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.

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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

 

Fact vs. Fiction with G.B. Pool

A former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, G.B.Pool writes the Johnny Casino Casebook Series and the Gin Caulfield P.I. Series. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story,” “How To Write Convincing Dialogue” and “Writing a Killer Opening Line.”




Putting Facts in Your Fiction

You hear a version of these comments a thousand times from writers: A reader sent me an e-mail saying I got the name of the cross street wrong in their town. Or maybe it’s: A fan said people didn’t have that type of phone in the Eighties when my story takes place. Or how about: A chef wouldn’t make an omelet that way. Or: Cops don’t work that way.

Here’s a Fact of Life: Nitpickers are out there.

Here’s a way to deal with them: DON’T Ignore them…But don’t let them get you down, either.

The 21st Century has given us many great tools to use to avoid the nitpickers in our lives. MapQuest and Google Maps will show you the streets in towns you are writing about. The satellite version will show you what the place actually looks like.

When I was writing one of the stories in my Johnny Casino Casebook Series, I was describing a hotel along South Beach in Miami. I made up the name of the hotel, but I wanted that location. I assumed (big mistake) there would be hotels or shops on both sides of the street. When I looked at MapQuest and actually “got down on the street” in their Street View Mode, I looked to the left and saw the hotel I was using and then to my right. Instead of other shops or restaurants or more hotels, I saw the beach and the ocean. Very glad I looked.

I did the same thing when Johnny went to Mexico and even Marrakech, Morocco. They didn’t have Google or MapQuest for Marrakech, but some wonderful guy had his cell phone video of his bus trip through the city posted on a travel site. I got to “ride along” with him and see the sights without buying an airline ticket or getting all those shots.

I know several writers who make up their towns. I did that for Logjam, California, the place where Johnny Casino starts out in my three-book series. I drew a detailed map. I know where his house is, and the restaurant he frequents is, and where the Mafia lodge is. It’s no longer just in my imagination. I have a map.

As for using the right phone or anything else in a period piece, whether it be ten years ago or a hundred, do some research. Something I do is watch a movie either made during that era or one that covers that era. The studio set designers are often very good at their job.

If you are writing a cooking mystery or literary fiction that requires your character to make an omelet, for goodness sake, learn how to make an omelet. You don’t want to cheat your audience. Most craft-related mysteries are written by writers who actually know their crafts. And often the techniques or even recipes are half the reason people read those types of books. If you don’t know that information, ask somebody who does or watch a cooking or craft show.

Now police procedures and jargon is something else. Some “police procedural” books are way too technical to be interesting, just like mysteries that feature a lot of legal lingo or medical techniques. Unless the information sets the scene for the story you’re telling like Dick Francis does in his novels, pare down the information.

In my latest books, The SPYGAME Trilogy, I use a lot of history to tell the stories. The books take place during World War II, the Vietnam era, and the Hollywood Left trials. Since these are practically ancient history to people younger than forty, I added a good deal of facts just to set the stage, plus I introduced real people into the stories. I have my main character, Robert Mackenzie, work with not only “Wild Bill” Donovan, the first head of the OSS, predecessor of the CIA, but also Ian Fleming who really did work with Donovan.

During the Hollywood years depicted in my books, I have a few real movie stars make a guest appearance as well as the ones I made up. But I did my homework. In Star Power, I learned what kind of movies were being made, both anti-war and those wanting America to join the fight. As fate would have it, those movies were showing up on television while I was writing the books. That’s research I love doing.

But there was another element I added to these stories; something that I have included in a few other of my novels: FACTS FROM MY OWN LIFE. My father was a pilot in the Air Force. He flew the Owen Stanley Hump in Papua, New Guinea, during the WWII. I relocated the character I based on him, Ralph Barton, for a portion of the story and had him fly a mission over Hamburg. That’s the fiction part.

I also used the house were we lived in France while stationed there in the 60s in one of the books, The Odd Man. The house really was used by the Nazis during the war. That’s the fact part. My story about what Mac and Ralph Barton did there was the fiction side. I even used my boarding school in France in one of the books, Dry Bones. The school was strictly military boring architecture, but I made it look like Oxford. Fact and Fiction.

I have used a few people I know in my books, but most of the time I changed their names slightly, just to keep it fictional. Most of the actual names of real historical people like Bill Donovan or even Ian Fleming are used strictly because I admired them. Since there is nothing libelous in the story about them, I don’t worry about anybody getting upset. And people I don’t like never appear in my books. Why give them any ink when I wouldn’t give them the time of day in real life. (Rhetorical question) And my fictional bad guys get their comeuppance; something that doesn’t necessarily happen in the real world.

I thought it was fun to work within a time frame of actual historical events as I wrote the spy novels. The only deviation was when I mentioned one of my characters, Elaine Barton, a writer, taking acting lessons from Rudy Solari and Guy Stockwell to learn how to write dialogue for her screenplays. I took those lessons myself, but in a different year than the story relates.

I actually worked as a private detective for a while and use bits and pieces of that life in both the spy novels and my Gin Caulfield P.I. Series: Media Justice, Hedge Bet, and Damning Evidence.

There is just something about mixing fact with fiction that makes me feel like I am creating an alternative universe. I guess I have gotten to know these characters so well, I see them as one big, happy family. In fact (or fiction), Gin Caulfield taught Johnny Casino the private detective trade and her uncle is Robert Mackenzie, the master spymaker. My world indeed.