The Critical Importance of Setting

James Hayman talks about setting:

Like a lot of thriller writers, I’ve often been asked the chicken and the egg question.  What came first when you decided to write your first novel?  The characters or the plot?

In my case, the answer is neither.  What actually came first was setting. Before I dreamed up McCabe or Maggie or any of the other characters I’ve been living with the past few years, long before I decided on illegal heart transplants as my first plot device, I decided that Portland, Maine would be where my books would take place.

As a reader, I’ve always felt that setting was key to a lot of the best and most successful mystery and suspense series. For example,  it would be hard to imagine James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels set anywhere but in Louisiana. Or Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee stories taking place anywhere but in New Mexico. Robert Parker’s Spenser is totally tied to Boston. There’s Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh, Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Millers Kill, New York, and, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Victorian London.

For me, Portland was perfect. I live here so I know the city well. It offers just about everything I could want in creating a new series. A sometimes gritty urban setting. A vibrant street life. Great architecture. A rich history. The working waterfront. Good bars and restaurants. A lively art scene. Plus, importantly, since my hero was going to be a cop, a police department with big-city skills and resources but one that was still small enough for most of the cops to know and care about each other. There was also the weather. As we all know Portland offers interesting and sometimes extreme weather to set scenes in.

The first words in Chapter One of the first McCabe thriller, The Cutting, are rooted in setting. “Fog can be a sudden thing on the Maine Coast.”  The rest of the chapter follows a young woman, Lucinda Cassidy, as she and her dog jog through the early morning fog from the old cemetery on Portland’s West End until her run is suddenly interrupted as she is abducted by the bad guy on Portland’s Western Prom.  Literally dozens of readers who live in Portland have told me they’ve felt nervous walking on the Western Prom ever since reading that first chapter. For a thriller writer that’s high praise.

The story in the second McCabe thriller, The Chill of Night, also begins with setting. “Had Number Ten Monument Square been set among the skyscrapers of New York, or even Boston, no one would have noticed it. In a town like Portland it stood as one of the defining features of the skyline.” A few pages later a body is found, frozen solid and stuffed into the back of a BMW illegally parked on the Portland Fish Pier.

In my third book, Darkness First, which I’m still working on, I move up the coast to Washington County. But this book too starts with a description of a place. The easternmost point of land in the continental United States where not only does the sun come up first, but the darkness comes first as well.

  1. "Fog can be a sudden thing on the Maine coast."

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3 Responses to The Critical Importance of Setting

  1. MCWriTers says:

    Important observations, Jim. My first panel, umpteen years ago at Malice Domestic, I was on a panel about the weather. It seemed like a hard topic, but when you think about how we, in Maine, get ready to go out in the winter, and how people in California or Florida might take the same trip, you realize how important the environment is, and how the way your characters respond it can shape them and reveal them.

  2. Gerry Boyle says:

    James Hayman is so right. When fully embraced, setting becomes almost another character. The other characters interact with it, embrace it, are repelled by it, or are, as in Jim’s Western Prom in Portland, Maine, frightened by it. Of course, the setting has to be developed as well as the book’s best characters. The luminaries Jim lists do just that.

  3. Pj Schott says:

    Setting is what allows us to completely immerse ourselves along with the characters and their stories. Thank you for your insight.

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