Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Mysterious Settings

by Sheila Webster Boneham

Setting is an essential part of many mysteries, as well as other types of fiction. Some settings are important enough to be regarded as "characters" of a sort – Tony Hillerman’s Southwest, John Connolly’s Maine, J.A. Jance’s Arizona and Seattle, Susan Conant’s Cambridge, Massachusetts - well, I could go on for pages!

My own forthcoming Animals in Focus series is set in Fort Wayne and other parts of northern Indiana. I chose the area partly because I grew up there and know it well, and partly because it is a beautiful part of the country that often gets short shrift from outsiders who think all of Indiana is the fairly flat stretch of farmland from just west of Toledo to just east of Chicago. To dispel the "nothing but corn, beans and steelmills" stereotype, I send my protagonist, photographer Janet MacPhail, to the lakes, rivers, forests, and ravines of the state as well as the cities, small towns, and occasional quirky attractions. (Seriously, have you ever been to a pickle festival?)

The Money Bird, the second book in the Animals in Focus series,
will be set partly in the beautiful lake country of northern Indiana.

I’m also working on a thriller, Rattlesnake Mountain, set in the high desert in and around Reno, Nevada. Most of the Nevada novels I’ve found focus on Las Vegas, a good day’s drive south of Reno, or Lake Tahoe, which sits in the Sierras west of Reno. Great locations, but not the Nevada I hiked and explored for fifteen months. When I think about future books, setting is often one of the first things that comes to mind – where would I like to "live" in my creative mind for the year or more it takes to write the book? And even better, where would I like an excuse to visit for research? Somewhere familiar but overlooked? Somewhere exotic?

Wild horses are my favorite part of the Reno area landscape! Bachelor stallions
in Hidden Valley east of Reno, May 2010.

Which makes me think of mysteries and thrillers with exotic settings. What are your favorites, and why? What makes the unfamiliar work? Here are four of my own favorites:
  • Eliot Pattison’s Inspector Shan series set in Tibet. Chinese Inspector Shan runs afoul of the authorities in Beijing and is sent to a gulag in Tibet, where his eyes (and the readers) were opened politically and spiritually. The books are rich with cultural, geographical, and political information, as well as fascinating characters. http://www.eliotpattison.com/inspector.html

  • Alexander McCall Smith’s three series, but especially the Botswana series featuring #1 lady Detective Precious Ramotswe and her friends. I’ve always been fascinated with Botswana as a country, and the characters take me back to my many African friends in graduate school. One of these days, I’m going on safari! http://www.randomhouse.com/features/mccallsmith/main.php

  • ZoĆ« Ferraris’s series set in Saudi Arabia, featuring Katya Hijazi, a lab worker at the coroner's office who is bold enough to step out of her expected role, and Nayir Sharqi, a pious desert guide whose beliefs are shaken as he works the first case with Katya in Finding Nouf. Ferraris opens a door most Westerners never approach except through misunderstanding and presents the complexities of female-male roles and relations in a very conservative society with knowledge and sensitivity. http://www.zoeferraris.com/about.php

  • Elizabeth Hand’s literary thrillers featuring washed-up, burned-out photographer Cass Neary, an oddly appealing unappealing anti-hero. The books are brilliant, literary, suspenseful, and unputdownable. And the settings! Generation Loss takes places on a creepy little island off the coast of Maine, and the sequel, Available Dark, is set mostly in Iceland. Great reads, fascinating landscapes! http://www.elizabethhand.com/

Please add to my to-read list! What are your favorite mysteries and thrillers in which an unusual setting, or an unusual aspect of a more familiar setting, is essential?

Sheila's dog Jay at an obedience trial, which he finds
exotic enough.
Sheila's mystery Drop Dead on Recall (now available for pre-order), takes place in the exotic world of canine obedience trials and will be out in October! Sheila is also the author of award-winning books about pets, including Rescue Matters! How to Find, Foster, and Rehome Companion Animals (Alpine, 2009), The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting and Owning a Cat (Alpha, 2005), and fifteen others. Sheila's books are available from your local bookseller and on line. Learn more at http://www.sheilaboneham.com or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sheilawrites


Jim Hartley said...

An awful lot of the books I read have settings that simply do not exist. Oz, Middle Earth, Hogwarts ... And when it comes to writing, pretty much the same thing happens. A spaceship loaded with witches lands on a planet of the star Eta Cassiopeia, and damned if they don't name the planet "Oz"! Even the stories set on Earth are usually in some totally made-up city or town ... once in a great while I'll use a real setting, but I'm writing about the people and their actions, I'm not writing a travelogue of NYC or Orlando or wherever ... unless it has a great bearing on the plot of the story. To get a real setting right, unless it's someplace I am intimately familiar with, is a lot of work, and if I get it wrong I'm going to get slammed, so best to just avoid the problem.

Lois Winston said...

I set my current series in an actual town in NJ because it's so much easier to remember locations that way. Like you, I also did so in part to dispel the misconceptions so many people in other parts of the country have about the state. I'd love to send Anastasia somewhere exotic. That way I could travel to the place to do research, and it would be a tax deduction. :-) Unfortunately, the only way Anastasia is going to get to Paris or Tahiti is if she wins the lottery, and if that happens, the series would have to end. So for now, Anastasia is staying put.

Unknown said...

Jim, that's certainly one approach! I suspect, though, that real places inform the creation of made-up places, just real people inform the attributes we give to made-up characters. As I read your comment (which makes me want to fly off to one of those fantastical places!) I think of Dune. Made up? Sure. But based in considerable detail on the deserts and desert cultures of North Africa and the Arab Middle East.

A thought on getting places right and wrong: I think that if we're careful to present a place as the characters experience it, we're pretty safe. Let's face it - no two people experience any place in quite the same way.

Interesting subject for sure! Thanks for commenting.

Unknown said...

Lois - yes, you have the same sort of stereotypes of place to fight as I do.

Leighton Gage said...

Hi Sheila,

You might like to check on these two blogs, both maintained by "international" authors whom you haven't mentioned:


and (my own)


We don't write about our books, or the craft of writing, but rather post about subjects of historical, cultural and human interest in the (often exotic) places in which we set our stories.

Happy Reading!

Beth Groundwater said...

Great post on settings, Sheila! I, too, am a fan of Alexander McCall Smith's series. Many readers tell me that they view the whitewater river setting of my RM Outdoor Adventures series for Midnight Ink as another character of the series, and Salida, Colorado, locals tell me that I "got it right."

Unknown said...

Leighton, thanks for posting the links. Obviously I barely touched the possibilities! Links are good, book/author mentions are good....

Anonymous said...

I lived in Fort Wayne, IN, for a few years so it's not "unusual" to me. My mystery novel is set in Southern Indiana (Evansville). Personally I loved to see books set anywhere besides New York City. Nothing wrong with NYC but it's so overused. I hope you work the Amish into your series, as they're a common sight in Northern Indiana.
Sally Carpenter

Terry Shames said...

Both of Lisa Brachman's novels could serve as tutorials on setting. ROCK PAPER TIGER is set in Beijing. I felt as if I had lived there after I read the book. GETAWAY does the same thing for Puerta Vallarta. I've been there, and she nailed it.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Terry - I agree!

Unknown said...

Reader John Chobot sent me this recommendation privately, and said I could post it: "You should try Arnaldur Indridason's series set in Iceland. The stories (novels, not shorts) grab you and won't let go, and the characters are real, no heroes or villains. First rate writing. And Iceland is very much one of the characters." Thanks, John!

Deborah Sharp said...

Love that Indiana has a pickle fest ... Thanks for the glimpse into a state I don't know much about.

Patg said...

The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill takes place in 1970s Laos. Dr Siri is a major hoot and has a touch of paranormal, but not much. The sense of humor is not to be believed. Love the whole series and all the secondary characters.
How about the moon? A series that is rather old, but I enjoyed, is from Larry Niven. The Long Arm of Gil Gerard. A detective on the moon after is is settled, and he lost his arm, but like a ghost, the arm is still there.

Unknown said...

Patg - thank you! Two new ones I don't know. On my list now!