The Importance of Setting

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.

_______________

patty-smiley-250-shadow

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

3books
______________
Photo by Michael Discenza on Unsplash
*This blog article is posted for Patricia Smiley by The Writers In Residence member, Jackie Houchin

 

Tips from the 2015 California Crime Writers Conference, by Jackie Houchin

photo19
            AS A MEMBER of Sisters-in-Crime and Mystery Writers of America, I’ve attended all their combined conferences so far, and agree with everyone (even Anne Perry), this was the best one yet.  I love the camaraderie of fellow writers. I eagerly chat with them and sit in on their panel discussions. I commiserate with their anxieties and failures, celebrate their successes, and take note of the hard-earned tips they offer.
            The key note speakers – Southern belle, Charlaine Harris and British maven, Anne Perry – were the icing on the cake.
            I usually follow the “Craft” track because I’m a journalist with only an occasional dip into short stories. But the Industry, Forensics, and Marketing tracks were all well-attended, and for the first time this year CD recordings of each were made available for purchase.
            To order any of them, follow the links at http://vwtapes.com/sistersincrimewritersconference.aspx or contact Patrick Von Wiegnandt  at pvw@hawaii.rr.com.
NOTE: In order to be sure I did not misquote any of the authors from my scribbled notes, I listed their names on the panels, then used unattributed quotes. To hear just who said what (and more) check the CDs. 
photo1
“Addressing Fear and Other Plagues of the Writing Life” — Tyler Dilts, DJ Adamson, Terry Shames, Terri Nolan, moderator: Dennis Palumbo
            About anxieties for beginning new projects: “I let my alter self rant for about 3 minutes (maybe journal) then say ‘Shut up and get up.'” “Just get the words on the page. I do about 2,000 daily. When you have a draft the fear is gone.”
            About procrastination: “I do writing activities (email, etc.) other than writing on my book.” ” My kids say I’m circling the computer.” “I don’t call it procrastination, but preparation.”
photo2
“Thrills & Chills” —- Laurie Stevens, D.P. Lyle, Craig Faustus Buck, Paul D. Marks, moderator: Diana Gould
            About creating the elements of suspense: “I make characters sympathetic, then put them in jeopardy.” “Write thrillers only in 3rd person POV.” “Tell readers things the protagonist doesn’t know.” “Cliff hangers on most chapters.” ” Pace is critical.” “Short chapters.” “However, NEVER end the book with a cliff hanger.” “Don’t end chapters with ‘She had no idea what was coming’. It’s author intrusion.” ” I punch up violence in 2nd drafts.”
            About writing processes: “I do the 1st draft as a screenplay, an outline of sorts, I guess.” “I write the crime first, then write the psychological parts.” “When finished with the 1st draft, I do passes on what concerns me, like characters or pace.” “Anyone who doesn’t use Scrivener” is crazy!” http://bit.ly/1G5W0Q4
photo7
“Miss Marple’s Rules, Traditional Mysteries Today” —- Jill Amadio, Susan Shea, Gay Degani, Carole Sojka, moderator Susan Goldstein
            About labels and rules: “There’s more bloodshed in a Divorce Practice than in traditional mysteries.”  “Solving a puzzle. A whodunit.” “No graphic sex or violence, an amateur or private detective, justice rules in the end.” “Multiple suspects and a small town setting.” “Victims are usually odious people.” ” No killing animals, no harm to children.” Traditionals are more cerebral, more analytical of human behavior.”
            About changes in traditional mysteries:  “Technology, cell phones, the internet.” “The basics don’t change (structure, clues, a puzzle, suspects).” “Authors today like to break some rules along the way.” “Today’s world – travel, social settings – can work its way into mysteries.” “Less likely to stereotype (maids all the same, etc.).” “More humor.” “Some authors today like to have a niche, a “craft” of some kind in their mysteries (quilting, cooking, bookstores, tea shops).” “You can usually tell a niche-type cozy by its cover.”
            (A hot topic: Most in the audience said these types of popular mysteries were “cozies.” However publishers and book stores do not distinguish them from the more traditional (Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot) “whodunit” mysteries.  They refer to ALL traditional mysteries (niche or soft-boiled) as COZIES. Women in the audience, as well as the authors, thought this was a bad rap, because men are less likely to try soft-boiled traditional puzzle/sleuth mysteries if they think they are reading “cozies.”) 
            A question from a gentleman:  What is it about a woman liking to write mysteries?  “Women are more willing to listen to others.” “They are more apt to ask a lot of questions.” “Maybe they are more intuitive.”
photo9
“Short and Deadly” —- Bonnie Cardone, Andrew Jetarski, Gay Kinman, Donna May, moderator: Kate Thornton
            Why write short stories: “Immediate gratification.” “I was trying to make a living and had no time to write a novel.” “My first short story was the first chapter of my novel, slightly changed; the second one, the second chapter condensed. I wrote the third story on my own.” “Writing short stories was a way to put off writing my novel.”
            About the importance of Short Story anthologies:  “It’s how I began.” “I saw the announcement for submissions and thought ‘I know I can do that.'” “I wouldn’t be writing today without that opportunity. I like that when the theme is announced, everyone starts at the same time, no one has an advantage.”
            About short story markets:  “Anthologies, they get you started.” ” Kings River Life always needs themed stories.”  http://kingsriverlife.com/  “Duatrope.com has searchable databases for fiction and other genres.” https://duotrope.com/  “Woman’s World is another good place; very strict guidelines, but pay $500 for 500 words + a clue/question.” “Alfred Hitchcock & Ellery Queen magazines.” “Try joining the online group, Short Mystery Fiction Society, they even give Derringer Awards.”  
            About free or paid submissions”  “If you submit to non-paying markets, try to do it in places that give awards.” “I want them published before I put them into my own anthologies.” “You can put short stories on Amazon Kindle for 99c.” “Free to anthologies is good, it’s for a good cause.” “I introduce the characters in my novel in free short stories to see if people want to read about them” “Published (free) short stories can act as calling cards to other venues.”
            About regrets:  “I sold all the rights to an online market, then later when a film company wanted it, I couldn’t sell.” “I didn’t quite make the deadline on a story, then just let it go.” “I have a great story, but I can’t figure out the end!”
photo14
“Traveling Through Time, Historical Novels” —- Jessica Ferriday, Anne Cleeland, Ona Russell, Bonnie MacBird, moderator: Rosemary Lord
            About what started you writing historicals:  “Scrapbooks. Clippings of my husband’s grandfather who was a judge in the 1920s. When I researched him, I found a wonderful Jewish woman who worked in the courts, perfect as my protagonist.” “I have Sherlock Holmes and the Victorian Era in my blood.” “I love linguistics and languages. My stories are in 1890s London.” “I love Regency novels. You’re supposed to write what you read, so I write 1814 Jane Austin.”
            About the language and style of historical speech: “I was trained as an actor, I learned to mimic. I listen to a CD every morning before writing.” “I get British people to vet my writing for Americanisms.”
            About research facts: “I  realized everything moved a lot slower (communications, travel, etc.)” “Hats! No one wears hats today.” “They had more ways to entertain themselves with each other – singing, instruments, dancing, storytelling.)”
photo16
“Putting Your Blog to Work” —- Sybil Johnson, Patty Smiley, S.W. Lauden, moderator Mar Preston
            About expectations of a blog:  “I’m a member of a multiple author blog (MAB), so there’s no pressure to write a post every day or week.” “When I hung up my shingle as a writer, I created a place for other to find what I’m doing – opinion , author interviews, short stories to music videos.”
            About blogging to sell your books: “If I don’t, people won’t buy my books.” “I create a voice and style, but a blog won’t make you famous.” “I’ve gained readers.” “I announce my books on FaceBook and Twitter, but never talk about my books on the blog. I have conversations with people there.”
            About writing that blog post:  “We write from 1,500 – 6,000  words.” (WOW!) “I write 400-1,000 words.” “Begin your blog as if beginning a thriller.” “Offer content about YOU, your life, funny and entertaining stuff, not just about writing.” “Ask, ‘Would people care to read this?'” “Respond to comments.” “Make blogs visually attractive. Use photos and graphics. I imbed videos and book covers, use pull quotes. Use fewer words: people see a wall of text and don’t stay.” “Pay attention to ‘Keywords’ for your posts. Choose them carefully.”
            About all those blog hits from other countries:  “Creepy.” “How? Why?”  (An answer from an audience member cleared this up. The International Institute of English encourages their students to find blogs by using keywords. They print them out and use them to study English and English/American idioms; reading and rewriting them.)
            About getting started and keeping going:  “Join a MAB, or guest post on one.” “Write a dynamic essay.” “Keep a list of things that are happening to you, choose the interesting ones.”
Keynote speakers
photo3
            From Charlaine Harris: How long does it take to churn out a book?  As long as your editor says. Being a writer means completing the book. It’s a business. If you don’t sell, you’ll be cut. No, I don’t outline. Outlining makes me feel like painting by numbers. I write maybe 250 words about the book, then get to it.  My biggest challenge? Personal malice towards me!  Sweet me!
photo13
            From Anne Perry:  Do you ever wonder why crime writers are such nice people? If we really don’t like you, there are other things we can do with you. The great thing about being a writer is that you are allowed (expected) to be eccentric. You can write your mysteries about anything you like, as long as there are the elements of crime and somebody to solve it. (Photo: with Rosemary Lord)
photo18
Keynotes discuss Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, Moderator Craig Faustus Buck
Harris and Perry agreed with most of Leonard Elmore’s famous “Ten Rules of Writing,” with exceptions.  “It depends…” prefaced many of their answers, and then they often explained how they broke that rule! Or avoided breaking it by using other means. A perfect wind-down to the conference. 
photo6
Sisters In Crime Anthology “LAdies Night” authors & editors —- Naomi Hirahara, Kate Thornton, Jeri Westerson (editors), Julie G. Beers, Julie Brayton, Sarah M. Chen, Arthur Coburn, L.H. Dillman, Bengte Evenson, Cyndra Gernet, Andrew jetarski, Micheal Kelly, Susan Kosar-Beery, Jude McGee, Gigi Pandian, Wendall Thomas