Friday, February 11, 2022

How A Sense of Place Proved Critical to Writing My Mysteries @victoriahouston


LUCY BURDETTE: I met and bonded with today's guest many years ago--I'm pretty sure I was writing the golf lovers mystery series, and she was getting started with her Loon Lake series. Probably we gravitated to one another because our hooks were not traditionally cozy. Now we share the same publisher and I'm delighted to introduce her and her wonderful books to you!


VICTORIA HOUSTON: Thirty years ago I had a thriving career writing non-fiction. I had published seven books on family issues including a modest bestseller: LOVING A YOUNGER MAN: How Women are Finding a Better Relationship. And I was working in book publishing as the promotion director for a humor publisher in the Midwest. We published one mystery writer whom I considered “mediocre” so when I learned he was getting a hundred thousand dollar advance for his paperback edition (those were the days ) I decided for that kind of money I could be mediocre. Plus it sounded more fun that non-fiction.

My mistake was assuming a mystery would be easy to write. Not so. It took me five years including a year-long workshop in NYC. I had already learned not to base characters on real people. I had been observing a couple I knew who were indulging in tantalizingly promiscuous behavior so I made them my main characters. Then they went in to marriage counseling. Oops. End of story.

I had also learned through the workshop how to “show not tell” on the page. Sounds easy? A cliché? Well, try being a non-fiction writer and making that change. Took a year but I got there.

Now the big moment: I started a mystery and set it in Kansas City where I had lived for fifteen years. I set it against a background of art theft as I’d been an art critic for a national magazine. One thing I do not do is plot ahead. So it was that forty-five pages into the story, the stolen art showed up at the bottom of a lake in northern Wisconsin where a retired dentist was out in his fishing boat and saw something mysterious under the water. Five pages later, I entered those 50 pages into a Mystery Writers of America’s Mentor Program offering a critique by a published author and sat back waiting for applause.


The author said “when I started reading this material, I was going to suggest the author go back to school. But when the story turned to Wisconsin it just sparkled – it came alive.” So I threw away the first 45 pages, looked at the retired dentist in his boat and said, “Not sure where we’re going, Doc, but let’s get started.”

I had found my sense of place. Better yet: I was home. I grew up in northern Wisconsin, in the fishing culture. I love our lakes and forests, our rivers and streams. My father and grandfather were dentists “so they could afford to fish” – or so they joked. And I’ve fished since I was three years old. I took up fly fishing in my early fifties. Bottom line: I can write this landscape, this world from the inside out. And so it is that I’ve published twenty mysteries set in the Northwoods of Wisconsin against a background of murder, mayhem and fishing. My newest is WOLF HOLLOW: A Lew Ferris Mystery. And, yes, I moved home twenty-five years ago.

I find that I most appreciate writers whose work radiates a sense of place. Among non-mystery writers, I like Willa Cather, Eudora Welty, early Hemingway and Joan Didion’s California stories to name a few. And in the mystery field I favor Henning Mankell, Ross Thomas, Ruth Rendell, Sjowall & Wahloo and our own Lucy Burdette to name a few. These are writers whose sense of place infuses their work and enchants me.

What writers who evoke a strong sense of place are among your favorites?

Bio: Victoria Houston is the author of seven non-fiction books on family issues and 20 mysteries featuring the town of Loon Lake and set against a background of fishing – fly fishing and bait fishing for bluegills, walleye, bass and muskies.  She has worked in book publishing and public relations in cities across the country.  Today she lives, writes and fishes in northern Wisconsin.  


WOLF HOLLOW: A Lew Ferris Mystery (Crooked Lane Books) is the first of a spin-off from Houston’s 19-book Loon Lake Mystery Series featuring Lewellyn Ferris, formerly the Chief of Police and now newly elected Sheriff, as the main character.  On taking office, Lew is confronted with the unexpected death of her beloved brother.  Soon two other victims -- a mother and son who are members of a wealthy, land-owning family -- are found murdered.  Are the three deaths related?  As she closes in on the solution to the unexplained deaths, she has to wonder:  who is the killer’s next target?

43 comments:

  1. Congratulations on your new series/new book, Victoria . . . .

    Favorite writers who evoke a strong sense of place? Harper Lee tops my list; Emily St. John Mandel is another favorite . . . .

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  2. I hadn't considered really going to Key West until I started reading Lucy's series. Now, I really want to go visit!

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  3. Victoria, I've added Wolf Hollow to my TBR list. I love books set in the woods and lake areas.

    My favorite writers who evoke a strong sense of place include Lucy with her Key West series, Debs with her Gemma and Duncan series set in London, Julia with her Russ and Clare series set in the Adirondacks, Elly Griffiths with her Ruth Galloway series set in Norfolk (England), Rhys with her stand-alones that always capture sense of place, Jane Harper's books set in Australia (The Lost Man was sense of place perfection), Wendall Thomas' Cyd Redondo series, Peter Heller's books that so beautifully describe the outdoors, Jim Ziskin's Ellie Stone series, Triss Stein in her Erica Donato series (which I still want more of, Triss), and Thomas Mullen in his Darktown books and his The Last Town on Earth.

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  4. VICTORIA: Welcome to JRW! I agree with you about the differences in writing non-fiction vs fiction. I wrote climate change technical reports (that were 100s or 1000s of pages in length) and shorter book chapters/journal articles for over 30 years. I could not write a short story or longer piece of fiction to save my life!

    There are so many mystery writers who evoke a strong sense of place that I love to read including the REDS. DEBS, with her Kincaid/James series set in London (and other parts of England) and LUCY's wonderful Key West series.

    Others include LOUISE PENNY's Three Pines mysteries, SARA PARETSKY's PI books set in Chicago, MARCIA MULLER's PI books set in San Francisco, WILLIAM KENT KRUEGER's Cork O'Connor books set in Minnesota and both of RAGNAR JONASSON's series set in dark, cold, remote settings in Iceland.

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    1. OOPS, trying again as Grace (not Anonymous)!

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    2. I thought that was you anonymous. Thank you for compiling all that data.

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    3. AMANDA and CORALEE: My pleasure. I figured ROEBRTA might delete the anonymous post (I really hate my VPN and Blogger for messing up my computer settings) but you now see my list twice!

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    4. I knew you were Anonymous, Grace. Your marvelous climate credentials were a sure give away.

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  5. What a wonderful comment to receive early on, Victoria! Hank read the first twenty pages of my very first mystery (over two dozen books ago) and said, "But nothing happens." Oops! I fixed it as best I could. I can't believe I have missed out on your Loon Lake series!

    As Kathy said, all the Reds are pros at bringing place to life. Barb Ross is, as well, with her Maine Clambake series, and Jessica Ellicott with her 1920s English village.

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    1. So funny about Hank--she's so smart and helpful, right Edith?

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    2. Aww...thank you both! MUCH easier to see those things in someone else's books!

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  6. thanks Grace! I was thinking of Ragnar Jonasson--I feel cold every time I pick one of those books up.

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  7. ROBERTA: Agreed. I feel cold and often CLAUSTROPHOBIC as the menacing landscape looms nearby when I read Ragnar's books.

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  8. Welcome to JRW, Victoria. I agree that a strong sense of place can really lift a story to another level, and I love authors who can do that. Our Lucy has surely brought Key West come to life and made everyone here line up to visit (but will she roast a chicken for us?)
    Wherever Debs's stories take us, Scotland, London, the Cotswolds, you are walking the roads and seeing what the characters see in every scene, even if it is a kitchen.
    Rhys is particularly skillful at taking us to places in different eras, from Venice in the 1940's, to Nice in the 1930's and NYC at the turn of the 20th Century, just to name a few.
    Julia has made Clare and Russ's little town in the Adirondacks, with its rivers and mountains, bridges and forests a very important feature of her stories.
    Iona Whishaw created a Canadian town and small city for stories that wouldn't be as thrilling without that landscape. Christine Carbo writes thrillers about law enforcement in and around Glacier National Park. Her dark tales of psychological suspense could not be placed anywhere else.
    Speaking of thrilled, I am so happy to put your new series (and Loon Lake Mysteries, too) on my TBR list. I adore stories that are set among the forests and lakes of remote areas. Congratulations on your new release.

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    1. JUDY: I agree with you about Christine Carbo's books.

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  9. Welcome, Victoria! What great advice to get.

    Others have mentioned the Reds. I'll chime in for my friend Annette Dashofy. When I read her first Zoe Chambers book I had to look at a map to check that Monongahela County was not real - and I live in southwestern Pennsylvania.

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    1. Oh yes, Liz! I can't believe I left Annette off of my list. Her Zoe Chambers and the sense of place it creates got me through 2020.

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    2. Absolutely, Kathy. I read through Annette's whole series that spring and summer. It's hard not to miss some when listing much loved authors. Hank's series set in Boston is another great example of a writer using "place."

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    3. Aww...thank you! It can be really confusing, truly, when I ass a place that I've written about. I'll say to myself--oh, here's the exit where Lily and Smith turned off the Mass Pike. Then I think no! I made them up. xxx

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  10. Welcome, Victoria. Your cover alone is spectacular at evoking a sense of place!

    I'd say each of the Reds make their settings come to life, and a shout out to Micki Browning for her Mer Cavallo and Shadow Ridge series. Both series draw you right in.

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  11. Oh, I always love finding a "new to me" author! I'll get started on that series pronto!

    As well as all of those mentioned above, Todd Borg's Tahoe books make the Lake Tahoe come alive for me, as does C.J. Box's Joe Pickett series set in Wyoming.

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  12. For once, I'm ahead of the game (at least in terms of blog topics). I discovered your Loon Lake and Lew Ferris a few weeks ago and have been loving catching up. Place matters immensely to me when I read, especially mysteries. When I read Debs' A Bitter Feast, I spent the next few days feeling as if I'd actually been in the Cotswolds! Tony Hillerman was masterful in creating and sustaining a sense of place over the course of his series--it always felt fresh--there were always new things to discover about the places he set his stories in. So too with your feeling for northern Wisconsin--the best writers never get complacent or lazy.

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  13. Welcome, Victoria. I agree with you that a sense of place can really make a book (or series) come alive.

    Grace beat me to mentioning Louise Penny's Three Pines series. A few others that popped into my mind were Margaret Maron's Judge Deborah Knott series in the so-believable Colleton County, North Carolina, and PJ Tracy's Monkeywrench series which is very solidly grounded in Minneapolis.

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  14. Welcome Victoria. Thank you for pointing me towards WI to do some virtual fishing. How about Carl Hiassen? As funny as he is, his Florida is as real as Lucy's Key West.

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  15. Congratulations on your latest release! In addition to the authors mentioned, Ann Cleeves and PD James for establishing place as a character.

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  16. Loved reading your story. Told simply -- though I'm sure there were a lot of sleepless nights and tears -- you've given us newbies a great model for moving forward with mystery writing.

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  17. Victoria, I love the idea that your beloved Loon Lake mysteries have spun off a sister series!

    I'm like you, in the sense that the place that called me as a writer was not where I lived as an adult, but the landscape of my childhood. I had lived in Washington DC for four years before getting married, and had been in Maine for at least a decade before I started IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER. But the place I was drawn to was the Adirondack Piedmont where I had spent some of my growing up years, and where I had a deep, generations long connection.

    I like to tell my writing students that the genre chooses the author, not the other way around. I suspect it's the same with the setting of many beloved series. When the right author meets the right place, magic happens.

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  18. Vicki is having trouble leaving comments, but hopes to be here soon!

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  19. So many of my favorite locations have been mentioned by others but I will add Nevada Barr's national parks, Sarah Graves' home repair series set in Maine and Sally Goldenbaum's books set on a bay in Massachusetts and I still want to go to France's southern country region thanks to Martin Walker.

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  20. I agree that I feel like I know Key West thanks to Lucy's mysteries.Some day I hope to see it in person. (And eat at many of the delicious restaurants Haley visits!)
    Victoria I will most definately get your newest - I love books set in the North Woods!

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  21. Note from Victoria: Hello, everyone, and thank you for your wonderful responses. I haven't been able to comment due to being technologically challenged this morning. GRR. But this is still fun and I appreciate my terrific Jungle Red authors for hosting me. Again, guys, Thank You!!

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  22. Oh, oh, oh, oh, and Michael Connelly's LA.

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  23. Oh, I just read the new Martin Edwards lake District novel--and now I cannot wait to go there!

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    1. Oh yes, Hank. Martin's Lake District books are great sense of place books.

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  24. William Kent Krueger is the best w hen it comes to sense of place. So, too, Louise Penny with Three Pines. Then: Hillerman, Christopher Fowler, Craig Johnson, Rhys Bowen, Bill Pronzini, W. J. Burley… so many more!

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  25. Welcome, Victoria! Love the post. I always think of the setting as another character. Very important.

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  26. Nevada Barr and the Hillermans (father and daughter) use space and place differently. I don't think you can take the characters out of the SW in Hillerman's stories. Anna's roaming over all of the National Parks is like Thoreau on the Merrimack -- always changing perspective and measuring and challenging herself against the world. I am disposed to love any book with a map inside because it suggests that the place is integral to the story.

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