Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Karin Salvalaggio--Setting the Perfect Place

DEBORAH CROMBIE:  This seems to be our week for talking about place in novels.  I was fortunate last autumn to be given an advance reader's copy of Karin Salvalaggio's debut novel, BONE DUST WHITE, which I think is stunningly good. The book leaves such a strong physical impression that whenever I think about the story I feel a bone-deep cold. Like William Kent Krueger's Minnesota novels, the setting becomes a character in itself.

Someone is knocking at the door to Grace Adams' house, and he won't stop. Grace thinks she knows who it is, but when she goes to her second floor window for a look she sees a woman she doesn't recognize. The woman isn't alone for long before a man emerges from the dark of the surrounding woods, stabs her, and leaves her for dead. Trying to help, Grace goes to the woman and is shocked to find that it's her mother Leanne-a woman who abandoned her 11 years before. There's nothing she can do, and Leanne is already past the point where she can tell Grace what happened all those years ago or why she came back now.

While Grace was only a child when Leanne left her, Detective Macy Greeley has been waiting for Leanne ever since she disappeared from Collier, MT. She's looking to close a case that has been haunting the town for far too long, but Collier is a hard-bitten place where the people are fierce when it comes to keeping their feuds between themselves and keeping secrets hidden in the past.

Here's what the advance reviews have to say:

“The suspense meter spikes dramatically… This complicated, peel-away-layers debut procedural intoxicates from the opening page and has word-of-mouth selling power... Recommend for fans of Archer Mayor, Gwen Florio, and Craig Johnson. C.J. Box’s The Highway comes to mind, too.” –Library Journal (Debut of the Month)

“Salvalaggio’s debut deftly intertwines a town without a future and citizens without hope, people in need and people who need to be needed, and a new murder that brings closure to four unsolved cases.” –Kirkus

“In Salvalaggio’s haunting debut… the author creates a hardscrabble community of characters that readers won’t soon forget.”  –Publishers Weekly

And I couldn't agree more. Here's Karin to tell us a little bit about why she chose Montana and the fictional town of Collier.

KARIN SALVALAGGIO: Novels are often full of memorable settings, but some of these locations are more remarkable than others because they serve both the narrative and create the desired mood. What would The Shining by Stephen King be without the Overlook Hotel and the grand seclusion of the Rocky Mountains? Daphne du Maurier’s short story “Don’t Look Now” wouldn’t work as well with out those eerie Venetian canals and alleyways as its backdrop. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson Hedeby Island serves as the perfect setting for both a ‘locked room’ mystery and an isolated environment where our intrepid reporter Mikael Blomkvist investigates members of a highly dysfunctional family, one of whom is certainly guilty of murder. A novel’s setting can be real or imaginary. It can be as isolated as a mountainside or in the middle of a teeming metropolis and as exotic as a Caribbean Island or as humble as a housing tract. Whether it’s a location that haunts your reader for a lifetime or inspires them to book a flight, it is important that the author makes a conscious decision regarding their novel’s setting. So much depends on the reader coming away with a lasting impression. The more visceral the experience the more likely the reader will want to visit again.

For my debut novel Bone Dust White, I’ve created the fictional town of Collier, but placed it in a very real location, the Flathead Valley in Northern Montana. Collier is an amalgamation of places I’ve visited and read about. This is small town America viewed with a long lens. I don’t claim to be an expert. This is fiction. I wanted the backdrop of my novel to be as down in its luck and hard bitten as its residents. Collier is claustrophobic in scale and the harsh winter storms and darkness that sweep in as the novel opens only serve to make the atmosphere more sinister. It is set on the borders with Canada and surrounded by deep impenetrable forests that jut up against the Whitefish Mountains. The main highway goes straight through town, clogging Main Street with eighteen wheelers and choking its residents with exhaust fumes. The Flathead River flows around in the town like a ‘distended belly’. Once a source of commerce for the closed saw mills, the only thing the river carries now is debris washed down from the higher elevations. Crime, high employment, prostitution, alcoholism and meth addiction are among its more visible problems.

It is within this backdrop that a haunted young girl named Grace Adams comes of age in the cruelest of ways. Having been given a new lease on life she is finally ready to embrace her future on her own terms, but there are forces working against her. She witnesses a brutal murder just yards from her back gate and as the woods close in on her and the victim she once again retreats into herself. This is truly a case of her past coming in from the cold and she will have to negotiate a tangled web of betrayals if she’s going to survive. Detective Macy Greeley is the outsider brought in by the state to investigate the murder as it is believed to be linked to an unsolved case she worked 11 years earlier. She to must peel away layers of lies and complicated family feuds as she works a case that will bring the town of Collier to its knees.

I feel I’ve created the perfect backdrop for my novel Bone Dust White and I hope the town of Collier haunts my readers for years to come. Are there locations and settings both real and imagery that have left an impression on you as a reader? Are there writers out there who choose locations for reasons that I may not have entertained? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

DEBS: We have some interesting cross-cultural things going on this week as well: I'm an American who chooses to write British crime novels, Peter Robinson is a Yorkshire native who lives in Canada but sets his books in Yorkshire, and Karin is an American who lives in London and chose to set her novel in Montana. Does our physical distance from our setting make it more intriguing for us as writers?

Karin will be giving away a copy of BONE DUST WHITE to one of today's lucky commenters, so get your name in the hat!

KARIN SALVALAGGIO received in MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck at the University of London. Born is West Virginia and raised in an Air Force family, she grew up on a number of military bases around the United States. She now lives in London with her two children. Bone Dust White is her first novel.


  1. Since the settings are working for the reader, I would guess that the writer’s physical distance from the setting is not an issue. Before this discussion, I’d never really thought about writers setting their stories in far-flung places . . . .

    “Bone Dust White” sounds like a book I definitely need to add to my teetering to-be-read pile . . . .

  2. Such a thoughtful piece. #BoneDustWhite sounds like an exciting thriller with heart and brain to back it up. Can't wait to read it!

  3. This book sounds dark and fascinating.

    My former (now retired) agent, who was an editor for several major publishers before she was an agent, keeps telling me that you want to set a novel in a place you know (and can name) so there will be built-in local sales. But then you have to get the details right (if a one-way street goes two ways in your book, people will complain).

    I think I prefer to work witih made-up places that are amalgams of places I know, or places that were but aren't anymore. Or galaxies far far away.

  4. Joan, I'm in London now, but I really do miss the states. Montana, Wyoming and Alaska hold so much appeal. I love the terrain and the towns. It takes a certain level of tenacity to survive in such places... an independent spirit. I think that's what I'm drawn to in my characters. I guess distance gives me a bit more objectivity as well.

  5. Ellen, I agree with you. I think I'd feel very constrained if I wrote about places that really existed. I'd have to live there to know it well enough and then I'd worry that a friend or neighbour might recognise themselves in one of my characters, which by the way should never happen as they are ALL completely fictional. Plus making it up is what makes it so much fun!

  6. Karin, it never occurred to me when I was reading Bone Dust White that Collier WASN'T a real place. Sometimes fiction is stronger than truth.

    Can you tell us a little bit about who inspired Macy? She's a great character, and is it too much of a spoiler to say that she finds herself in an interesting condition?

  7. i'm hooked, can't wait to read the whole

  8. Oh, how dark and twisty your novel sounds! I love that you created your own setting. Setting is such an important character, I think. Collier sound gritty and real, and I look forward to reading!

  9. Deborah, I love Macy!

    You know she started out as a minor character. In the original draft she didn't even have a point of view but very quickly it became clear that she was the character that my agent and readers wanted hear more from. Grace is unreliable and Jared is prickly so it is up to Macy to negotiate this new landscape for for the reader.

    I think Macy is a very modern woman. She's ambitious and smart, but she's also very human so she makes mistakes. Like most of us, she's trying to have it all but not quite getting it right. She has a great wit too. I wouldn't say she's modelled after anyone in particular. She says and does things I'd like to take credit for, but I'd never have the guts!

    Regarding her condition, I think there's quite a few reviews that already mention she's in the advance stages of pregnancy so not really a spoiler!

  10. Karen, Your book sounds fantastic. I'm looking forward to reading it.

    For me, as a writer, setting is often the catalyst. My debut novel could not have taken place anywhere other than Indochina during colonial times, and Deb, even though I lived there for a while, I think yes, distance does create a fascination.

    At the same time I am setting a new novel in L.A. where I live - a city that is a source of endless fascination for me. And the idea for the novel was sparked by place, and my fascination with it at a certain time period - the 1970s.

    One of the reasons I love using place so heavily in a novel is that I love research, and I love learning more. And as a kid who moved a dozen times before high school, I have a great respect for how a place shapes a person.

    Great topic!

  11. Karin congratulations on a fantastic debut -- it's like you've been shot out of a cannon!!

    A fictional town set in a real location... it's the perfect combination because you can make up what you need (the gas station is on THIS corner across from the bank...) and yet gather up all the wonderful details of a real place.

    Hope you're having fun with the launch. Are you working on something new?

  12. Karin, this sounds fabulous. Welcome to JRW and good luck with our first novel.
    I also graduated from the University of London.

  13. Wow, this has been a great week on JRW. (Not that every week isn't great). We have covered houses with names, cross-atlantic writing and the sense of place in novels.

    And Karin's book sounds excellent. Having just gotten through this rough winter, I think maybe I might be ready to read something set in the cold environment.

  14. Karin, I'm hooked. I'm calling my local store today to see if they have Bone Dust White - and if not have them order a copy.

    I mix place in my writing. Fayette County is real, Uniontown is real, but as I move out into the countryside, things are more made up. Readers say it works for them. I just love the area so much - and while it is beautiful, it's poor and has a lot of crime problems.

    I don't know if space matters so much to me. Maybe emotional space, but not physical. But I love it when a fictional location becomes so real I have to check a map to make sure it doesn't exist.

  15. Kim,

    I know what you mean when you say the setting can be a catalyst. The idea of Collier came to me very quickly. I'd set a short story called 'Walleye Junction' in the same valley. It seemed natural to add Collier as another town a little further north.

    I think with time my confidence as a writer will grow, but for my first novel I wanted to have complete control over the setting. Collier is a purpose-built stage for the characters and the narrative I've created.

    I also moved a great deal growing up. We crisscrossed the US in the family's station wagon. I spent a lot of time daydreaming about the towns we passed through. In a way, I think I'm still daydreaming about those same towns!

  16. Hallie,

    That is an apt description. I do feel like I've been shot out of a cannon! I'm having so much fun. I just can't wait until BONE DUST WHITE is really out there! One week to go!

    I'm almost finished writing the sequel. It features Macy Greeley and she's in the Flathead Valley again, but it's set during a heatwave this time... I needed a break from writing about snow! After serving his country in some of the most dangerous places in the world, young war veteran is gunned down in his hometown, a ranching community where there is almost no crime.

  17. Karin, I don't think Minotaur is having you tour in the US? What are they doing to promote the book?

    And yes, readers, it's out next Tuesday, so PRE-ORDER:-) unless of course you win a copy today!

    Where else has the book sold? And how long did it take you to find a publisher for it?

  18. Deborah,

    Sadly, Minotaur is not sending me on a book tour to promote my first novel. It makes perfect sense when you think about it. Aside from it being expensive to travel from the UK, there's also the fact that I'm a complete unknown so there'd be very few people showing up for book signings.

    Thankfully, the marketing department at St Martins Press and Minotaur have a very enthusiastic team looking after BONE DUST WHITE. We've reached out to libraries, independent booksellers, Amazon, Barnes and Noble etc. They've also sent galleys off to Newspapers, magazines, writers and bloggers. This is how I 'met' Deborah Crombie from Jungle Red Writers. Not only did she write an amazing blurb for my cover but she also invited me as a guest on this blog.

    On an individual level I'm doing what I can to reach out to readers and bloggers through social media. There's an entire network of people out there that I had no idea existed. Sites such as Jungle Red Writers are very welcoming to debut authors. It gives me a chance to reach out to readers on a personal level, which given I'm so faraway is a really wonderful connection to make.

    So I'm using social media a great deal. I'm on Twitter, Goodreads, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, Amazon authors and of course I have a website as well -

    It's nothing like I expected. Thankfully, I have a dog named Seamus, a couple of teenage children to keep me sane and some amazing friends.

  19. Karin, I live in the Flathead Valley, so I'm eager to see what you've done with the place! I take a similar approach to setting, but just as my fictional Jewel Bay is on the opposite end of the valley from your Collier, sounds like we've taken contrasting tones as well!

    Good luck with the new release and the WIP.

  20. I am always looking for new authors who will take me to places I don't know and hold me there with great characters and a good story. I'll be looking for Karin's book, for sure.

    Good luck to you, Karin, as you work to promote your book!

  21. As a couple of you have pointed out, it is amazing when you read a book and the setting seems so real that you're convinced it exists. It isn't until you hit Google that you realise you've been really taken in by a writer's imagination. Like a real town, it took a long time to construct Collier. BONE DUST WHITE went through a series of tough rewrites but with each reworking more details were added. I knew I was onto something when readers started to believe Collier was a real place.

  22. I'm (already) hooked just from reading the short clip and Karen's comments.

  23. I'd already heard of Bone Dust White, but this post definitely moves it up my 'must read' list! I'm very drawn to mysteries with a strong setting (Dana Stabenow's Alaska is my favorite example), and the information about Collier brings to mind another fictional Western setting, the Absaroka County that Craig Johnson created. I'm looking forward to my visit!

  24. First, the title, Bone Dust White. Then, the chilling description that has me mesmerized. Next, the glowing reviews that are clearly marking it as a novel to read. And, finally, Karin's post about place and the specifics of the fictional Collier. Well, it has me typing in fragments, it does. I could be happy just reading more from Karin about her writing or the phone book. She is one interesting writer! I want this book!!!

    I love that Macy started out as a minor character and demanded more. Writers who allow their characters to speak up and help shape the story are writers with great success, which I predict you will be, Karin. I look forward to having Macy as the steadying influence in a dark and twisted world.

    My husband and I have been wanting to do a trip to Montana and the Dakotas for a while, so I'm really looking forward to some vicarious living in reading this book.

    Karin, for new authors, I've started asking at the library to obtain a copy of the authors' books, which my library is most obliging in doing. Are you a Goodreads author? Goodreads reaches a vast audience of readers, and now that it is owned by Amazon, I suspect that there might be some advantages to that. Of course, appearing here on the Jungle Red Writers blog will get the word out about you, too. We participants here tend to shout out to the reading world about our finds here, which are many. I try to do my small part through Goodreads, my FB book page, personal FB page, Twitter, and my blog. Others here have blogs and are wonderful about getting the word out on new authors, too. I wish you great success in the launch of Bone Dust White!

  25. Oh, my goodness...what a fabulous cover! Brilliant. And great title.

    AH, Boston it is, for me..I sometimes contemplate another setting...maybe fantasy But who knows. When the idea is ready, the setting will come.

    So great to read about this, Karin--congratulations!

  26. Kathy, you've said so many lovely things that I don't know where to begin.

    As it's my first novel, BONE DUST WHITE is very dear to me. I spent a great deal of time shaping the characters, the setting and the narrative. The novel starts off when all three of the protagonist's lives are at a breaking point. One way or another these characters have to change. Stasis is not an option.

    The setting itself is an obstacle to change. Collier is not a forward looking town and the deadly winter conditions don't exactly encourage its citizens to strike out on their own.

    That being said Montana is one of the most beautiful places in the world and I encourage you to visit. My brother lives in Bozeman and owns a wonderful brew pub near the university. It's a great place all around.

    Yes, I'm on Goodreads. Many people have put BONE DUST WHITE on their 'to be read' shelf. I'm looking forward to getting their feedback. As far as other social media, I'm pretty much utilising most everything that is available. I'm very pleased to be on Jungle Red Writers today. Everyone has been very welcoming.

  27. I'm excited to read your book. I live just down the road in the Mission Valley, also in Northwest Montana. As a reader I know there are towns in books that feel so real I want to move there, or at the very least visit. Three Pines always comes to mind. I have to remind myself the place (and the people) aren't real.

  28. In so many books the location becomes a major character. And I love that! I always want to travel to these locations and check them out. Any excuse for a trip. I'm looking forward to reading your book, Karin!

  29. Deborah asked about finding a publisher and what other countries it was being published in.

    Well, let's just say that it wasn't easy! My agent Felicity Blunt started the search in the UK as that is where I live. There were individuals within publishing houses who were very enthusiastic but no one made us an offer. I did some rewrites and tried again and had the same result. It was very frustrating.

    At around the same time my agent Felicity Blunt moved to NY temporarily and was working out the ICM offices. She pitched it Matt Martz (Minotaur/St Martins) and he made an offer a few days later! He really understood what I was trying to achieve. He guided me through one last tough rewrite and it made all the differences. Deals in Germany and Italy soon followed!