Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Just the Right Spot

My Writing Corner is opening up the doors to the outside world this week -- with a look at finding the right location for setting a story, researching the location and some of the pitfalls of writing a good setting for your story.

A year ago today I was visiting Santa Fe, New Mexico, partly as a reunion with friends, partly to visit with family, partly to see a student writer and partly to conduct research. When I set my DEAD MAN romantic suspense series in New Mexico, I knew it would require spending more time there. Setting to me is one of those critical things in a book that should be felt rather than forced. Every place I visit I consider research because I never know when I might use the location in a book.

To me, setting is like character. As the writer I feel like I need to know it thoroughly before I can show it to the reader. Just as I create characters I want to come alive, I try to do that with setting -- making it real and immediate, some place anyone might feel they can visit and experience. But setting is much trickier -- characters are totally fictitious. For writers with stories set in a contemporary or historical period, the setting is part real and part fiction. Certain things can't be changed. Readers will know if you moved a location or write things like having Colorado being totally filled with mountains, ignoring the eastern plains.  (I use that example because I've seen writers do that and as someone who grew up in those plains and not seeing a mountain until I was ten, I know the difference.)
When I visit places I’ve never been and get an idea for a story, I always make a point of stopping to think about what characters might be seeing or feeling or thinking. In past blogs I’ve talked about the importance of using all one’s senses as a writer and that is critical in helping to make a scene come alive. It's a good practice to get into, wherever you visit.  You never know when you might want to use that place as a setting for a story. Think about it while you’re there so that you can summon your memories as you sit down later to write. Use all your senses.
What are you smelling? What do you see? How does the air feel on your skin?  What are the colors around you? What do you feel about the location? What are you hearing? Lots of traffic? Quiet? Different languages? Is the air hot, sultry? Cool, dense? Is the day gray or so sunny the water around you sparkles?
As I write my books, the setting or location is often every bit as important as coming up with just the right characters and just the right plot. Many times my setting has dictated what I want to write.  My book DEADLY MESSAGES opened in Vancouver, BC, in Stanley Park because the idea for my book came to me while I was walking around the park with my sister. Being much slower, I fell behind her and as I ambled along I started wondering what would happen if we didn’t link up at our appointed meeting place. In some places it seems you can disappear into the dark depths between the trees and bushes even while you can hear the sounds of Lions Gate Bridge not far away. People might be running or walking only yards away along the seawall but you can still feel totally alone. And totally vulnerable.

My  novella, SHADOWS FROM THE PAST, was also set in the gloomy mists of the Northwest and it is set in an old mansion. What is more fun than a big old spooky house when writing a gothic romance? They go together naturally.  A visit to the San Juan Islands provided me with the idea for that story.  The quaint villages where everyone knew everyone with their picturesque older homes scattered among cottages and new vacation homes were great fodder for my imagination. I wanted Redfern Manor to be like every strange old forlorn house that ever intrigued me--an old graystone with plenty of secrets and plenty of peculiar characters.
In my newest book, DEAD MAN’S RULES, I wanted to bring a small New Mexico town and its people to life. That was part of what I was doing last year, visiting several small towns to get their feel. I knew some of the dynamics of small town living, having spent my earlier life in a small town  much like Rio Rojo, where everyone knew everyone and their families and many times their family history because everyone went to school together and their parents went to school together. But there is also a special feel to the flow of life there that is quite different from the life that one might have in a city. Capturing some of that was important to bringing the small town to life.

So was the feel for the location. Besides spending time in several towns, I also travelled out into the country side outside of Santa Fe. A visit to Tent Rocks was a good way to sample the location with its awesome rock formations, and the difficulty of navigating the dry, sandy terrain. Likewise a quick trip up to the top of the Santa Fe Ski Area showed me how quickly that dry terrain could turn mountainous and treacherous in the winter.  
My next mystery, BLUES AT 11, which will be coming soon from The Wild Rose Press, is set in Los Angeles. While I lived there for nearly 20 years, I also have been gone for 12 years and things have certainly changed quite a bit since I make the city my home.  I have had to make several trips back and spend some time just wandering and getting to know the city again to make certain my story still has an authentic feel. Some things haven’t changed, I’ve discovered – the feel of being at the beach at sunrise or the special sensations of electricity in the air of things happening. The traffic remains and is worse, but the new train system now links more parts of the city, and parts of old Hollywood have been transformed. These are the types of research elements that are necessary to check out again, but not every place changes as quickly or as drastically.

But beyond research, knowing how much of that information to put into the book is also important. At a recent writing conference, I asked several readers and other writers about how important they regard setting. They all agreed it was important as a way of transporting the reader into the book world, but I got one overwhelming caution. Setting needs to engage the reader without being so intrusive that the reader wants to skip over too many paragraphs of description. They want to be drawn into the location of the story as the plot unfolds. As one reader noted, “I want to get a feel for the place, but I don’t want to know the exactly pattern of every doily on a table.”
For readers who enjoy a good horror or fantasy tale, they said they wanted to see the world where the story is located, but they don’t want to be overwhelmed right at the beginning with so much detail they don’t get involved in what is happening in the story. They want to be drawn in with the plot even if the story is happening in another world. One noted a great battle scene where the author spent a small amount of time to describe the valley where the armies were lined up against each other. When the battle started, he had a good feel for the location of the river and nearby cliffs that provided a backdrop when the armies clashed.

The same goes for mystery, westerns or romance. Many of those readers mentioned the work of Stephen King and how he can make some of the most common towns and locations scary with just a few words. The fact that a supernatural event or monster might come to an ordinary town, such as Chester’s Mill, his imaginary location in the bestselling novel, UNDER THE DOME, now a hit TV series, makes the location even spookier.

Whether you're visiting a place to get that certain “feel” of a place, or making up the setting and developing it from your own imagination, never forget the reader. Put them in your location so they can feel it too. It helps them relate to the characters and to the story.  

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