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.