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.



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.

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


Backpacking With a Pitcher

Guest post by Heather Ames*

lemonade unbornWhoever coined the phrase “making lemonade out of lemons” must have had an acerbic wit. As a champion receiver of citrus, I’ve always tried to look at each situation as a challenge instead of a mountain of acidity, despite the after-taste.

51NyNyt9s8L._UY250_My most recent pitcher of lemonade appeared last year, when I finished Book 2 of the “Indelible” mystery/suspense series and contacted the publisher of Book 1 to find out how much of the completed manuscript they wanted to see. After two attempts, I was told to send “whatever you want.” I sent a partial and waited, then waited some more. Much more. Months.

I then emailed the editor-in-chief, who said she had just returned from an extended hiatus. She told me to send the entire manuscript immediately, which I did. The contract came. I signed it. The CEO signed it. I breathed a sigh of relief. Then the momentum, which had built to its normal level, ground to a halt as I waited for my editor to be assigned. And waited.

A sense of foreboding crept over me. Bushels of lemons rolled onto the horizon and waited, poised to roll into my lap. I tried to ignore them. After all, progress had slowed one time before. They were probably just running behind due to the EIC’s absence.

But then it came…an email from the publisher, returning my rights due to their poor quarterly returns for the second quarter in a row. I wasn’t their only author to receive that email, the EIC assured me. She said the staff was upset about the situation. I found little comfort in that knowledge.

There had been other signs that the publisher, despite its growth and a propensity to purchase smaller competitors, was itself in trouble. One huge misstep resulted in all titles from one of those buy-outs, including one of my own e-books, suddenly disappearing from Amazon. Apparently, when the old site was pinged without success, Amazon believed the publisher had closed, not that the titles were in the process of being moved to their new home. A year later, despite an email from the publisher that explained all the titles would be reloaded “in a lengthy process,” that still hasn’t happened. Perhaps they are busy making lemonade, too.

A Swift Brand Of justiceI couldn’t afford to sit around waiting for my two year contract on “Indelible” Book 1 to expire before offering both books in the series to another publisher. Readers had been asking when Book 2 would be available. Since it had already taken me close to 3 years to get Book 2 out of the starting blocks (including the 9 months wasted over that abortive contract,) I decided there was only one way out of my dilemma, and that was to self-publish “Indelible” Book 2, “A Swift Brand of Justice.”

Self-publishing has become more accepted during the last few years. Many popular authors have departed their small publishers, taken back their rights and chosen that route. Financially, it makes more sense for them. They already have a fan base, and their back-listed books have all been edited and formatted. All they need are new covers. They no longer have to share their profits with the small publishers, who find themselves, as a result of this exodus, left with newer and less well-known authors. Their piece of the pie has become much smaller, and their bottom line has suffered as a result. Many of them have folded and others are in financial trouble.

For those of us who find our books orphaned (and there are a growing number of us,) “DIY” has morphed into an acceptable solution. I know of several other writers who have had to move their series from the original publisher. I will be another. After I complete Book 3’s manuscript, I hope to find another home for my series. If I don’t, then I know I can continue self-publishing and growing my brand, instead of waiting months, even years for a contract.

Night ShadowsI just self-published a second book. This one is the stand-alone suspense, “Night Shadows,” I was working on when my rights were returned for “A Swift Brand of Justice.” In order to retain and grow my readership, I need to offer new material on a regular basis. That won’t happen if I’m marking time while I wait for responses to queries, partials and even full manuscripts, or unexpectedly have my rights returned again.

I would much prefer the support and expertise of a new publisher. But if that doesn’t happen, and I need to self-publish again, I know I can do it. I still need to build my support list. Finding reasonably-priced editors is one challenge I haven’t yet mastered. But I’m getting better at designing my own covers, and the learning curve isn’t as steep or as angled as it was before those lemons rolled into my lap.

I’m keeping the pitcher handy as I write the first draft of “Swift Retribution,” Book 3 of the “Indelible” series, but I’m not resigning myself to using it yet. Hope springs eternal, but this time it’s couched. The publishing industry as a whole is in a state of flux, and these days, writers need to be ready for anything. Even a fresh bushel of lemons.


my big picHeather Ames knew she was a writer from the time she won first prize in a high school novel contest. An unconventional upbringing gave her opportunities to travel extensively, leading to nomadic ways and an insatiable desire to see the world. She has made her home in 5 countries and 7 states, learning a couple of languages along the way. She is currently pitching her tents in Portland, Oregon, and after a long career in healthcare, made her dream of writing full-time come true.

Heather is a current board member of the Harriet Vane Chapter of Sisters in Crime and a member of Toastmasters International. She moderates an online critique group and a local book club.

Visit her website at 


*Posted for Heather Ames by Jackie Houchin

Do Writing Books Help?

There are plenty of writing books out there–books by authors, books by teachers, books by experts. Do they really help? The WinRs have varying opinions.

MK Johnston

Writing requires a balance between creativity, technique, and the realities of the marketplace. Whether books or magazine articles, the sources I find most helpful are the ones that strike a balance between the art, science, and business of writing. Once I defined my goals as a writer, I searched for source material to help me achieve them – to become a better writer, to produce works of quality, to get published, to connect with readers who would enjoy my work.

I generally prefer books over magazine articles because they go into greater depth, though I also favor articles on one specific topic or current issue. My sources range from how to write/write better books to novels with similar themes which I study for technique. Any well written book that is pleasurable to read can be inspirational, too.

There have been several authors whose books I’ve found extremely helpful; the works of Sol Stein and Noah Lukeman would top my list. I’ve learned a lot from them, but I’ve relearned even more. Sometimes I need to remind myself of what must be done and sometimes it takes hearing the same information restated, or stated in a different way, to get through to me.

Ultimately, learning is a partnership between the writer and reader. We have to be receptive to the information; it has to be presented in a way that gets us to recognize its importance and incorporate it into our writing. That’s why I often restated information in my recent tutorial “Learning the Basics ‘Chapter One’ at a Time”.

Once you establish your goal, seek out source material to help you reach it. Use all the tools available to help you, from blogs like this one to libraries.

Jacqueline Vick

A very good point, Miriam. I had a stack of magazines “this high” at home, and I kept putting off reading through them. Then I picked a subject I wanted to study, searched for articles related to this one topic, and got rid of the rest. I’m sure I’ll soon have another stack to go through with a different topic in mind.

Out of the miriad of writing books that I’ve had, I found a few tips have stuck with me.

Robert McKee’s “Story” has great information about beats.

Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” let me know that sh#tty first drafts were a good thing.

Walter Mosley reminds me to write every day in “This Year You Write Your Novel”.

Michael Hauge’s “Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds” is a book I refer to often when I’m not clear on what my story is about. Honing a pitch makes it clear where the story is lacking.

I look to Stephen King’s “On Writing” for reminders about writing tight.

I noticed that the books I like fall into two catagories: books by authors and screenwriting books. Maybe authors have better insights on the writing process, or maybe their wordsmith skills make the information more interesting.  Also, novel writers should not dismiss screenwriting books as “not for me”. A good script moves, and your novel should, too. Applying screenplay structure can tighten your story.

The books I’ve found least helpful fall under writing manuals–technical books put out by Writer’s Digest etc. They usually contain dry information that puts me to sleep.

Another great source of information is other writers. Without Jackie Houchin’s advice to “cut 20% in the editing process”, my short stories would be novellas. After reading Bonnie’s shorts, I rush back to my own and ask, “Are my characters  human enough?” Miriam reminds me it’s all in the details, and then Gayle advises, “Does it serve the story?” With Rosemary in mind, I write characters that an actress might want to sink her teeth into.

It’s all good.

Bonnie Schroeder brings us a list of her favorite books.

1. Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott. Far and away the most inspiring and motivating, and once I internalized her concept of the “really shitty first draft” I felt free to create dreck with the assurance it might, eventually, turn into something readable – but only if I got those dreadful words down on the page in the first place.

2. A Writer’s Time – Kenneth Atchity. The back-copy blurb says it all: “[Atchity] shows you how to activate the creative process, how to transform anxiety into ‘productive elation,’ how to separate the vision of a project from re-vision, and how to set up a writing agenda that won’t defeat you.”

3. The Writer’s Journey – Christopher Vogler. A splendid look at how to incorporate classic mythic structure into your storyline. Based on the work of Joseph Campbell. I can’t tell you how many times Vogler has helped me figure out “what happens next” and why one version works and another doesn’t.

4. On Writing – Stephen King. Lessons from the master. I just wish he followed his own advice more closely.

5. 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel – Jane Smiley. I confess that most of this 570-page manuscript was too academic, even pretentious, for my taste. But the two chapters on “A Novel of Your Own (I) and (II)” are spectacular and cover craft and inspiration. And it is infinitely reassuring to know that a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist like Smiley struggles with the same writing demons (well, some of them) we all do.

6. The Elements of Style – William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. Almost everything you need to know about English usage in less than 100 pages.

GB Pool

I have never read a writing book that taught me anything. I read other people’s books, the good, the bad, and the ugly, to learn.

Jacqueline Vick

Gayle brings up an excellent point. Study what other writers are doing. Don’t imitate them, but learn from them. Read the classics, read your contemporaries. Find out what they’re doing right and apply it to your own writing.

Jackie Houchin

One of my favorite books on writing for children is “Creating Characters Kids Will Love” by Elaine Marie Alphin. My copy is well used, with penciled-in notes, underlines, asterisks and arrows.

This book is loaded with ideas, instruction and examples. Each section within the many chapters ends with “Read the Pros,” a suggested reading list of specific chapters in specific books that illustrate what was taught, followed by a “Try it Yourself” section with thought-provoking, idea-stimulating writing exercises. A very accessible book that you will return to again and again.

The other fantastic book on writing for children is “Story Sparkers, A Creativity Guide for Children’s Writers” by Debbie Dadey and Marcia Thornton Jones, who use many examples from their own “Adventures of the Bailey School Kids” series.

This book is packed full of good ideas, charts, check lists and illustrations. It gives the reader many opportunities to try out what they are learning with fun exercises in writing, observing, and interviewing. This is another book that you will want to refer to often.

The two very helpful books for writing adult mystery fiction are authored by two, what else, mystery writers.

Gillian Roberts’ “You Can Write a Mystery” gives practical suggestions for dealing with problems that come up in the writing process, beginning with the “Fifteen Commandments for Mystery Writers Who Want to be Published.” She then covers topics from, your sleuth, victim and villain to POVs to plotting (learning to think backwards) and hiding clues, with a final chapter on marketing.

Carolyn Wheat’s “How To Write Killer Fiction” discusses the difference between mystery and a suspense fiction (yes, there are clear distinctions!). She lists and describes dozens of sub-genres and crossovers and offers book titles as examples. The book is divided into three parts, Part 1: The Funhouse of Mystery, Part 2: The Roller Coaster of Suspense, Part 3: The Writing Process.

What about you? Do you have a favorite book you’d like to share with us? We’d love to hear from you.