- April 20, 2020
- Connie Berry
Novelist Alice Hoffman said once, “Place matters to me. Invented place matters more.” Creating a world is one of the joys of writing fiction.Read More
Novelist Alice Hoffman said once, “Place matters to me. Invented place matters more.” Creating a world is one of the joys of writing fiction.Read More
I have lived in the same two states my entire life: New Jersey and New York. More specifically, I have lived in Manhattan or within ten miles of it for my entire childhood and adult life (save for four years of college in Princeton, NJ, which wasn’t really that much farther). I set many of my books in these two states because I’m most familiar with them. After a decade in the city, I feel like I have a handle on the culture of Manhattan and, even more so, its suburban environs where I live and grew up. As a writer and a person, I’m comfortable in my area. But that very comfort is the reason why I must travel. I need to see other places to gain perspective on the location that most often serves as the backdrop to my stories. When I don’t visit other places for awhile, I can become so immersed in my home that I can’t recognize anymore what’s unique or strange or beautiful or nutty about it. Writers need the ability to see a place as both an outsider and an insider. We need to have the accuracy that comes from immersion but also the distance to point out what makes a place special. Recently, I went to Chattanooga TN to see my mother-in-law compete in a half Iron Man. (Side note: if the world ever devolves into a Walking Dead situation, I’m on her team). The place has all these incredible rock formations and a mountain cave system complete with an beautiful underground waterfall that really should be the setting for a dark thriller–albeit not one that I would write since it would probably devolve into a Raft of The Medusa situation and I don’t do that kind of gore. Still… The city is also incredibly active. Everywhere, people are biking, rock climbing, running, kayaking, and just, generally, hanging outside. I don’t know if I’ll ever set a story in Chattanooga, but going there did help me see how sedentary life in my home state of New Jersey is, particularly when the weather gets colder. We drive to indoor places or stay in our houses. When we need to work out, we drive to the gym. Seeing it, reminded me of how any story that I set in New Jersey really needs to note the driving culture. If there’s a book set in NJ and someone is not running around in an SUV, then it’s not really set in NJ. It also reminded me of how active I was living in the New York City. I walked everywhere. Ten blocks. Twenty Blocks. Fifty blocks, in nice weather. I would walk from Battery Park to the Upper East Side on a beautiful day. Why take a cab? I’d walk five blocks in rainy weather to duck into the subway (impossible to catch a cab). If a story is in Manhattan and it involves someone driving anywhere save for outside of Manhattan, it’s not a story in Manhattan. *Unless that story is Taxi Driver. What is something that you learned about your favorite setting about being away for awhile? What place have you travelled to that had helped enrich your perspective.Read More
Warning: These photos of the places that inspire my fellow Miss Demeanors will cause longing and dreaming (and, we hope, a little fear about the darkness lurking beneath all that beauty). The only remedy is to open up a book. Tracee: First off, I start with Switzerland! Everything about it is special. Kidding aside, when I develop my story I think about places in Switzerland that are special – meaning there is an element of unique to that place. A castle on the shore of Lac Leman? An elite boarding school set in a chalet? The world’s leading watch show? The task is to share these with readers without too much description. What is the essence of the place? Perhaps the people who are there (their behavior, clothing, actions); the smell (fresh air, smell of cows, chocolate); the architecture (new concrete, historic stone). I find myself diving in and then trimming the description, and trimming. People need enough to understand the atmosphere but not build the building. Paula: I fell in love with Vermont many years ago, and so I set A Borrowing of Bones there simply because Iwanted to visit this wonderful place in my mind as often as I could. The research trips where I get to go there in body as well as mind and spirit are a bonus. I put so much pro-Vermont content in the book–food and drink and wildlife and more–that my editor finally said to me, “Does everything in Vermont have to be the best?” Photo Credit: William Alexander Michele: When I try to describe the lush natural beauty of St. John in the US Virgin Islands to people, I tell them if you picked up the state of Vermont in the summer and plopped it into the Caribbean, you’d have St. John. Culturally rich with history, music, art, and literature, the island is blessed with people who know how to live in contradiction. Inundated with tourists, yet juxtaposed in the kind of isolation unique to an island, the people of St. John are its essence. People who choose to live surrounded by water are by definition different. And after Irma and Maria blew through St. John with 286 mph winds, it is the people who are nurturing the island back after near devastation. The photo I am sharing is “my writing spot” under a tree at Hawksnest Beach. The tree no longer stands, but the water is still sparkling turquoise and warm. And I am #stillwriting. Cate: I tend to like contrasts in my settings: a claustrophobic cruise ship cabin surrounded by endless ocean, a crowded beach house beside a vast sea. I use water as a metaphor for escape in a lot of my work and the characters’ inability to enter it as a way of highlighting their trapped situations. There are a lot of moats in my stories. I also like the duality of water, we need it to live and too much of it can kill us. Susan: My Maggie Dove mysteries are set in a small village in the Hudson Valley, partly because I live in a small village in the Hudson Valley, but mainly because I think village life lends itself so perfectly to mystery writing. It’s difficult to be anonymous in a village. People know what you’re up to. Why is your Subaru parked in front of Mr. Andrew’s house? Are you paying a visit? Having an affair? Or killing him? People trust each other, but they’re also a little suspicious, especially of newcomers who’ve only lived here 30 years. I’m attaching a picture of our train station, which looks mysterious to me! Alexia: The Gethsemane Brown mysteries are set in a small village that only exists in my head and on the page. I don’t have an answer for “Why Ireland?” other than, “Because Ireland.” (Because it’s green and beautiful and historic and modern and mythical and mysterious and friendly and familiar and exotic all at the same time.) “Why a village?” is easier. Because crime is expected in inner cities and, to a lesser extent, economically depressed rural areas. But villages and small towns and suburbs are viewed as safe, Norman Rockwellian, havens. Nothing bad is ever supposed to happen there. People flee to these bubbles to escape crime. But beneath their sedate, non-threatening veneers, ugliness and dysfunction and intolerance and evil lurk, waiting to strike and rock everyone’s seemingly happy, safe little world. I (perversely) love the idea of giving people who think they have nothing to worry about something to worry about. I also like the idea of showing the suspicion and mistrust and intolerance that hide beneath the polite veneer of small towns/villages. A result of growing up reading Miss Marple mysteries I guess. I try to communicate the danger underlying the calm surface by painting my village as a beautiful, charming, picture-postcard kind of place, then dropping a murder or five in the midst of it. Robin: What isn’t special about San Francisco?
I love boats. They’re featured in the book out on submission right now and in a short story I’ve just submitted for my local SinC chapter’s anthology. Boats can be tranquil (the gentle roll of golden waves at sunset) or ominous (the setting sun cast shadows like spilled ink across the murky waters). They can be claustrophobic, like Cate said, or they can express freedom. Personally, I just think they’re a fun way to see the City from a unique perspective. It never gets old to me. I have a friend with a historic yacht and every time I go out I see or experience something new. This photo is from one of our trips just before the “dancing lights” came on at the Bay Bridge.
Snow in the Wasatch Mountains, court-side seats at a Jazz basketball game, a stroll around Temple Square, otherworldly rock formations at Arches, sweeping vistas in Canyonlands, bison and birds on Antelope Island, and the quiet beauty of Huntsville after a treacherous drive up rocky Ogden Canyon. I spent last week in Utah, a place I haven’t lived full time since I graduated from high school. After my son fractured his wrist snowboarding, my family made a quick decision to turn our ski vacation into a hiking vacation. We drove down to Moab. In a delightful coincidence, friends of ours from New York were there for a few days. Over a lunch of green papaya salad, beef noodles and curried chicken (yes, there’s a great Thai restaurant in Moab, Utah), our friends described the immense beauty of my home state. I was about five the first time I remember traveling from our house in the alpine mountains in the north ofthe state to the red rock in the south. My child self assumed that everything I saw was normal. It took my friend, who lives a few blocks away from us on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, to remind me that it was pretty fabulous to be able to drive 45 minutes to world-class skiing and then several hours to spectacular desert hiking. Sitting in a Thai restaurant in Moab, I saw my state through new eyes. When we made our way back through the desolate beauty of southeastern Utah to Salt Lake, I appreciated the astonishing Utah’s topography. I’ve lived a lot of places in my life: Scotland, France, Germany, Russia, Massachusetts and Philadelphia. There’s something wonderfully special wherever you are. Sometimes, though, we get used to it. We stop seeing what makes where we are special. We stop seeing through new eyes. I’m devoting this week’s posts to what makes setting—the people, places and things—compelling and unique. What would Nero Wolfe be without Manhattan and his orchids? Can you imagine Longmire any place other than Absaroka County, Wyoming? Could Jimmy Perez exist outside of the Shetland Islands? My question for you is: what makes your setting unique and how do you describe it to those who don’t know it first hand?Read More
This morning I woke up to this view. If it looks a little bit familiar, it may be because all of us who’ve read Pride and Prejudice have been nurtured by Austen’s descriptions of the beautiful landscape of the South Downs. Isn’t this glorious? If you go outside, and take a walk (which I did!) you come to a forest, or a weald. Strolling through, I could just imagine Mr. Darcy walking toward me. A few miles away, you come to a rambling old manor house. Near the manor house is a church similar to the one Jane Austen attended. Now I want to go back and read her books!Read More
Hello from England! For the past week I’ve been traveling around England. One of the many pleasures of my trip has been seeing and smelling and touching places that I’ve only just read about. As science fiction writers know, it is not actually necessary to go to a place to write about it, but it does open up amazing vistas when you can actually be there. Today we went to Eltham Palace, which was a significant place during the Tudor era. Here is where Henry VIII’s nursery was. Elizabeth I was a baby here as well, and her older half sister, Mary, was forced to help take care of her. Anne Boleyn spent her last Christmas here, and some of the crimes she was accused of committing were said to have taken place here. So it is resonant. And there I was in the Great Hall, looking up at the same incredible carved wood ceiling Anne Boleyn would have stared at. It’s a huge room. The Tudors were not into privacy. You can almost hear the commotion. Much of the building is gone, but you get a sense of the massiveness of it. Then I went out into the lawn and was wandering around and looked south and saw London. Of course, she probably would not have been able to see anything in the 1500s. No sky scrapers then. But it gave me a sense of the geography of her life. It helps me understand her better, and that’s the point.Read More
Publication day!!!! For my first book, it was the fulfillment of a dream, the culmination of years of work and the validation that I had not been crazy when I’d quit my journalism job to get “serious about writing fiction.” It was also terribly unnerving to know that my baby would now be out there, inviting judgment. I was uncharacteristically touchy the whole day, like a raw nerve. Today is fellow MissDemeanor Tracee de Hahn’s publication day for Swiss Vendetta, the first in her Detective Agnes Lüthi mystery series. Award-winning author Charles Todd called the mystery “a true page turner” and the novel has been hailed as “tense, atmospheric and richly detailed.” She answered a few questions about her writing process and feelings about her big day for today’s blog. Q. What was your inspiration for writing Swiss Vendetta? A. My husband is Swiss and we lived there for some years. It is a fascinating country. Incredibly beautiful and peaceful and orderly… until you notice the undercurrent of energy expended to keep it that way. The contradiction is fascinating and made me think of the elements of a mystery. There were a few other pieces that had to come together – the winter setting was inspired by the memory of a devastating ice storm some years ago in Geneva. The famous Château de Chillon on the shores of Lac Léman above Lausanne was the inspiration for my Château Vallotton (Lord Byron was also inspired by this location). After I had the location in mind, the plot and characters evolved. The crime at the center of the book came easily. Q. How do you come up with your characters? Are they modeled after people that you know? A. They certainly contain bits of people that I know, but the elements of the individuals are transformed into something wholly of my imagination. For example, one of my favorite characters in Swiss Vendetta is the aging Russian, Vladimir Arsov. His voice, his manner of speaking, and his confidence were all inspired by an Italian architecture professor I had the good fortune to know. Arsov’s life story was all my invention, but the reader will understand how the man’s presence – based on my friend’s – helped created the rest. Q. Do you picture the actress who would play your protagonist in a movie?A. I’ve thought about the cinematographic dimension of the book, but I haven’t thought about the actress who would play Agnes. Hopefully I’ll need to one day. Q. What was the most surprising thing about the book publishing process to you? A. The collegiality of the writing community, particularly those in the mystery and thriller genre. Writing is a solitary endeavor and they make it less so. I imagine that before the internet, authors wrote to one another. Now the immediately of the internet and the growing network of conferences mean that we can connect daily. There is much to be learned and this group is always willing to share. Q. Now that it’s launch day, are you happy, sad, relieved? All of the above? Why?… A. A combination of happy and relieved. I know myself too well, and while writing is solitary, a book is a shared experience. I wanted to be out and about at launch time. My publishers lined up a tour of several cities and I’ll be distracted for a few weeks. For the actual launch date, I am signing at one of my favorite book stores, in a city I love – Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington, KY. If you want to join me on tour, the events are all up on my website at www.traceedehahn.com Q. What is next for you? A. Finalizing the second in the series and then starting the third! I think that the second is a psychological hurdle. I have a dozen ideas for the next one and hopefully the ones after that. Really, can’t wait to get started!Read More
People often ask me why I set my novel, Murder in G Major, in Ireland. I usually come up with a story about how Ireland is a locale where a ghost wouldn’t seem out of place but my protagonist would (I love a good fish-out-of-water story) but the true reason is as ethereal as my story’s specter. The setting just came to me.
The nidus of my paranormal murder mystery rests in a daydream I had. (Yes, I daydream movies in my head. It’s a great way to pass the time when you can’t decide on a book from your TBR pile and nothing in your Netflix queue appeals to you.) I imagined an African American classical violinist stranded in an Irish village with only the clothes on her back and her violin. And sometimes a harmonica. I imagined she won a prize for fiddling in a pub’s open mic contest and she used the money to rent a room above the pub. I remembered this daydream when a writing instructor asked “What’s your story about?” and it eventually became the backstory for my novel’s amateur sleuth.
But why Ireland? My fascination with Ireland defies logical explanation. I love Irish music, especially pub songs, Irish pubs, Irish whiskey, Irish festivals, Irish accents, Irish epithets Irish names, even Irish wolfhounds. (Although I have absolutely no space to keep one of these magnificent beasts.) I don’t know where I get it from. My surname is Scottish, of the great clan that spawned the legendary Gordon Highlanders. I didn’t grow up in Ireland nor in an Irish neighborhood. I didn’t know anyone Irish. My mother’s an Anglophile, not a Hibernophile. No one talked about visiting Ireland. My parents and I traveled a lot when I was a kid but Ireland never made the itinerary. If I, as a young adult, hadn’t planned a trip to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (with stops in London and Scotland at Dad’s request) my parents never would have set foot on emerald shores.
Where does my Irish-love come from? For the longest, I assumed it was “just one of those things.” Some people love France, some love Italy, some New York, some California. Me, I love Ireland. Just one of those things. So I thought. Until I discovered genealogical DNA testing.
Dad and I are genealogy buffs. We’ve managed to trace our family through censuses and social security death indexes and marriage certificates and draft cards along the paper breadcrumb trail from Oklahoma to Alabama and Virginia to the Carolinas. We made it as far back as the mid-1800s where we, like many African American family history researchers, hit a wall. Then Dr. Henry Louis Gates, host of PBS’s “Finding Your Roots,” started talking about DNA. I knew about DNA, of course. I’m a physician. DNA determined your eye color, your risk for certain diseases, and whether or not you were a crime suspect. And at big research institutions like National Geographic DNA helped sort out where humans originated millions of years ago. But Dr. Gates explained DNA could also help you figure out where your family came from a thousand years ago. Or five hundred years ago. Or a couple of hundred years ago. DNA testing had become simple and affordable and was now being used by family history researchers in a new (to me) field called genetic genealogy. I went online and Mom and Dad and I all got DNA testing kits for Christmas.
Guess what? I’m Irish. Fourteen percent, anyway. (Thirty-two percent Benin/Togo and twenty-four percent Cameroon/Congo, thanks for asking.) Slap my face and call me Shirley. Maybe my Hibernophilia isn’t so out-of-the-blue after all. Maybe it’s some sort of epigenetic love call, some trace memory of a long-forgotten ancestor. Or maybe not. Maybe it is just a thing. A thing I make no apologies or excuses for. A thing I enjoy. I’ll go on daydreaming about red-headed men with sexy brogues, drinking Irish whiskey while listening to the Dubliners, enjoying the craic at pubs and festivals, and setting stories in the land of storytellers. And when March seventeenth rolls around I’ll smile as I repeat the phrase, “Everybody’s Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day.”
An author speaking at a writing seminar I attended commented it surprised him whenever someone complimented him on how well he’d described such-and-such a place, the geographic location in which he’d set his novel. His secret—he hadn’t really described the place. He included a few key details, aspects of the environment important to his point of view character, and left the rest to the readers’ imagination. He didn’t believe in complex descriptions of place.
I’m the opposite. I love stories that describe place so vividly I’m transported to the location and feel as if I’m walking the streets and eating in the restaurants and shopping in the stores alongside the characters. When Poe’s narrator approaches the House of Usher on the “dull, dark, and soundless day,” with “clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens” and sees the “bleak walls,” “vacant, eye-like windows,” and “rank sedges,” I’m right there with him and share his “sense of insufferable gloom.” The place becomes a character. New York City is as much a character in “Law and Order” as the detectives who investigate its crimes. Nero Wolfe’s brownstone is a character in Stout’s series just as much as Wolfe and Archie. Mitchell’s Slade House and Carroll’s Wonderland are the stars of their stories.
Some argue detailed place descriptions aren’t needed in the modern era when traveling halfway around the world is as uncomplicated as pulling up an airline’s app on your smartphone. Back in the day, authors had to describe their novels’ settings in detail because a reader in rural Pennsylvania was probably never going to travel to downtown Paris. Nowadays, even if that Pennsylvanian can’t swing airfare to the City of Light, she can visit virtually. Google Earth will let her zoom in until she can almost read the menu at a restaurant along the Seine.
So what’s a modern writer who loves rich descriptions of place to do? Invent one. World-building isn’t restricted to fantasy and science fiction. If you imagine a village, as I did in my novel, Murder in G Major, you have some license to describe what you’ve created. Readers can’t find satellite images of a fictional locale so you have to tell them where the pub is and whether the church is next to the post office or the school. When I write, I visualize my characters interacting with their setting, like watching a movie in my head, and put on paper what I see in my mind. I have difficulty writing without a sense of place.
One caveat. Internal consistency matters. Just because a place is fictional doesn’t mean the bus station can be on Tenth Street in chapter one but move to Fourth Avenue in chapter twelve. Unless, of course, you’re writing speculative fiction where moving bus stations is a plot element. I sketch maps to help me keep track of what’s located where.
Do you believe less is more when it comes to describing places or that less is less? Do you prefer locations real or imaginary? Or either so long as the writer transports you? (This blog post originally appeared on Club Hen House)
Occasionally I browse through books on writing, not exactly looking for inspiration or rules but reminding myself that every writer faces similar struggles in the act of creation. Recently I reread parts of P.D. James’ Talking About Detective Fiction. It is an amazing book, mainly for her vast knowledge of the history of the genre; however, this time I focused mainly on the chapter titled Telling the Story: Setting, Viewpoint, People. Setting is important in my books, mainly because they are set in a place perhaps not familiar to an English speaking (or reading) audience. Namely, Switzerland. James points out that most readers relate to the characters. It is true that today many mysteries are character driven, not plot driven. Where does this leave the setting? Of primary importance she says, noting that the setting is “where these people live, move and have their being.” She reminds the writer that they have a duty to breathe the character’s air, see with their eyes, walk the paths they tread and inhabit the rooms furnished for them. Beyond the need of a setting to create a place for the character to spring to life, setting can inspire the story itself. This is true with my first Agnes Lüthi book, where an ice storm traps the characters in a château on the shore of Lac Léman. In Swiss Vendetta, the château returns to its medieval origin with the power out and modern conveniences made irrelevant. This informed the plot and the characters throughout the book. What does isolation and discomfort do to the psyche? It changes people. James’ uses Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles as an example. Would The Hound of Wimbledon Common have evoked the same sense of apprehension? Probably not. Superficially Switzerland is perfect. Literally picture postcard perfect. Every view can evoke an exclamation of delight. Look at the château, the pastoral landscape, the milk cows on parade with their flowered headdresses, the historic cities, the rivers, the lakes, the mountain, the Glacier Express…. The list is endless. To me Switzerland is the St Mary’s Meade of Agatha Christie. St Mary’s Meade was charming, yet bad things happened there (really so many people died under the nose of Miss Marple that it should be quite disturbing, but it isn’t). For the setting of my next Agnes Lüthi book I’ve chosen a boarding school as the center piece of the story. A charming, rural, idyllic setting where, yes, bad things will happen. To my mind, the setting isn’t only a place but it is an active participant. Certain events take place because of the setting. It can inspire a plot and also determine the course of the action. P.D. James called to mind the words of John Bunyan when she set one of her detective stories in a beautiful setting. He said: “Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the gates of Heaven.” I’ll keep this in mind as a cast my mind to the beauty of the landscape that is my chosen setting. Inspiration indeed.Read More