Sunday, May 17, 2009


RO: G.U. used to refer to that guy who was cute but was "geographically undesirable" because he lived too far away for a relationship to work.

I'm looking at the phrase in a whole new way. Last week I was at a bookstore event (with Jane Cleland) and a gentleman in the crowd announced that he didn't read books set in New York. Or L.A. Undoubtedly if we had gone through any of the other so-called major markets he would have felt the same way. Chicago, nope, Boston, fuggedaboudit.

Not wanting to alienate someone who was presumably a mystery fan, Jane and I chatted on about Deb Baker - who writes books set in the man's home state and William Kent Krueger, who is from the same general neck of the woods (sort of..) I told him how much I was loving Blue Heaven, a book set in Idaho, a place I've been exactly once on my way to Montana, as I recall. Nothing moved the man.

I've heard of people reading books set in various places because they love the feel and the flavor - Cara Black's Paris, Tony Hillerman's southwest, Indridasen's Iceland - but I don't think I'd ever heard of anyone avoiding a book because of its zip code.
Have I led a sheltered life? Are people now making their reading choices by looking at the author's residence?

JAN: Author's residence or protagonist's residence? I actually think setting is important to a lot of mystery fans. They hope to escape to somewhere pleasant, while the explore the evil minds behind the murder.

HANK: I would have thought it would go the other way--people seeking out books that take place in a certain area. I mean, doesn't the fabulous (and FOJRW) Janet Rudolph at Mystery Readers Journal do whole issues surrounding geography? I know she's done LA. and San Francisco, and many more. So I can't imagine her saying hey--let's do an issue about stuff peple hate to read about. (Although, okay, hey, it might be kind of interesting.)
Plus, thinking about how quickly readers (and writers) glom onto mistakes in descriptions of places, you've gotta believe geography is important.

RO: That I totally understand, I don't understand staying away from a book because of it's setting.

RHYS: I've had people tell me they won't read a book with a male protagonist or presumably with a female protagonist) or they won't read anything historical--all of which rule me out entirely--but never avoiding a setting. Maybe the man just didn't like the feel of a big city. Personally I love books with a strong sense of place and stay away from those that are set in anytown USA. Sense of place is paramount to me when I write as well.BTW I also had one woman who stopped reading my books when I killed a sheep.
HANK: Sheep? Did she read the whole thing, and then decide not to read any more of your books. Or did she stop reading, blam, right as the sheep got killed?

RO: I think the speaker was assuming author's residence and protag's were the same. I agree that a sense of place is tantamount to another character in many books, that's why I'd say getting a taste of another location, whether you've been there or not is part of any book. I guess I was just surprised that he had ruled out such a big part of the mystery world.
I've heard the male/female thing too. Never the sheep thing. She must have hated Silence of the Lambs. Just curious, did many humans die in your book, or was it just the sheep?

ROBERTA: I agree with Jan, setting is important to lots of readers. They know they'll get to see Chinatown in New York through SJ Rozan's eyes or LA with Michael Connelly or cool islands off Sarasota if they read something by Randy Wayne White. I remember when I was discussing my advice column mysteries with my agent before I'd started writing. She wanted to know if I'd come up with a sexy setting--apparently Connecticut wasn't what she had in mind.

RO: Okay, those Moroccan mysteries? Hate those Hungarian horror stories? Which books do you read for the setting and are there any that you stay away from because of where they're set?


  1. I love to read books set in places I've been, places I've never been, imaginary places...I must say I've only read one or two books set in Las Vegas, a place I never want to go, but I did enjoy them. I can't imagine ruling out books by their setting, protagonist's gender,occupation or whatever. I do have a "project" going to read a book set in each of the 50 states & DC, by an author I haven't read before. I'm just getting to Kentucky.
    People have all sorts of weird (to me) ideas about books. I had a roommate once who got 2 pages into Pride and Prejudice and refused to continue because she couldn't bear that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet addressed each other that way. It's their loss.

  2. It wouldn't occur to me to avoid certain geographical areas - that's just weird. I must confess, though, that I usually avoid books with male protagonists (not always, of course: Kate Flora's Joe Burgess is great, as is S.W. Hubbard's Frank Bennett). It makes it a lot easier to avoid having to read constant commentary on how women look, which I find annoying. And since my TBR pile featuring female protagonists is in no danger of ever emptying, I don't think I'm missing that much.


  3. I think Mystery Scene magazine has (or had)an ongoing feature about mysteries set in different states. I know a pal of mine wrote the piece for mysteries set in CT.

  4. I've never heard of people avoiding mysteries because of their setting before--very interesting. I love to both travel to new and exciting places, and to revisit familiar places when I read. I hope it's not a large trend you've uncovered (since my books are set in NY!).

    Do you suppose the woman who stopped reading the book because a sheep got killed was a vegetarian?

  5. I do agree a strong sense of place is a huge plus in a book. Watching Wexford's Kingsmarkham evolve from a small town to a dense suburb over more than 40 years is one of the joys of reading mysteries.

    My husband loves mysteries with exotic settings. On our last vacation he toured the world in mystery--North Korea, France, Israel, etc. I like some of these-the Spanish Civil War mysteries of Rebecca Pawel, Donna Leon's Venice, but to me it all comes down to character, story and language. If it's good I'll go anywhere. If it isn't, no setting is going to save it.


  6. Interesting topic, Ro.

    There are probably books set in certain locations that I won't feel compelled to read, but that would be more because they just don't interest me. Not because I have an aversion or dislike to the locale.

    One thing you don't say in your post is where this NY and LA avoider is from, or what his background is. (OK, two things you don't say...) Perhaps he's one of those who lumps NY and LA into the "elite and snobbish liberal" element, and this goes against his grain. (Kind of like those who won't listen to rock and roll--and won't let their children--because it will corrupt them...)

  7. I know these prejudices exist. A "reader" commented she didn't want to read stories about short people--my protag is a 5'2" detective, but my sailing series is OK. I suspect there are prejudices against every aspect of any piece of fiction, real or imagined. I have a "friend" who frequently tells me she never reads mysteries but her friends all do "because they are all so forgettable, I can read the same book over and over."

  8. I've been told by a couple of agents at Crime Bake that books set in less famous or exotic places are a tough sell outside of those particular areas.

  9. I recently asked my editor if people preferred to read about places they knew well, or places the didn't--she said they like to read about their own area. One woman's opinion, anyway.

    Location definitely can become a character is a book--whether it is the protagonist's home turf or s/he is completely out of his or her element there. Just make sure you don't write a travelogue describing the pretty scenery, when it has nothing to do with the plot.

    I'm thinking of setting a series in Philadelphia. Anybody out there love/hate Philadelphia?

  10. Sheila,

    I agree that people enjoy reading about their own areas--I've had readers remark how neat it is to be able to picture the local places as action is taking place there. But I don't think enjoying local settings excludes enjoying remote settings, do you?

  11. OH, Carl. That sounds more like a problem with the person's memory than it does a problem with the books!

    And a reader who doesn't want to read about short people? She must have been kidding, right? How could that possibly matter and can you imagine, reading along with her, at some point she finds out someone is 5'2" and she says--feh! And tosses the book across the room.

    And I do think sometimes the "Setting" gets in the way, as you suggest, Sheila, when it becomes all about writing about the setting and it gets in the way of the plot instead of advancing it.

  12. Hank,

    I haven't heard anyone use the expression "feh!" since my yiddishe bubbe! :-)

    And it fits some situations so nicely--as do many yiddish phrases!

  13. I've also heard from librarians that Mr and Mrs Average like to read about people like them in their own area, and only the adventurous, creative 2 percent like to read about the exotic and different. Scary, huh?
    This is obviously why sitcoms have always been so popular on TV--the viewer can identify wih the situation.
    And as to my ruthless sheep killing--the person was an animal lover, but the sheep I killed were in the middle of a hoof and mouth epidemic in Wales, during which livestock were slaughtered by the thousand to stop the spread. I don't know if she expected me to release them--infected and infecting--as it would not have been a kind thing to do.
    Since then I've stayed away from animals as much as possible. Too risky.
    It always amuses me that you can molest children, torture old ladies, but kill an animal and nobody will touch your books again!

  14. Google maps (and street view) is my BFF when I set a novel in a place I'm unfamiliar with, because *I* want a sense of place when I write. And nothing pulls me out of book/movie/TV show faster than being familiar with a place and realizing the author doesn't have a clue.

    Location doesn't matter to me, nor does killing sheep, short people or Philadelphia. My romantic suspense series is set in New Orleans, my urban paranormal in Chicago, my upcoming paranormal time-travel release in Ireland.

    Location is mostly secondary, unless the author makes it character - Hillerman's Southwest, for instance. It is scary that people just want to read about "themselves." Personally, I'm pretty boring. I want to read about people whose lives are far more exciting.

  15. Roberta, my editor told me New Haven was too "seedy" for my tattoo shop series. So it's set in Vegas. Which doesn't make sense on one level, but it turned out to be perfect for the books.

    A guy came up to me at Bouchercon last year and said that he'd never read a mystery written by a woman, until mine. But apparently he's still not ventured further than that. Just don't understand it.

  16. New Haven was too seedy...? That's weird.

  17. YES! Anthony nominations are out and....

    Best First Novel -- Rosemary Harris, for Pushing Up Daisies

    Way to go, Ro! Congrats!

    Paula Matter