For the reading I did last night at the Princeton Public Library, I was asked to speak on how setting and location influences crime fiction. Below is what I intended to say, though I was so nervous, who knows if I got it all out in an understandable form.
When I first started thinking about how setting influences story, I wasn’t sure there was a whole lot to say. Then I started looking back at stories and manuscripts I’ve written over the years and noticed a pattern.
When I was a young married woman living on a small Midwestern farm, most of the book and story ideas I wrote were set in the rural Midwest. The two early exceptions I found were set in Europe, one in England and one in France. Those countries, however, were ones that I’d visited as a teen on an extended study tour and, guess what, the heroines in them were from the Midwest.
Those stories were suspense and mystery, just like almost all my work is, but the stories were simpler plots filled with romance, and always ended happily. Partly that was because I was younger and more romantically inclined, but the events happening around me during those Midwest days were also, for the most part, lighter and easily solved, and those events are what sparked my imagination when coming up with story ideas.
I conceived the idea for my Street Stories books which are set in Chicago while I still lived in the country, but only after experiencing a life changing few days working with an inner city Chicago church. And it wasn’t until I moved to Chicago that my first novel, Painted Black, really became fully formed. The plot for it was sparked by an article I read in the Chicago Tribune, and the characters and their mindset was greatly influenced by the people I met on the streets, people and attitudes I would never have encountered in my small town life.
As I was plotting the second Street Stories novel, Bend Me, Shape Me, I moved to Seattle, which influenced me to give my main character a partly Native American background and an uncle from the Pacific Northwest who wants to bring her back to her roots. I wanted to explore a bit the contrast between the two lifestyles, which paralleled in some ways my own change from country girl to city slicker.
And as I was deciding to move back to Illinois to be closer to friends and family, I developed an idea for a cozy mystery series set in towns eerily similar to Tiskilwa and Princeton. I found myself back to simpler plots, more heart-warming characters, and a lighter humor and tone than anything found in my Street Stories books.
Now partly these “coincidences” of my books matching my location happened because I was doing what all the writing books teach: write what you know. I believe giving your reader a sense of place is as important as giving them action, adventure, romance, etc. How better to do that than by setting your story in a location you know intimately? It’s also true, however, that the place that I was in inspired me (almost pushed me subconsciously, even) to write a certain story, in a certain way, filled with a certain type of character.
Using setting correctly is a vital element in making your story realistic. You have to be subtle yet fine-tuned in the details. Too much minutia and explanation and you end up writing a travelogue. Too little and you end up with talking heads against a disorienting green screen. The trick is in picking only those details that immediately ground your reader and/or set the tone for the scene.
Picking a place that matches a scene’s mood is one way to use setting to influence story, but another option is to pick one that is the exact opposite. If you do that, the trick is to emphasize the contrast between the physical world and the emotional one, like this scene where I show kids enjoying a record snow storm and contrast that with an old woman and her shopping cart.
In Chapter 10 of Bend Me, Shape Me, I also try to subtly emphasize the differences between Chicago’s gritty urban lifestyle and the slower, nature based life of the Yakama Reservation, and not in a way that paints either as preferable other than based on individual choice.
The three books I currently have published are good examples of how the locations I lived in affected my writing. Painted Black shows Chicago’s dark gritty personality, Bend Me Shape Me contrasts that same Chicago personality with the slower pace of the Pacific Northwest, and Chasing Nightmares, a romantic suspense novel, makes use of the remote, stark areas around the abandoned gold mines of Colorado.