Setting is all around you, and it’s yours for the taking

Everyone who writes, or aspires to, understands the vital importance of setting. The great mystery writer Elizabeth George, in her book “Mastering the Process,” talks about how she really doubles down on it — going to areas she wants to write about and taking hundreds of photos to help guide her ideas for a book.

George stresses how she lets herself get drawn in by intriguing settings, letting the settings be fodder for a plot, rather than looking for settings that match what she’s already planning to write about.

I, too, like traveling around to real settings to help spark ideas, though I do it a little closer to home than George, who lives in Washington state, but sets her books in the U.K.

I don’t think there’s a time when I’m not thinking about setting as I wander around, and wandering around is something I like to do as often as I can.

For those of you who are in the “still thinking” phase of your next book, keep in mind that you don’t have to wander far or go to “interesting” places. Every place can be interesting if you look at it through your writer’s eye.

Here are some photos I’ve taken recently just around the area I live in. None of them are anything spectacular, nothing exotic, yet they are all interesting and inspriational to me. I see endless possibilities when I  visit these sites.

A favorite place to hike is Howard Hill Historical Park, on the Augusta-Hallowell border.

Howard Hill Park not only has woods trails and nice vistas of Augusta, but also a trail through a meadow. When I was there the other day, the only other person I saw was that man in the distance down the trail in the blue shirt. I had a a whole story line going about him, which I’m sure he’d be horrified by. But he’ll never know.

Another favorite spot is the Pownalborough Courthouse, in Dresden. It’s steeped in history — John Adams once tried a case there, and Benedict Arnold made a stop up the Kennebed on his 1775 trek to Quebec City– but it’s cool aside from that. On a recent visit, we heard baby eagles crying in a nest, then saw the mother swoop down to feed them. Pretty cool. There’s a cemetery,  a steep drop to the river and trails through the woods, where there are old cellar holes. Classic mystery fodder!

I like to hang out at the Hallowell bulkhead. It’s got great views of the Kennebec, and also an ever-changing crowd of both locals and tourists. It’s a great place to eavesdrop on conversations.

Another place I like to hang out, go for a walk, and look at the river is Mill Park, in Augusta. Besides the river itself, which you can see by now I’m a little obsessed with, the park is the site of the former massive Edwards Manufacturing textile mile. It closed in 1983, and burned down in 1989, but some of its remnants, particularly the granite walls that supported the site, still remain. Some of it’s even been worked into the walk that goes along the river. There is much inspiration here.

St. Augustine Church on Sand Hill in Augusta, rises above the site where the mill used to be. Many of the French-Canadian millworkers lived in that area of the city. The one remaining mill building is the the brick pump house, partially obscured by trees.

Much of the granite foundation for the mill site, some of it more than 200 years old, lines the river. The walkway around the park goes over some of it.

The foundation for the old Statler Tissue mill, which closed 20 years ago, is across the river from Mill Park.

The granite archway that brings Bond Brook under Water Street in Augusta, at the south end of Mill Park, is another historic feature that goes unnoticed by the hundreds of people who drive over it every day.

I was recently driving through Livermore Falls and passed this church. I couldn’t help wonder, okay, what next? And what’s going on with it now? And what would happen if someone went inside for some reason… and never came out alive.

While there are a lot of historic and river-oriented photos here, and the church is classic mystery creepy, the takeway from this should be there are interesting places that can spark your imagination right outside your door. Or close to it.

All of the sites in this post are places I frequently go — every time I go, I see something new and different. I’m not going to go into everything I think when I’m at places like this, because the point isn’t what I think, but to inspire you to go find your own places, and see what they make you think.

There’s no substitute for a setting that you’ve seen, heard, smelled and felt.


About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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5 Responses to Setting is all around you, and it’s yours for the taking

  1. John Clark says:

    Amen. This is why I take so many photos when we’re heading somewhere in Maine as they help me ‘collect’ scenes to be used later, whether in a short story or in a book.

  2. This is pretty brilliant, Maureen. So many great places to put a body.

  3. Kate Flora says:

    Pretty brilliant, Maureen. So many great places to put a body and so much history.

  4. Hey, Maureen. Great post. I so agree about setting. I frequently start with the setting before getting the gist of the story. TRUTH BE TOLD came about because I drove down the same street several times a week for a year and became fascinated with a particular house there. And the books I’ve struggled the most to write are the ones, I didn’t have a solid handle on the setting. I’ll share. 🙂

  5. ellenlgua says:

    Lovely, inspiring post; gorgeous photos; thank you for sharing!

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