Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Location, Location—Where (Why/How) To Set Your Story

By Linda Lovely
Author of FINAL ACCOUNTING, a romantic thriller set in Atlanta and Jamaica.

Choosing a setting for your story is more than a matter of window-dressing. It impacts:
  • PLOT: Every location offers a unique cornucopia of potential challenges and resources. In a suspense/ thriller novel, location factors are often tightly woven into the plot fabric. Think Deliverance or Hunger Games. In a romance or drama, the setting’s social milieu influences plot by defining what behaviors are (or are not) acceptable. Think The Help.    
  • CHARACTERS: Setting also plays a role in defining characters—how they think, act, and talk. It would be very difficult to extract New Jersey’s “DNA” from the Stephanie Plum, Janet Evanovich’s loveable character. Even if your heroine is a stranger/newcomer to your setting, how she reacts to the “natives” and their customs will tell the reader a great deal about her character.  
  • MOOD: The scenery and weather peculiar to a location can set the mood throughout a book. Blue skies, oppressive heat, dense fog, numbing cold, tropical downpours, urban decay, unspoiled beaches—these are just a few of the many elements used to signal optimism or foreboding and communicate sadness or happiness.
  • SALES:  While selling books is seldom an author’s prime consideration in selecting a novel’s location, it is worth mentioning. People enjoy reading novels set in their hometowns or in places they’ve visited. Of course, there’s also a danger. Readers may be highly critical if a book’s descriptions fail to match memories or photographs.

I’ve published three books. I followed the “write what you know best” dictate in selecting the locations for both of my Marley Clark Mysteries (Dear Killer and No Wake Zone), set in the South Carolina Lowcountry and Spirit Lake/Okoboji, Iowa, respectively. I have intimate knowledge of both locations—people, geography, history, culture—and could weave key details into my plots.
I changed tactics for my latest romantic thriller, Final Accounting, and set it in Jamaica—an island I’ve only visited. Despite a lack of detailed Jamaican knowledge, I couldn’t resist sending my characters there.
Jamaica is a study in stark contrasts. Paradise and poverty. Lavish resorts and urban violence. Soaring mountains and deep, dark caves. These contrasts give an author everything she could ask for to make setting another character in the story—from fairytale beaches that provide perfect backdrops for a romantic embrace to steep mountain roads where danger seems to lurk around every corner (even when you’re not being chased by a determined assassin).
Though similar contrasts can be found throughout the world (the U.S. included), Jamaica offered my readers a number of exotic and unexpected extras. Many Jamaican tourists never step foot outside all-inclusive, walled resorts. However, my husband and I had the advantage of being shown around the entire island by expert guides—my sister, Rita, and brother-in-law, Hank. They lived in Jamaica for seven years. Hank, an engineer, headed a major highway construction project, and his work took him to virtually every part of the island.
During our visit, we accompanied Hank to a number of locations. On one sojourn we drove into the hinterlands in search of gravel pits. En route, we bought coconuts (but not the ganja/marijuana) offered by roadside entrepreneurs and ate jerk chicken at stands where one hoped the fiery spices killed germs. In Kingston, we marveled at the number of goats and machete-carrying pedestrians holding up traffic. Of course, we also ate at five-star mountain-top restaurants, visited ritzy resorts, and went for an unforgettable evening cruise on Jamaica’s bioluminescent bay.
In Final Accounting, my heroine and hero visit many of these same places. They also descend into Dragon’s Throat, a fictitious cave modeled on real caves in the Cockpit region. Since I’m slightly claustrophobic and don’t like heights, I’m happy to report I didn’t rappel into a mile-deep cavern for a first-hand look. But I did try to capture what my characters experienced. How? Thank heaven for the Internet.
Internet Research, Asking for Local Help
My brother-in-law gave me the idea of using caves in my plot, suggesting they’d be “a great place to hide bodies.” His observation launched me on a research project back home, and I found the Jamaican Caves Organisation (JCO) and Ronald Stefan Stewart, JCO’s founder. After I viewed the JCO’s extensive library of cave exploration videos, I wrote a first draft of my cave scenes and sent them to Stefan for review.
In my experience, individuals like Stefan are more than happy to share their expertise with authors. They’re willing to read relevant scenes to see if physical settings are portrayed correctly and to give their opinion on whether the dialect, dialogue and mannerisms of locals are true to life. Such resources may be just a Google, Tweet, Pinterest or Facebook post away.
In my case, Stefan’s expertise was invaluable. He’s visited more than 250 caves and sinkholes in Jamaica and discovered more than 50 new ones, which he’s added to the nation’s Register. If there are any errors in my descriptions of the fictional Dragon’s Throat cave, caving, or the Cockpit region, rest assured the mistakes are mine. If you have any interest in caving and the JCO’s important conservation initiatives, please visit the JCO website: http://www.jamaicancaves.org/main.htm.
What my research taught me is that authors don’t have to personally visit every location included in a novel—if they commit to doing the research and asking for help. Writing fiction exercises the imagination.  Taking our characters beyond our own geographic boundaries give us a chance to visit new, exciting worlds. Even if we never leave our computer screens.
How/Where To Find Information
Talking in-person with residents of the selected area is an obvious starting point. However, there are many additional ways to glean information.
·        Contact Chambers of Commerce and search their websites for member organizations that might offer unique insights. Examples run the gamut from historic foundations and B&B owners to deep sea fishing charters and popular restaurants.
·        If your location is a vacation destination, contact travel agents and or local tour guides.
·        Search out and read relevant magazine articles and books (fiction and nonfiction, history and contemporary) for ideas.
·        Scan rosters of professional writer organizations to see if fellow members (or book sellers) reside in the area.
·        Try to establish contact with a librarian at a community or college library.
·        Ask for help on social networks and conduct searches on Google, Facebook, Pinterest and Goodreads.
Research can be half the fun of writing a book. The only danger is that you may get so wrapped up in research you neglect your writing.

Have you written about a place you’ve never visited? Have you read a book that made an unfamiliar location seem so real you felt you’d spent time there? What are your favorite settings for novels?

About the Author: Linda Lovely was a journalism major in college and has always made her living as a writer, working predominately in public relations and advertising. She now focuses on writing stand-alone thrillers and the Marley Clark Mystery Series. For more information, visit her website: www.lindalovely.com.


Unknown said...

What great advice, Linda. Thanks for sharing!

Suzanne de Montigny said...

I love a setting that takes me away.

Robin Weaver, Author said...

Those caves sound fascinating!

Linda Lovely said...

Researching and connecting with strangers--who become friends--is one of the joys of writing fiction.

Polly Iyer said...

Though I've visited New Orleans a few times, it was long before I started writing my only series: Book 1-Mind Games, Book 2- Goddess of the Moon. A friend who grew up in New Orleans took some photos for me while she was there on a visit, and the rest came from Internet research and Google Earth. I often think how easy writers of today have it with all the world at our fingertips. I've spread out my locations--some in my hometown of Boston and others where I live in South Carolina. It's been fun "visiting" other places.

Linda Lovely said...

Polly, I've read your books and you do a great job with locations and making the most of the atmosphere. It is fun, isn't it?

Ellis Vidler said...

Interesting reasoning, Linda. Setting is a strong part of your books (I've enjoyed all of them), and you chose well. I've never been to Iowa or Jamaica, but I could certainly picture Lake Okiboji and the caves of Jamaica. Your descriptions add a lot to the atmosphere and stories.

Janie Franz said...

Great tips, Linda!

I set one trilogy in a place I'd visited many years ago, in fact I started writing up the idea three decades before I pulled it out and revamped the book to submit it. After it was accepted, I went to the location to take photos for the book trailer for the book and realized that the location had all been modernized. When I got into content edits, I warned my editor ahead of time that location description changes were coming. Luckily, only two places had to be fixed and could be handled with a few keystrokes....So my advice is....Go back and have a closer look at your real life location or talk to someone who can send you photos....

Wendy said...

Linda, you show very clearly how important the right setting is for a novel. And making new friends from strangers when visiting the location, or during research, certainly is a huge joy, I hadn't expected from writing.

Linda Lovely said...

Janie points out a tough problem with contemporary settings. They can change--sometimes drastically--between when you visit/write and when your descriptions are published. Weather (hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, etc.) can alter a landscape overnight. Developers take only a little bit longer. You can tackle this in a
"Notes to Readers" or by fictionalizing the location. For example, I set Dear Killer on fictional Dear Island in the South Carolina Lowcountry. It's a "composite" island, which has features of many islands in the area.