How Location Influences Fiction

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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.

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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.

Click here to see an example from Chapter 1 of Bend Me, Shape Me

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.

Click here to see an example from Chapter 30 of Bend Me, Shape Me.

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.

Click here to read that example.

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.

Meet Judith Kirscht

Judith KirschtJudith Kirscht is not only a fellow New Libri author, she is also a current Pacific Northwest resident and former Chicagoan, just like myself.  Her book, The Inheritors, tells a story about a different era of Chicago than my Street Stories novels do, and a different societal structure.  But her love of Chicago is the same as mine and her book brings the city alive just the way I hope my books do.

In today’s guest post, Judith reflects on how the city gets beneath your skin, even if you no longer reside there.

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Chicago Stories

I’m a Chicagoan. After more than a half century away from the city, I still think of myself that way and hold the Chicagoan’s belief that “we” are more civilized than our competitors on the other coasts. Unlike New Yorkers, we don’t shove each other to get on the subway; unlike Los Angelians we don’t drive the freeways as though we won’t get there unless we beat everyone else. We are the heartland.

How I manage to sustain such beliefs in the face of the news from the murder-capital, I don’t know. Nothing in my experience leads me to believe it was less violent in the Thirties than it is now. After all, Chicago is best known for Al Capone, and Debra Borys’s Painted Black brings to life the raw underbelly of today’s city. Indeed, her story brings back the days I did casework in the city’s near South-Side.

In those icy winters I roamed the pre-housing project streets where open wires hung in the halls of ancient apartment buildings without heat, and I heard rats in the walls as I brushed cockroaches off the couches to sit down. At least one of those horrid structures burned to the ground every winter, killing scores. But I found stories there, just as Debra found them, among the homeless. The richest and most memorable were those pockets of hope that somehow survived, despite the dirt, the rats, the L thundering outside the window.

My own Chicago, in Hyde Park, was a gentler place, though just as cold and dirty, for the city then heated with coal, and frequently our six-flat was also without heat. I think both influences combine in the picture of Chicago that comes through in my book The Inheritors. The characters are neither the very rich, living in immunity on the Gold Coast, nor Painted Dark’s castoffs, buried under its overpasses. They are descendents of waves of immigrants who struggled to raise families in the burgeoning industrial growth of the Twentieth Century and are the result of that struggle.

They are the descendants, I hope, of Carl Sandburg’s Chicago, for he is, without compare, the voice of the city. I was, in fact, going to use his poem, “Phizzog” as a frontispiece for the book. I can’t reproduce it here, but “phizzog” is a Twainism for “face” and the gist of it is that we never asked for the face we got: “Here’s yours, now go see what you can do with it.”*

* Carl Sandburg, Good Morning America poems, 1928. Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1950, p.390.

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AUTHOR BIO
inheritors-NL website thumbnailI was born, raised, educated and married in Chicago, and raised my family in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I went back to school as an adult and began to write, winning two writing awards from the university—one for a novel and another for an essay.

Following a divorce, I began teaching academic writing at the University of Michigan and continued at the University of California, Santa Barbara where I was active in developing career paths for non-tenured faculty. Though I continued to write fiction during those years, I published largely professional articles and, finally, a textbook with colleague, Mark Schlenz.

I have now moved to Washington State to write fiction full time and have published several novel excerpts and short stories in addition to the novel and the essay that won the awards back in my student days. I share a house overlooking Puget Sound with an old friend, four basenjis and a drawer full of yet unpublished work.

Read more about Judith at www.judithkirscht.com

You can buy Judith’s book The Inheritors in print or ebook from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.com.