Outdoor Settings: Much More Than “Place”

As an ecologist-turned-writer, I regard the outdoor settings of my books as much more than “place”. The Maine coast – its frigid waters, sudden storms, waving seaweeds, all of it – is a glorious and unpredictably dangerous entity that, for me, is very much alive.

My protagonist, oceanographer Mara Tusconi, who gets into all sorts of trouble in her sea kayak, helps readers know that danger. For instance, she was nearly swept into the cold Pacific Ocean when her rudder broke, fought fifteen-foot waves off Maine’s coast, and was plucked out of fifty-degree seawater by a lobsterman. Many of Mara’s adventures are based on my own experiences (except the last one).Lobster Sea

We writers describe characters that people our stories with words like “moody”, “secretive”, “impulsive”, and so on. A crime novelist whose books I enormously admire – Anne Cleeves – applies a similar vocabulary to the wild, desolate, unforgiving British Isle landscapes of her stories.

Here’s an example: Cleeves describes England’s North Devon, the setting for her fist Detective Matthew Venn book, “The Long Call” as “a land of water and sky where the cry of the herring gull, the sound naturalists named the long call, the cry which always sounded to him like an inarticulate howl of pain, is woven through every inch of the story until it is a character in and of itself.”The Long Call

At last year’s CrimeBake, Cleeves called the bleak and wild spaces of her Nordic fiction as very much more than a backdrop. That setting, she said, deeply affects the people who live there. It’s an open landscape where you can see as far as you can, but a place where secrets are very well hidden. People know secrets about each other they never speak about because they absolutely need to keep that distance. A professional naturalist, Cleeves has lived where her stories are set and it shows.

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia – most of Maine’s early settlers in the 1600s came from the West Country, a rugged maritime region of England. So “bleak and wild landscapes” are part of the state’s heritage.

Like Cleeves, Paul Doiron, a Maine crime writer I especially admire, has professional training that inspires his work. Doiron is an avid fly fisherman and Registered Maine guide whose passion for Maine’s interior shines through his Game Warden Mike Bowditch series. For example, in “The Precipice” Doiron portrays a lake in central Maine this way:

“The sun hadn’t yet cleared the hills in the east, but the sky above the lake was streaked with pink and gold, and there wasn’t a breath of wind to stir the leaves of the maples. The lake, visible between the sleeping houses, was as flat and blue as stained glass.”Stay Hidden

If you are looking for a Maine writer who skillfully weaves the outdoors into a story without sounding sappy, Paul Doiron would be an excellent choice.

Next time you read a story with outdoor scenes, try thinking about that setting as a character on its own with moods, secrets, and surprises. Perhaps that will change your take on the whole thing.

About Charlene DAvanzo

I'm a marine ecology/college professor who never, ever thought I'd write fiction. That assumption changed in an instant as I listened to another scientist - a climatologist named Ray Bradley at UMass, Amherst - describe being harassed by climate change deniers. The idea to write mysteries with climate change understories to help readers understand what's happening to our climate in the context of a fast-paced exciting story came to me out of nowhere. That's what I do in my "Maine Oceanographer Mara Tusconi" series.
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1 Response to Outdoor Settings: Much More Than “Place”

  1. I agree, physical description really helps readers ‘get’ what’s going on.

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