Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Setting: A defining element in fiction

Hello Five Scribe Readers. I'm blessed to know Linda Lovely on three levels. I first met Linda as a finalist in Mainstream for the 2010 Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. Next, I met her as a 2010 Golden Heart finalist and one of my Unsinkable sisters, and, lastly, Linda is a fellow Guppy and member of Sisters in Crime. So when she talks about setting, I don't know about you, but I'm going to listen. Please welcome Linda Lovely as she tells us about her award-winning book, DEAR KILLER, and then brings it altogether in setting.


Marley Clark, a retired military intelligence officer, works security for a Sea Island community simply to keep busy. A single night patrol transforms the feisty widow’s yawner of a job into a deadly battle of wits when she finds an islander drowned and bobbing naked amid a potpourri of veggies in a Jacuzzi.

Asked to serve as the lead investigator’s liaison, the 52-year-old heroine is startled to discover she’s become Deputy Braden Mann’s target as well—for romance. Yet their steamy attraction doesn’t deter the pair from sorting through a viper’s nest of suspects as the body count grows and the pun-loving killer plans a grizzly epitaph for Marley.

DEAR KILLER is the first in a series of Marley Clark adventures that promise to dish up heart-pounding suspense with a side of romance.


How important is a book's setting?

In some women's fiction or erotical novels, it may play an insignificant role. Where (or when) a heroine lives matters little when a novel tightly focuses on a woman's effort to escape a co-dependent relationship or details her immersion in a sensuous ménage â trois.

Yet, in most fiction, setting--location and time period--vie with character development and plot as a defining element, an essential ingredient that imparts a unique feel and flavor to the novel.

Let's consider three of my favorite authors and their selection of wildly different series settings.

In J.D. Robb's "In Death" series, her main character, Eve, resides in a future, gritty New York where she often investigates bizarre homicides in a noir, edgy environment--a world tailor-made to showcase her hard-driving personality and obsession with justice for the dead.

Here's Eve's view of her New York. "It was good to be home, driving downtown to Cop Central through ugly traffic, blasting horns, hyping ad blimps, belching maxibuses just put her in a cheerful mood." -- J.D. Robb, Indulgence in Death.

Robb's decision to place Eve in a futuristic mega-city gives her tremendous plotting freedom. She can concentrate on the "why" that drives a person to murder--jealousy, greed, lust, power, etc.--and construct murder scenarios that reflect a killer's motives without fretting about forensic details. Robb's urban conjecture allows her to invent both murder methods and investigative technologies.

Her setting helps addict readers to this series. It allows us to focus on the protagonists' and villains' raw emotions and reminds us that while technology may undergo rapid change, basic human needs and desires do not.

Of course, the fantasy aspect also adds zest to Eve's steamy encounters with Rourke. In contrast to Robb's metropolis stage, Cathy Pickens' "Southern Fried" present-day series plays out in the small rural (and very Southern) town of Dacus, where Avery, a lawyer, hangs out her shingle.

Here's a glimpse of Avery's world: "I had to wonder what this guy was doing in Dacus besides scraping the bottom of the journalistic barrel. A really bad journalist? A checkered past? The witness protection program? To be fair, he might be thinking the same thing about me."--Cathy Pickens, Hog Wild.

Pickens' setting offers the ideal backdrop of her main character's gentle humor and wry observations about her hometown and its inhabitants. Invading Yankees present a wealth of options for cultural conflict and the fixings for good traditional murder mystery plots.

Then there's Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum, who inhabits "The Burg," a geographic gem that manages to combine the gossipy feel of a small town, good-natured ethnic humor, and a generous helping of big-city vices.

Here's a sampling: "There aren't a lot of secrets in the Burg and according to Burg gossip, Michael Barroni didn't have a girlfriend, didn't play the numbers, and didn't have mob ties."--Janet Evanovich, Eleven on Top.

It's difficult to imagine Evanovich's characters--Stephanie, Lulu, Grandma Mazur and more--living anywhere except the Burg. The town itself is a living, breathing character.

These protagonists are totally integrated into their environments. The action takes place on their home turfs.

Does that mean a heroine should be a "native" in a novel's setting?

I don't think so. The opposite can work just as effectively. Place a heroine in a setting or time period (think time travel or Alice in Wonderland) where everything is foreign. This allows the heroine to see the world from a fresh perspective, one that's likely quite different from a "native's" view. The novelty of her surroundings will increase her awareness of beauty or ugliness, charming customs or environmental evils.

When I wrote my debut mystery, Dear Killer, I knew I wanted it set in the South Caroline Lowcountry. I lived here for a dozen years and never ceased to wonder at its beauty and variety. Inspirations for scenes ran the gamut from Hunting Island State Park, a showcase for nature untamed and untouched, to Beaufort's historic district, which celebrates the Old South's architecture and charm. I was itching to incorporate sandy beaches and shifting dunes, pluff mud and crabs, spring tides and fog. Gullah culture and beachfront mansions, alligators and ocean creeks. These unique features of the Carolina Sea Islands gave me all sorts of ideas for plotting.

Yet, I knew I couldn't pull off the creation of a heroine who'd grown up in the Lowcountry (or even the South). So my heroine, Marley Clark, shares my Midwest upbringing, language and sensibilities. (Though I did take the liberty of giving her talents and a figure I only wish I had.)

When the story begins Marley, a recent widow, has vacationed on Dear Island for years and has lived on the resort island for a year. At age 52, she's younger than most of the retired residents and single. That makes her an outsider. Yet, her familiarity with the island and its residents is sufficient to be part of the community.

When Cathy Pickens reviewed my book, she said I'd manged to describe "the Low Country South with the curious eye of a newcomer and the affectionate detail of a long-time resident." Her comment couldn't have made me happier--that was precisely the balance I tried to create.

I'm not sure anyone can describe the beauty and sensuality of the Lowcountry better than Pat Conroy, but I worked hard to serve up at least an appetizer in my novel. Like Marley, I love the Lowcountry, from its moss-draped oaks and beaches decorated with the bleached bones of trees to its lighthouses, shrimp boats and lilting Gullah dialect. If you read Dear Killer, I hope you feel the Lowcountry is a prominent character that flavors this mystery.

I'm curious. Most folks who read Five Scribes are writers. Where do you place your settings: reality, fictitious, otherworldly? What makes the best setting for you?

A native of Iowa, Linda Lovely has called the South home for more than thirty years. She lives with her husband beside a peaceful South Carolina lake, where she regularly perturbs the geese and one honking big turtle by jumping off her dock for a swim or pedaling (yes, pedaling not paddling) her kayak. Linda is a member of Romance Writers of America (RWA), Sisters in Crime and the South Carolina Writers Workshop. She feels quite lucky to have found both close friends and exceptional critique partners—snarky, funny, talented and generous—through these writer organizations.

Linda can’t imagine going to bed at night without a book in hand. Thankfully her husband shares her passion for reading so she doesn’t have to use a miner’s light to indulge her nocturnal habits.

Her manuscripts have made the finals in 15 contests, including RWA’s prestigious Golden Heart and Daphne du Maurier competitions and mystery contests such as Deadly Ink, Murder in the Grove and Malice Domestic. Her stories dish up a main course of suspense, action and adventure with a generous side of romance. Her upcoming L&L Dreamspell release is set on a fictional Sea Island in the amazing South Carolina Lowcountry, known for its Gullah roots, historic plantations, fabulous food and pirates.

Readers: Answering Linda's question or commenting on the blog will enter you in a contest to win DEAR KILLER. We'll be drawing the winner's name on Thursday morning, July 14th.

Happy Writing & Finding the Perfect Setting.


Gwynlyn said...

Having grown up near The Burg, I can tell you Ms Evanovich hit it dead on. It was one of the few places in Trenton one needn't being out alone at night. Whether that's still true . . .

Since I write both historical and Sci-Fi, setting is important. In the first, I must take my reader not only to a place they've never been, but a time, as well. Setting helps me do that.

The Sci-Fi gives me a lot more wiggle room, but world-building is no easy task. It must be unique and foreign enough to convince the reader they have left the ordinary world, but not so unusual it's difficult to grasp. It's hard to suspend disbelief when you can't wrap your mind around the setting.

Great blog, and the book sounds fabulous. Best of luck with it!

Ellis Vidler said...

Once again you've said it well, Linda. Dear Killer from Marley's perspective is dead on, and the Lowcountry images are an important part of the book. Like you, I wouldn't write as a native of someplace very different but instead as a newcomer or transplant. Google Earth and Google Maps are invaluable. (It's just too easy to get sidetracked and forget why you're there. ;)
I try to visit places for my books, but if I can't, I use tons of pictures, travel guides, and Internet research.
I joined an Internet group for people who travel to a particular place and discuss and advise each other on what to eat and so on. I told them what I was doing and they were very generous in helping me. I ask for help on the user lists I belong to from anyone who lives in that area.
If I don't shut up, this will be another blog! Good one, Linda.

Linda Lovely said...

Great research suggestions, Ellis. And, since I've read your books, too, I can vouch for the effectiveness of the research. I have a Jamaican cave scene in COUNTERFEIT, my 2010 Golden Heart finalist manuscript. Videos from a Jamaican caver organization put my heart in my throat. Almost like making the descent myself.

Donnell said...

Hi, Gwynlyn, I envy sci fi writers the ability to create these fantastic worlds. And obviously you do it right! Keep 'em coming!

Ellis, sounds like you need to do an expansion article on Linda's -- are you up to it? Let's chat. ;)

Linda, not only is DEAR KILLER on my TBR pile, sounds like I need to read Counterfeit. What's it's status?

And thanks for writing such a compelling article for Five Scribes and being our guest today!

Kristi said...

I've set my novel in the San Francisco Bay Area. My protagonist lives in North Beach. The setting is very important to her as an Italian-American. She has strong roots and ties to that area where her great grandparents first settled in America. The other settings include a jail and a newsroom. All very important and definitely a key part of my story. Thanks for the great interview!

Audra Harders said...

Wonderful post, Linda. Thanks for sharing.

Setting is such an intricate part of drawing readers into the world you're creating. I absolutely love your descriptions of the hanging moss, the mansions on the beach, the lighthouses...oh my! You find yourself in the heart of the South before you know it.

It makes the actions and motives of the characters far more plausible when you grasp a feel of the world their in.

I've lived in the Rocky Mountain region for so long, I wouldn't know how to write a book that didn't incorporate the beauty and majesty of the high country peaks and hidden lakes.

As the old saying goes, "write what you know," there aren't any truer words spoken. Make your setting come alive and your characters will naturally rise to the challenge.

Thanks for the inspiring post, Linda!

Kristina Knight said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kristina Knight said...

Setting makes the book for me - a strong sense of place (and what the place means for the characters) really makes books come alive. In my books, I try to connect the setting to the characters in some way, to bring that element into the story as well.

Great interview, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

chitrader said...

My WIP is set mainly in rural Minnesota--south in farm country, and north in wild, primitive canoe country. Setting is extremely important to my plot, as well as Minnesota weather, which affects several plot points. I don't think one can write a good story set in Minnesota without giving setting some serious consideration.


Suzanne Stengl said...

Thank you Linda for your detailed look at setting. Yes, setting can help addict a reader to a series. We can get just as attached to the setting as the character. I love JE's "Burg".

I write fictitious contemporary settings and spend a lot of time drawing maps. But though the setting is fictitious, it's based on a combination of real places.

Linda Lovely said...

I love hearing about the settings for your books. At the moment (the temps hovered around 100 yesterday), Audra's Rocky Mountains and Chris's Minnesota sound mighty appealing. Suzanne, I draw maps, too, when I'm trying to make sure my fictious terrain works.

Patricia said...

Thank you so much for this post. I never get a chance to read anything about setting and I loved this. Setting is integral for me to become immersed in a book which is why I love Jodi Picoult's settings and stories taking place in my own state of California. Dear Killer is a book I'd love to read because it deals with an older woman, someone more my own age. I find that more authors are writing outside of the twenty and thirty year old milieu which I LOVE. Thanks for a great post.

Donnell said...

Audra, you and me, kid. Love settings in the Rocky Mountains. Do ya'll remember Dana Fuller Ross who did the state books. He really used settings in his stories. He actually used setting as the antagonist on more than one occasion. Setting is very important for our novels.

As someone who judged the fabulous Kristi Belcamino in The Crested Butte Writer's The Sandy, I can attest she uses setting aptly in her novels -- No wonder she took first place!

We obviously got some fans of setting here. :) I think Linda did an amazing job here.

And Patricia, I adore older heroines. So much wisdom and they're not afraid to take prisoners when they get started.

Maryn Sinclair said...

Great post, Linda. Setting is important, and sometimes it becomes another character in the book. No matter that I've been away from the Boston area for mumble, mumble years, I feel most comfortable setting my stories there. I have ventured into different places I've lived and once into a setting I'd only visited, but I always go "home."

Robin Weaver said...

Hey Linda,
Good stuff. Setting is one of my weaknesses, so anytime I get to see or discuss a setting done well, it's a great thing. Thanks for sharing.
Robin W

Polly said...

I'm a New England coast gal too. Hmm, fancy that! There's almost always an ocean in my books. I didn't realize that until I gave it some serious thought. Great post, Linda. I think it comes down to what we know. As you said, you're still that midwestern gal, and we all write ourselves into our characters. Dear Killer is a terrific book. Loved it.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Setting is one of the key components in any novel. In mystery fiction, portrayal of a particular region or place is extremely important. I enjoy reading a novel set in a locale I'm not familiar with. As a writer, I like to place my novels in places I know well.

Linda Lovely said...

Patricia, you're right. It's terrific when books let us visit familiar terrain--especially when its a landscape we love. That's certainly evident in the books Polly and Maryn write.(Great reads!) The scenes give the reader an intimate connection with the region and the city of Boston.

Linda Lovely said...

I don't think I'll use this afternoon's setting in a book. Well, maybe a murder scene. Flat tire, 98 degrees, melting asphalt. This is one time I was happy to have gray hair. Two young gentlemen changed my tire. I gave them money and offered a book. But they said they didn't read--their one flaw.

Ruby Johnson said...

In my early writing attempts, a critiquer once said they could have been in any city and there was notheing that distinguished the setting from any other. Hopefully, I've improved a bit since then. I've read Cathy Picken's books and thought her first book SOUTHERN FRIED was especially grounded in setting. I grew up in the low country and still have family there. I try to get back there every few months. When you mentioned pluff mud, it brought back memories of arriving home in Charleston and smelling the fishy smell of the mud.Unique. I miss that but I don't miss the mosquitoes. Thanks for a great post. Your book sounds really interesting.

Jean said...

Hi Linda,
Well said! Setting is something I'm hard at work on right now :) So this was timely for me.
Thanks for sharing and good luck with your book! It's exciting to see it.

Jean :)

Mona Risk said...

Great post, Linda. Setting is almost a character in my books, whether Minsk, in Belarus, or Paris and the Loire Valley, in France, or Mykonos Island, Greece; or Ancient Egypt. Setting is such an integral part of my stories.

Carole St-Laurent said...

Great blog, Linda. My stories are set during the French Revolution. The backdrop is rich and provides enough intrigue, danger and darkness to both romance and action.