Thursday, November 13, 2008

Plot, Place, Character?

In searching for a subject for this morning's blog post, I was glancing through Speaking of Murder—Interviews with Masters of Mystery and Suspense published by Berkley Prime Crime, way back in 1998. I stumbled upon an interview with Elizabeth George where she speaks about her deep "psychic" connection to England. She goes on to say how she starts with the merest kernel of a plot then spends about a week at the location of choice (a spot in the U.K.) to allow the seed to germinate. She often goes back later, as the story develops, to soak up more of the region.

She particularly likes writing about a foreign country because she notices every detail. She goes on to say that when writing about U.S. locations, she doesn’t pick up the same info on her radar. The nuances of every day life, like the type of raincoat a person wears, the food one orders, the newspapers one reads, all are so familiar, the tiny things get lost in the shuffle.

So this started me thinking, how much do you think a sense of place has to do with your story?

I know that most of the authors that post regularly on this blog write series mysteries, so the question of place is often answered in advance. Not always, though. And sometimes, just like similar plots or the same core characters go stale without a new twist, a writer needs to shake things up a bit with their sense of place.

I believe this is why, as a series goes on, we often see characters from a small town take a trip. You see it all the time on TV.

Lucy and Ricky and Ethel and Fred loaded up the car and went to Hollywood. Later in the series, they even bought a country inn. And then, look at "Murder She Wrote." Cabot Cove having beaten out Detroit and Washington, D.C. as the town with the most killings per capita, Jessica Fletcher split for greener (or more bloody) pastures just about every week. But, I think it's safe to say, by that point in the series, the sense of place established by the series traveled with her. Maine in that big black purse, ah-yup.

And take a look at the CSI TV shows, talk about a sense of place! NY, Las Vegas, and Nevada, ne'er the twain shall meet. (Except that one time when Horatio flew to N.Y. He seemed so lost without his shades, but don't get me started!)

When Midnight Ink first considered my book, BrigaDOOM, they asked if I would move the Kate London Mystery Series from the western Michigan coast to Cleveland. Cleveland??
After I finished gasping and got up off the floor, I took a deep breath and explained how inextricably linked a small, blighted town on Lake Michigan's shore was to the characters' sense of self, the stories, and the series in general. The frustrations of an 'almost tourist town' that is unique to that part of Michigan, the feeling of a peninsula, the shortest of summer seasons, the dunes, so many things would change or be lost. I grew up not far from Cleveland, and a person not from Michigan might argue that they are close enough, take it from me, they're not.
Midnight Ink, thankfully, agreed.

So, how strong is the sense of place in what you write? In what you read? What would happen if you moved your protagonist to another town?


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Personally, I think it's good to change up a mystery series every now and then. It keeps it fresh for both the reader and author.

In the Odelia Grey novel I'm writing now, I've taken Odelia out of So. Cal and plunked her down in rural Massachusetts. But it wasn't an artificial move, but a very significant plot reason. It will be interesting to see what my readers think.

In my new Granny Apples series, I've decided to change locations in each book. Although the protagonist is centered in Pasadena, CA, much of the story in each book will take place elsewhere. In the first, it's in Julian, CA. In the 2nd, it will be on Catalina Island. I'll be spending 4 days on Catalina over Thanksgiving taking photos and making notes. Not sure yet where I'm placing book #3 but I have some ideas. Might depend on where I want to vacation next year. :)

Cricket McRae said...

I find a sense of place vital to telling a story, whether novel, short story, or creative nonfiction. It becomes almost a character in itself, informing both plot and character.

And many readers love regional mysteries, even if they aren't set in their own "region." In a series you get to know the place as much as you do the characters. Even in series where the setting changes from book to book, that very fact enters into the equation.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

My goal was to write a series which couldn't take place anywhere but in St. Louis. Now I'm working away on Book #3, and I'm researching the Veiled Prophet fair, parade and event as St. Louisan as the Arch, but relatively unknown to those outside our city.

G.M. Malliet said...

I was fascinated by your comment from Elizabeth George. That's exactly why I set my books in Great Britain...the details (meals, clothing, weather) are much more interesting to me than American details, which I tend not to notice anyway.

I think I've said here before: Writing is a form of time-travel for me...when I'm writing the St. Just books I really *am* in Great Britain.

Deborah Sharp said...

I'm early in my series, so still "fixed'' in my mind to the rodeo-and-ranches slice of Florida that remains largely unknown (EVERYBODY knows Disney and sexy South Beach!)

I wouldn't absolutely rule out moving Mama and the gals from smalltown Himmarshee, Fla. Yet, the setting seems like such a crucial element of who they are, and why they're the way they are, that I'm happy to leave them there ... at least until they (or I) get bored, and start clamoring to move to somewhere snazzier. Mama Does Miami?