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

 

Ghosts, Spirits, and Things That Go Bump in the Night with Marilyn Meredith

 Marilyn Meredith, who is also known as F.M. Meredith, is the author of nearly forty published novels, including the award winning Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series, published by Mundania Press. Writing as F. M. Meredith, Oak Tree Press publishes her Rocky Bluff P.D. series. She taught writing for Writers Digest Schools for 10 years, and was an instructor at the prestigious Maui Writers Retreat, and has taught at many writers’ conferences. Marilyn is a member of three chapters of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and on the board of the Public Safety Writers of America. She lives in the foothills of the Sierra in a place similar to Bear Creek, the setting of most of her Tempe Crabtree series. For over 20 years, she lived in a Beach community with many similarities to Rocky Bluff.

Ghosts, Spirits, and Things That Go Bump in the Night

When I began writing the Deputy Tempe Crabtree series, my plan was to incorporate a great deal of Native American legends and mysticism. Tempe, who is part Indian, is the resident deputy of a small mountain community. In early books, Tempe participates in several Indian rituals and ceremonies to help solve a crime. When Tempe calls back someone from the dead to find out the truth about a suicide and a murder in Calling the Dead, a door is opened to the spirit world.

From then on, she has unexpected visits from spirits of murder victims, sometimes offering confusing information that is at first not particularly helpful to solving the crimes. She’s also had many visions of Indians from the past.

In Spirit Shapes a body is found by ghost hunters in a haunted house. When Tempe is called to investigate, she faces an onslaught of spirits and ghosts. Some of the spirits are evil—and the ghosts are victims of crimes from the past.

In the book that follows, River Spirits, a movie company is filming on the nearby Indian reservation and one of the actors is found dead. While hoping to trap the murderer, Tempe is guided by unusual spirits that rise from the river called Bear Creek.

Not as it Seems is the latest in the series. Tempe and her husband go to Morro Bay to attend their son’s wedding and enjoy a much needed vacation. Her son asks her to try to find the missing maid-of-honor, and of course Tempe agrees. When the young woman turns up as a ghost, Tempe knows she’s been murdered and continues the investigation. She has no idea what all of her encounters with Indian spirits from the past could possibly mean.

My Rocky Bluff P.D. series is a police procedural and has had nothing to do with ghosts until the last one, Violent Departures. When Detective Doug Milligan and his family move into their new house, it isn’t long before they realize it has another occupant, a ghost. Even though the youngest member of the family has had conversations with the spirit, Doug is reluctant to believe in the phenomena. What happens is a side plot to the main story.

I’ve always been fascinated by ghost stories and haunted houses. Hubby and I have stayed in several haunted hotels, even once in the room that was purported to be haunted. However, I’ve never seen a ghost though my grandkids all think the old house that we live in is haunted.

Oh, I’ve had many eerie experiences over the years, but no ghost sightings. I have lots of fun writing about what I think it might be like.

If you visit my website,  you can read the first chapters of most of my books.

I also have a blog  where I too host authors and write about various subjects.

If you’ve ever had a ghostly encounter, tell us about it here in a comment.


A Pet Psychic, A Gentleman, and an Exorcist Walk Into A Bar

Jacqueline Vick is the author of over twenty published short stories, novelettes and mystery novels. Her April 2010 article for Fido Friendly Magazine, “Calling Canine Clairvoyants”, led to the first Frankie Chandler Pet Psychic mystery, Barking Mad About Murder. To find out more, visit her website.  

A Pet Psychic, A Gentleman, and an Exorcist Walk Into A Bar

It sounds like a joke, but it’s not. These are the characters who inhabit my head, along with a crime reporter, a mother and two daughters with a knack for stumbling into nefarious situations; and a few more who haven’t made it to print.

One of the difficulties with so many different characters is finding a common thread that runs through the various books that can be used to solidify an author brand. What is an author brand?

When you hear Joanna Fluke, you think mysteries and baking. And vise versa.

Is there a common thread among my characters? Well, Evan Miller is troubled, while Deanna Winder IS trouble. Frankie Chandler, Pet Psychic, considers the supernatural an intrusion in her life, while Father Gerald McAllister, exorcist, relies on it. And most of them would be left off the guest list of a dinner thrown by Edward Harlow, author of the Aunt Civility etiquette books.

An author, when coming up with a brand, also needs to consider his or her target market. I’ve never mastered that one. Most mystery readers are women, so I should try to determine who would like my books by age group and other demographics. Let see an example of how well that works.

I took a screenwriting class in Chicago. I wrote a scene that took place in a small town post office, and  a confused, elderly lady at the front of the line was driving the impatient protagonist mad. The person who laughed the loudest was a young, black man. I would have picked the suburban-looking white women as my target audience, but her slight smile seemed reluctant. So much for stereotyping your audience.

Another trick to finding your brand is to brainstorm words that come to mind when describing your books or characters. Unintentionally funny due to the circumstances and  people they are surrounded by. In other words, you and me. That doesn’t narrow it down very much.

Could this be the next
Agatha Christie?

You can always compare your books to others out there, but that’s too intimidating. When I put fingers to keyboard, I always hope to be the next Agatha Christie or Rex Stout, but the results fall far short. As for comparisons to current authors, each one seems so unique to me that I wouldn’t dream of holding my novel up next to theirs. I would feel like the gal on late-night television offering knock-offs for those who don’t care for the real thing.

JA Konrath has said that if you want to sell books, write more books. That I can do. I’ve slowly built up 4 novels, a traditionally published novella, and 4 short stories. Oh, yeah. And a children’s book.  If my timetable holds out, I’ll have Civility Rules, my Harlow Brothers mystery, and the third pet psychic mystery out before the end of the year, and the Father McAllister mystery out at the beginning of 2016.

So what should I do about my brand? I’d solicit feedback from other people on what words they thought best represented my books and characters, but if anyone used the word sassy to describe Frankie Chandler or Roxanne Wilder, I’d throw myself out the window. (It doesn’t matter that I live in a one-story. It’s the intent that counts.)