It took me far too long into my life to realize the significance of place in the writing process. It started off by writing a historical novel about Cuba without ever having gone there. It then evolved into beginning a mystery series set in my hometown of Brunswick.
Not that there is anything wrong with Brunswick. I set my Mainely Mystery series here because I know the town so well. I’d had children in Brunswick. Owned businesses in Brunswick. Taught school in Brunswick. And now I write in Brunswick.
This was why I chose to write about Joshua Chamberlain, as he was a Brunswick legend, and I had easy access to Bowdoin College and the Chamberlain House for research. But then I realized that it would help to visit the battlefields upon which he fought, as well as Washington D.C. where he spent a chunk of time during the war.
And visiting these places was fun. All in the name of research, of course. I frequented and toured Gettysburg, the battlefield where Chamberlain became a legend, so much that my son ended up going to Gettysburg College. No, really.
In 2016 I finally got the opportunity to go to Cuba. I developed an itinerary that followed the revolutionary war trail of Fidel Castro and his band of bearded guerrillas. For two weeks I crisscrossed the island nation and gained a deeper sincerity about the place I was writing about. It was trudging to the top of the Sierra Maestra through the jungle and rugged terrain in a 95° day with extreme humidity and this was in December that I fully realized how 300 men were able to repulse and turn back an army of 10,000 soldiers.
Cuba was such an eye-opening experience that I chose New Orleans as the setting for my next historical. Sure, the theme of writing about the fight for social equality in the south after the Civil War fascinated me, but New Orleans was purely selfish. It gave me and my wife the opportunity to vacation there, researching place and setting during the day, enjoying food, drink, and music at night. What a bewitching place, both past and present.
With my Clay Wolfe/Port Essex series I chose something new. I created a fictional town set on the coast of Maine. Sure, it might have a loose basis in Boothbay Harbor, but very loose. The town is the figment of my imagination. I’ve created a map of Port Essex, and every time I add a place or street, on the map it goes. Over the past couple of years, it has grown, and become real.
What’s up next? I’ve decided it would be fun to merge the two writing loves of histories and mysteries into one. Velma Gone Awry; An 8 Ballo Mystery, will be coming out next April and is about a PI in 1923 Brooklyn. As my daughter lives there with her wife now, I thought it’d be great setting to visit and research at the same time. And what an astounding place Brooklyn was in the 1920’s. Speakeasies, jazz, writers, baseball, the shimmy, and a plethora of legendary people.
The long and short is we as writers can pick our place. Whether it be our hometown, places we’d like to visit, or creations of our own—place is of our choosing.
Matt Cost was a history major at Trinity College. He owned a mystery bookstore, a video store, and a gym, before serving a ten-year sentence as a junior high school teacher. In 2014 he was released and began writing. And that’s what he does. He writes histories and mysteries.
After watching the movie Gettysburg I fell in love with Chamberlain and started reading more about him. Then had to go the battlefield and see Little Round Top (sp?). Years later, I was at the Maine State museum and got to done white gloves and hold the pistol a Confederate soldier fired at Chamberlain. It misfired and the soldier surrendered. It was like reaching back and touching a piece of history. Amazing. Yes. Place has a huge impact on our stories. If you don’t read Gerry Boyle you should. His sense of place, as well as his ability to create menace in ordinary circumstances, is impressive.
This was a delightful and helpful read…and gives me another reason to travel 😊
I view the setting as a whole other character. Right now, I’m immersed in a fictional English village, and wish I could move there! Have fun in the 1920s!
I’ve read stories where the place was as much a character as were the people. It added a lot to my enjoyment. Tony Hillerman and James Lee Burke made their settings so real to me. I set a lot of my writing in Somerset & Franklin County as my father’s family came from there.
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Wow. Couldn’t agree more and I am envious of your far-reaching locations and topics! Excited to read the next!