No, I’m not writing about real estate, or maybe I am, but I’m not trying to sell you any property, I promise. This is about fiction settings—region, country, state, city, bodies of water, even food and drink. Realistic or real details of a setting help make a story come alive and give it atmosphere. The coastal Maine setting plays a big role in Barbara Ross’s Maine Clambake Mystery series, in Kate Flora’s Joe Burgess mysteries, and in Bruce Robert Coffin’s Detective Byron mysteries. Think the lap of water at a dock where a body is found floating, the isolation of an icy Maine winter aggravating old grudges. As for a non-Maine author, what would Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch mysteries be without Los Angeles’s glitter and mean streets?
If an author sets her story in an area where she lives or has lived, weaving in the setting details is easier than setting the story in a far-off land or even in another state. When I began writing fiction, my location research was in the library or by telephone, a big reason my first books were set in Maine. Always a Suspect (originally Dangerous Attraction) takes place around Christmastime. My plot required the climax scene to be at a ski resort. I don’t ski, but friends invited us to their condo in northern Maine for the weekend. The stay gave me an opportunity to experience the mountains in the snow and to take photos.
I’ve set four more books in Maine partly because the plots came to me that way. For example, Primal Obsession takes place in the northern wilderness because the story involves a killer tracking a canoe expedition. I’ve utilized travel experiences for book settings, but inevitably I need to do other research. Today, the internet makes that much easier.
Some of Dark Rules (originally Breaking All the Rules) takes place in New York City and some on a fictional Caribbean island. I’ve visited the Big Apple a few times, but not the Eastern European section of the East Village, where my characters go to find particular shady characters who might have information. In one scene, they come across a street vendor selling designer knockoff handbags. The vendor says, “Ve haf de labels. Stick on bag,” showing them brass logo tags for major designers. Janna is incensed, and Simon hustles her away before she can call the police. I based the vendor on my actual experience and created that scene to show Janna as strictly by-the-book, and Simon as more the rule breaker.
Later they go to the Caribbean undercover to meet with the big smuggler. Although I’ve been to the Virgin Islands, that location didn’t work for my story. The internet came to the rescue. I plopped my island in an area where there had once been pirate activity and added the vegetation, fish, and birds found on an online guide. Readers have said they feel the heat of the Caribbean, not just the heat between my hero and heroine. It’s romantic suspense, after all.
Sometimes story ideas have come to me that couldn’t be set anywhere I’ve been. In On Deadly Ground, a museum director hires a bodyguard/guide for her trip to Central America to return a Maya artifact (with a curse!) to its temple being restored by a team of archeologists and local Maya people. The story is a race through the jungle against kidnappers, thieves, and an earthquake. I used my trip to Mexico to inform my story. Tours of Maya ruins, one including a cenoté, a water-filled cavern connected to an underground river, and a visit to a village where Maya people live the old way came to life on my pages. And eureka, my online search found the entire diary of an archeological expedition.
I’ve run into trouble researching my new book. Even Google Street View hasn’t been adequate. For various reasons, the setting is Virginia, just south of the Washington, D.C. area, near the Potomac River. This time it was readers and other authors who’ve come to my rescue. I now have a better picture and sense of the rolling hills and of the wildlife and scenery. I still need some local color, maybe a craft beer or food dish.
Background details can’t take the place of good story and characters, but they provide reality and richness to any story. Sometimes setting is almost a character in the story. If anyone can mention a particular novel in which the setting seems a character, please comment.