and where I had never been. It’s quite a well-to-do area, and I immediately began to set some scenes from the book I’m currently working on in that town: more expensive than Burgess Beach where Andi and Greg, my two detectives live and work, with houses set both on the Indian River and on an island facing the Atlantic Ocean. I find myself absorbing details of new places, trying to remember my feelings when I’m there, in an attempt to recreate new settings in my writing.
Do you enjoy new settings in your reading or writing? I’d love to hear about books that evoked memories from you or made you want to travel there.