The Importance of Setting

Guest Post by Patricia Smiley*

michael-discenza-331452-unsplashYears ago I bought a novel written by a well-known author because it took place in Seattle, a city where I’d lived, went to school, and worked for many years. A few chapters in, I was dismayed that the descriptions of setting were so generic that the story could have taken place anywhere. It was almost as if that the author had never set foot in the city.

Setting matters. The place of your novel includes the broader vistas into which you set the story, such as the culture and customs of the people who live there, history, land, floral and fauna, and even the shape of the clouds. It’s also where each scene takes place, be it the backseat of a Mini Cooper, an English garden, a Federal prison cell, or a home kitchen.

We were given five senses for a reason. Detail specificity enriches your writing. Don’t just say the kitchen was messy; describe the smell of spaghetti sauce oozing down the wall, the feel of that sticky green substance puddled on the floor next to the baby highchair, and the tick tock of the antique grandfather clock in an otherwise silent room. Descriptions should not just be an inventory of the space. Each one must illuminate an element of plot, theme, or character and, in the case of this kitchen, raise a myriad of dramatic questions about what happened there and to whom.

Description as fine sauce. Descriptions need not be long and rambling, but a writer must persuade the reader that the story is real. Even people who’ve never been to a location should feel as though they’re experiencing it firsthand. This also applies to imaginary settings. To prevent long passages of boring prose, take Elmore Leonard’s advice, ”Don’t write the parts people skip.” Instead, distill the essence of a place into a fine sauce. Below is an example of reporter Jeffrey Fleishman’s brilliant and evocative description of Port Said, Egypt, from the Los Angeles Times:

“This shipping city of factory men, with its whispers of colonial-era architecture, was once a crossroads for intellectuals, spies and wanderers who conspired in cafes while the Suez Canal was dug and Egypt’s storied cotton was exported around the globe. Rising on a slender cusp in the Mediterranean Sea, the town exuded cosmopolitan allure amid the slap of fishing nets and the creak of trawlers.”

Don’t trust your memory—verify. Get the specifics right. Nothing takes a reader out of the story faster than getting hung up on inaccurate details. If you can’t visit the location, read travel blogs, talk to friends with knowledge of the area, consult Google Maps, online photos, and YouTube videos.

People like to “travel” when they read. Effective use of description creates atmosphere and mood, and stimulates emotions. Anyone who is familiar with the cold, bleak settings in Scandinavian crime novels or films knows how integral “place” is to every part of those stories. So, give your readers a compelling setting and then wish them a bon voyage.

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Patricia Smiley is the author of four novels featuring amateur sleuth Tucker Sinclair. Her new Pacific Homicide series profiles LAPD homicide detective Davie Richards and is based on her fifteen years as a volunteer and a Specialist Reserve Officer for the Los Angeles Police Department.

The third in that series, The Second Goodbye, is set for release on December 8, 2018.

Patty’s short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Two of the Deadliest, an anthology edited by Elizabeth George. She has taught writing at various conferences in the U.S. and Canada and also served as vice president for the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and as president of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles.

PatriciaSmiley.com

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Photo by Michael Discenza on Unsplash
*This blog article is posted for Patricia Smiley by The Writers In Residence member, Jackie Houchin

 

The Fun of Writing “Retro-Cozies”

Guest Post by Sally Carpenter*

An interviewer once referred to my stories as “retro-cozies.” I liked the term and use it to describe my work.

A retro-cozy is an amateur sleuth mystery with no graphic gore, violence, sex, or language, and occurs in the past. What defines “the past” is up for grabs—I’d say any time before the 21st century.  My Sandy Fairfax series is set in 1993. The protagonist, a former teen idol, often refers to his TV show, which was filmed in the 1970s.  My newer series, the Psychedelic Spy, takes place in 1967.

Beatlemaniac_final_ large_2500Why do I use a time machine when I write? For Sandy Fairfax, I had no choice. I wanted to write about a ‘70s teen idol because of the culture of that time when teen idols were promoted through TV shows. I like the melodic songs from the era, the cheesy clothes, and the drama that often took place behind the idols’ innocent façades.  \

Sandy was 18 when his TV show started, so if I set the books in today’s world, he would have aged up to 61 or so. But I wanted to write about a younger man who could still do his own stunts and would be making a comeback, not plans for retirement. The year 1993 places Sandy at age 38, still agile but facing a midlife crises.

For the second series, the ‘60s is a ripe era for storytelling: war protests, civil rights and women’s movements, the generation gap, influence of Eastern religions, and the Cold War.  I love the culture of the age, the bright colors, pop art, rock music, movies, mod clothes and hairstyles. Let’s face it, women’s clothing styles in 2018 are—dare I say it—drab and ugly.

I like the simplicity of past times. I use a computer, but I’m out of touch with today’s technology. I don’t even own a cell phone (gasp!). I gave up trying to figure out streaming services, podcasts, YouTube videos, Twitter, social media and whatnot.

If a contemporary protagonist gets in trouble, all she has to do is whip out her cell phone and call for help. Ho hum. But my protags have to think and fight their way out of their predicaments. If my protags need information, they can’t Google or ask Alexis; they have to put in the legwork. They need hard evidence, not just a DNA sample. With fewer crime fighting tools at their disposal, my heroes work harder.

People who stare at their phones or computers all day bore me. Characters who talk face-to-face are more interesting than those who send texts. Modern technology is helpful in real life, but it’s a story killer.  When I read for pleasure, I want to escape into another world, away from the commotion of modern times. Writing a retro-cozy lets me, at least in my mind, take a break from today.

Flower_Power_Fatality_jpg (1)In “Flower Power Fatality,” Noelle McNabb is an actress at a Christmas-theme park in Yuletide, Indiana. Her drab routine is interrupted when a stranger shows up on her porch with a bullet in his chest. Then, a super-secret spy agency recruits Noelle to find missing microdots along with veteran agent Destiny King. As Noelle goes undercover, she finds herself dancing in sleazy nightclubs and chasing bad guys at night while wondering who is going to feed her pet cat.

My next project is putting my first book, “The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper,” back in print. Washed-up pop star Sandy Fairfax, in a desperate move to get his career back on track, takes his only job offer—a guest appearance at a disorganized Beatles fan convention in Evansville, Indiana. What look like an easy gig turns deadly when a member of the tribute band is killed and the police finger Sandy as the prime suspect.

“Beatlemaniac” will include a new cover art, new forward, updated author’s bio, re-edited text and a bonus short story, a brand new Sandy Fairfax adventure, “The Deadly Disco Caper,” in which the 1970s get skewered. Yowzah, yowzah, yowzah!

 

306141_347563052028408_642323995_n(2)Sally Carpenter was born and raised in southwest Indiana but now lives in Moorpark California, leaving the land of rain and snow for wildfires and earthquakes.  She has a master’s degree in theater from Indian State University. She also has a master’s degree in theology and a black belt in tae kwon do. She’s also “mom” to two black cats.

Her first book, “The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper,” was named by Left Coast Crime as a 2012 Eureka! Award finalist for best first mystery novel.  She penned chapter three of “Chasing the Codex,” a group mystery written by 34 authors with Cozy Cat Press and has stories in three other anthologies.  She’s a member of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles and blogs monthly at https://ladiesofmystery.com/ .

For more about Sally Carpenter and her books, go to http://sandyfairfaxauthor.com/   Reach her on Facebook or email her at:  scwriter@earthlink.net .

 

 

*This blog article is posted for Sally Carpenter by The Writers In Residence member, Jackie Houchin