Friday, December 2, 2011

Making Setting Active

LUCY BURDETTE: Julia has graciously invited me to start a blog today (even though it's not my turn) because I'm bursting to say something (anything) about my new book: AN APPETITE FOR MURDER will be out on January 3! The setting for this new series is magical, whimsical, bizarro Key West, Florida. Naturally my other books were set someplace--golf courses for Cassie Burdette's series and Southern Connecticut for the advice column mysteries. But Key West insists on becoming a major character. Of course it's totally gorgeous, with the tropical foliage and the turquoise water all around it, but it also draws an unusual collection of residents--including homeless folks, gay people, the very rich, and the decadent vacation types who hardly ever totter away from Duval Street with its many bars and bands.

As I write, I'm trying to keep in mind the words of wisdom from one of my favorite writing teachers, Mary Buckham. She's very big on making setting "active" by showing it through the eyes of the characters. If it isn't active, it's a dump of description, and as my sister-in-law would say--D-U-L-L. What would Hayley Snow see and smell and notice as she motors around Key West on her scooter? Since she's just been dumped by the man she came down to live with, how might she see the town and the island differently than would someone who's been there for years? That's the challenge--it sounds easy, but somehow it's not!

How important is setting in the books you've written/are writing? And what books would you recommend that do setting exceptionally well? I'm going to start the list with our own Julia, and then add Nancy Pickard to that.

HALLIE EPHRON: I love the idea of "active setting" -- conveyed not as a paint-by-numbers information dump but as filtered through a character's viewpoint.

I also try to use details of setting to SHOW character. What's she got in her purse? In her closet? In her refrigerator? In "Come and Find Me" the main character's sister has a copy of Vogue and a quart-sized container of hand sanitizer in her huge purse, her clothes are sorted by season and color in her closet, and her fridge is empty. That's her personality in a nutshell, and the reader gets to connect the dots.

Books that do geographic setting exceptionally well? Where to start? Cara Black's Paris. Julia's Adirondacks (makes me cold just thinking about it). William G. Tapply's glorious Casco Bay. Ian Rankin's Edinburgh. Donna Leon's Venice. Steve Hamilton's Upper Peninsula. Carl Hiaasen's Florida. And of course, Lucy Burdette's Key West.

JAN BROGAN: Quirky Rhode Island was a huge character in the Hallie Ahern series, but now that I'm trying to write a book in mid 19th century Martha's Vineyard, setting gets even broader in scope and affects dialogue, dress, thought, custom - yikes it's daunting (for a first timer like me, at least, I'm sure its old hat to Rhys by now. )

Books that have absolutely transported me with setting in both time and place: Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro; The Help by Kathryn Stockett and most recently, The Hunger Games Trilogy by Jennifer Eagan.
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: YAY, Lucy! Tell us more! My new book is set in Boston, and I have a little post it on my computer that says: FEBRUARY. That reminds me that at every turn, people have to do what they would do in Boston in February. Driving, white-knuckled, on twisty unplowed streets. Slush everywhere. Wet shoes. Bad hats. Lost gloves. Oh--I just had an idea. Thank you!

The book WINTERS TALE by Mark Helprin nails setting in a magical way--a fantasy/reality Manhattan in the 1890's. There's a scene on the ice-covered Lake of the Coheeries that gives me chills. Oh, and THE ALIENIST, by Caleb Carr... ((Blatant plug: MWA University is coming to Boston, Feb 11. And the segment on "Setting" is taught by Dan Stashower. I'm not kidding--it's life-changing. (Hallie, Rosemary, am I right?) Let me know if you want to sign up--the best 50 bucks you'll ever spend.))

Now--back to Key West.
ROSEMARY HARRIS: Oh, I wish I could go back to the Keys. I was there last week and it was heaven. There really is a slowed down vibe. It's not just the margaritas (alas, I didn't have even one.) I've been told I did a pretty good job of nailing the Connecticut setting in my first four books, even though they are set in a fictional town. It isn't just the street names or restaurants, it's the mindset of the locals to a certain degree. The pace of life. The class system.

My WIP - almost finished and so excited I can barely stand it - is set on Cape Cod, and in Brooklyn and Manhattan. One of the challenges for me is that I haven't lived in Brooklyn for years and MY Brooklyn is very far removed from the hipster haven that it's become. But once a Brooklyn girl always a Brooklyn girl. When I was there for the Brooklyn Book Festival I felt as if I was at a family reunion - complete with relatives I didn't especially like!

For me, it's less travelogue and more - fuggedabouddit!

RHYS BOWEN: Setting is always a major component of my books. And I have the added challenge of taking the reader not just to another place but to another time. I want the reader to feel they are IN New York 1903 and not just being told about it. Ditto for taking the reader to royal circles in England in the 1930s. I do this mainly through walking one step behind my main character and experiencing the sights, smells, sounds that she experiences. Dialog is also important in taking someone back to another era. Then add fashion, real people, real news, real restaurants etc. I'm always thrilled when people write to me telling me that they were raised in Manhattan and love to be taken back to their childhood through my books.
DEBORAH CROMBIE: Oh, all of the above! Setting is so important to my books that I've always thought of it as another character. It has mood and feel and voice...and since I really, really hate omniscient viewpoint (one of my pet peeves) the setting is ALWAYS experienced through one of my characters. I want sensory details--not just sight, but touch, smell, sound, taste. It's these things that make the reader feel "in" the book.

And if we're talking about writers who do this well, there are so many, but Louise Penny certainly springs to mind.

Had to laugh about Hank's FEBRUARY post-it. The front-story of my WIP is set in London in January, the back-story in August fifteen years earlier. I'm getting climatic whiplash...

I'm jealous of Lucy writing about Key West. I've always wanted to go there, and am so looking forward to the vicarious pleasure--especially in Texas January, AND with food! How much better can it get?

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Amen to that, Deb. I've long had a sneaking suspicion that I should have set my series in some tropical paradise instead of the Adirondacks. Sure, I'd miss out on having people nearly killed by blizzards and icy roads, but I'd learn to work around that drawback for the chance at regular research trips to the Keys. Especially in January!

I agree with Lucy - setting is a great way to learn about character. Not just in the way, say, a displaced New Englander would bask in the midwinter heat and sunshine, but also in what the scene settings - the personal stage sets of the book - tell us about the fictional folks inhabiting them. The single woman in a funky houseboat complete with tiki torches and an astroturf deck is going to be very different from the gay couple who live in an historical Conch house filled with 19th century antiques. And of course, the food is a whole 'nother type of setting..but I'm not going to get into that. If I start thinking about authentic Key Lime pie and conch fritters, I'm going to start drooling on my keyboard.

LUCYBURDETTE: Thank you all for indulging me on this--and Ro, can't wait to hear more about your new book. And Jan--you too! Meanwhile, you can find the first chapter of AN APPETITE FOR MURDER here.

And now, tell us about the books whose settings you love--and why...


  1. I have no patience to have this book, it sounds intriguing and I am sure I will read it at one breath, so come on, waiting for AN APPETITE FOR MURDER to come out!

  2. What a great post! I'll be archiving this one. I love a sense of place, and all your comments are brimming with magic for me.

    When I listen to my heart to find a book whose setting I love, I hear the immortal first line: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." I get chills just thinking about REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier. The book that introduced me to a love of mysteries at a young age.

  3. Great post, Lucy. I love the seeing place through the eyes of the character comment.

    I was thinking about REMAINS OF THE DAY before Jan mentioned it. You really feel you are in that house. IMO, you can't beat JANE EYRE. Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell writes settings well.

    Looking forward to January 3!

  4. As some of you have wisely pointed out, what our characters see (hear, smell) about a place tells us as much about the character as about the setting. Currently I'm working on a book set in a small town in Ireland, as seen by someone who was raised in Boston and has never been to Ireland, and what she notices reflects her background and her expectations. Plus she doesn't really want to like it, so she's more likely to pick out negative details. It's quite a balancing act.

    As for outstanding examples: Vicki Lane brings North Carolina alive, and Barry Eisler in his Rain series makes Japan so vivid I feel like I've been there--without any deadening infodumps.

  5. Great post, Lucy! I think the books I like best--in any genre--are those that bring the setting alive. All the Reds, especially Julia and Deborah, immediately come to mind here, as do Nancy Pickard, Margaret Maron, Louise Penny, Elizabeth George. And Paul Doiron's Maine woods. Actually, I could keep going on my favorites. Setting is one of the things they do best.

  6. I think all of Deb's books do a great job with active setting! Other than those (at the risk of sounding like a broken record), A Discovery of Witches!

  7. Lucy, does your book come with a slice of Key Lime Pie? I know I'm going to have to save calories over the holidays for a slice -- or several -- in early January!

  8. Active setting--I like that way of stating it. Elizabeth George was my ultimate writing teacher. She's excellent, and I highly recommend her writing book. She has much to say about setting.

    I'm a big fan of Ireland, so I love Tana French's novels. Man, does she deliver Ireland--and not the usual pastoral greenery either.

    I agree with Avi Love about REBECCA--I always think of that novel. That novel solidified my love of mystery (and gothics).

    To Sheila Connelly: My first novel is set in Ireland. Same kind of thing: an outsider's viewpoint, with the negative and the positive. Loved the research trips!

    Oh, just thought of another ultimate favorite for setting: Pat Conroy's THE PRINCE OF TIDES. Maaan...

  9. (Oops, sorry Sheila: wrote your last name wrong--writing fast today.)

  10. Must join in because I read this while staying on St. John, USVI, in the very house where the murder in my WIP takes place. I am drinking in all the sensations, hard work though it be! All of your helpful comments are duly noted.