By Brenda Buchanan
Maine is chock-full of great ideas for setting a crime novel.
By setting I mean something more fundamental than the particular city or town—real or imaginary—where the story unfolds. I’m talking about the places that give communities their distinctive character. Whether I’m reading someone else’s book or writing one of my own, I love to immerse myself in the physical and emotional space inhabited by the book’s characters.
A defunct factory, its windows a gap-toothed smile thanks to kids with strong arms and good aim.
An old-fashioned courtroom smelling of floor wax.
A church sanctuary illuminated by late-afternoon light.
As readers of this blog know, my first book, Quick Pivot, is set in the imaginary mill town of Riverside, Maine. In the opening scene, a body is found in the long-neglected Saccarappa Textile Mill. Having spent a lot of time exploring the region’s former economic mainstays, I loved writing about that imaginary mill. If the Saccarappa were real I know its renovators would likely discover—as have the visionaries who are busy restoring mills across New England—that the skilled craftsmen who built it embellished its brick façade with architectural flourishes, a testament to the pride the community took in its mill.
But in Quick Pivot, Joe is skeptical the decrepit Saccarappa was ever a handsome place:
The day was what meteorologists call mostly sunny but it didn’t feel that way in the shadow of the Saccarappa. Sagging with age and neglect, the accumulated soot on its brick face leached the light out of the sky. Mismatched additions hunched on the north and south flanks of the original four-story structure, meeting the front door at asymmetrical angles. The idea must have been to create a courtyard. The effect was a claustrophobe’s bad dream. I felt hemmed in even though I was outdoors.
My second book in the Joe Gale mystery series, the recently-released Cover Story, takes place in the dead of winter, way downeast in Machias. There’s an imaginary brew pub and a townie tavern, a drinking divide that is typical in smaller Maine towns, at least those populous enough to support two bars. Folks who like fancy beer and live music go to the pub. Locals who prefer Bud and familiar faces go to someplace like The Mudflat, my imagined Machias watering hole:
I’d found the place where the people unimpressed by microbrews drank. It was an L-shaped space, narrow in the front, broadening beyond the bar. The bar itself—which ran along the right side of the room—was a slab of maple someone had milled but didn’t have the patience to finish. There were about a dozen tables opposite the bar, and in the back, a few booths. The place reeked of stale beer and nicotine. It had been a decade since smokers could light up in Maine bars, but it smelled like hundreds of thousands of butts had been smoked in The Mudflat over the years and no one had thought to wash the walls when the practice was outlawed.
Cover Story is about a murder trial, and a lot of the action takes place inside the Washington County Courthouse, which is a real place.
There’s a spanking new addition, but the old part of the building has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1976. Many years ago, when my law practice still included litigation, I tried a civil case in the high-ceilinged chamber in that gracious structure. In Cover Story I took some liberties with its layout, but it would be recognizable if you were to tour the circa-1855 part of the building.
I scanned the second-floor courtroom. The front half of the spectator section on the left side had been roped off to accommodate the jury pool, so I claimed the aisle seat in the front row on the right side. This would allow me a good vantage point to watch voir dire, the process by which prospective jurors are questioned about their backgrounds and potential biases.
Large windows welcomed sunlight on both sides of the room, causing the benches to gleam like they were in a furniture polish commercial. The fourteen-chair box where the jurors would sit was beneath the windows, about thirty diagonal feet to my right. The witness stand was straight ahead, perhaps forty feet away.
My third book, Truth Beat, will be out in late winter of 2016. Like Quick Pivot, it takes place in Riverside. The plot revolves around the suspicious death of a Catholic priest. A critical aspect of the setting came together after I attended a friend’s mother’s funeral. Though I’m no longer a practicing Catholic, being surrounded by Catholic iconography and the ritual of a funeral Mass triggered a flood of memories from my youth and made it easy for me to describe the primary sanctuary of Riverside’s imaginary St. Jerome’s Church.
Here’s a sneak preview from Truth Beat:
The hardworking millworkers who’d financed the construction of St. Jerome’s a century and a half earlier hadn’t stinted on making it a beautiful place of worship. The church had two levels. Upstairs was a formal space, with fancy chairs on a broad altar and three aisles of pews that could hold perhaps five hundred people. The soaring ceiling was painted ivory with pale blue accents, and grapevines and flowers were carved into the graceful pillars that reached to its apex. The floor was carpeted in a deep burgundy, and the stained glass windows softened the light that managed to penetrate.
Setting isn’t the initial thing I think about when I start imagining a new book. Character sketches come first. But once I’ve created the people who will populate my story, I need to conjure the places where they’ll work and play before I can start writing.
Lucky for me, I live in Maine, where inspiration for vivid settings is pretty much everywhere I look.
How much does setting matter to you when you read a book set in a place with which you are familiar? How about when the story takes place somewhere you’ve never been?
You Nail settings. And character. I’m loving the new book and getting to like Joe Gale more and more.
Thank you, Kate. You know, of course, you are one of my primary role models as to both plot and setting . . .
Haven’t read Cover Story yet, but LOVE your use of setting in Quick Pivot. I felt like “I’ve been there” but also “I’m seeing this fresh.”
Can’t wait to read cover story because I love the idea of Machias as a setting.
Thanks, Barb! Machias offers the rural Maine experience in every sense-aesthetically, geographically and culturally. Cover Story set in the winter, which amplifies the remoteness. I appreciate your kind words about Quick Pivot and hope you like Cover Story!