Friday, June 05, 2009

Location, Location, Location!

by Jennie Bentley

As you read this, I’m on my way to sunny Saint Augustine, one of my favorite places in the whole world.

Saint Augustine is the oldest town in the US, founded in August 1565, forty-two years before Jamestown and fifty-five years before the pilgrims settled on Plymouth Rock. There’s so much history there—from the first free community of ex-slaves in the country, Fort Mose, and the Castillo de San Marco, to the Fountain of Youth and the Spanish Quarter. And that’s without even mentioning the ghosts. Or the beaches. Or the birds and dolphins and manatees. Or alligators.

I’ve always thought it would make a great setting for a series of books. I even went so far as to pitch a ghost story/mystery idea to my agent once. She picked another idea she wanted me to work on instead, but I haven’t forgotten about it. While I’m waiting for the time to be right, I’m enjoying Nancy Haddock’s vampire series, set in Saint Augustine. If you haven’t yet tried La Vida Vampire and the sequel, Last Vampire Standing, get thee to a bookshop. I intend to get Nancy to autograph me a copy while I’m on vacation, since she lives there.

Setting has always been a very important part of a book to me, both books I like to read and books I write. My favorite books aren’t set just anywhere, they’re set somewhere specific. If the locale changed, the book wouldn’t be the same. That’s the way it ought to be, I think. The setting becomes almost like a character, playing its own part in the story.

I’m partial to ‘real’ settings, with ‘real’ history attached to them. In the first book I wrote, A Cutthroat Business, the setting is East Nashville. I live here, and I wanted to write about what I know. I changed some of the street names, since I don’t want anyone to come knocking on my door to complain, but I know exactly where things are. Savannah’s apartment is on the corner of Fifth and Main, and I know what she’s looking at when she looks out her window in the morning. The decrepit house in the book—the one where the body is found—is based on this one, called the Ambrose House, in Historic East End. (I’ve been looking at for long enough to know what it looked like before someone sunk a million dollars into fixing it up. It's an events venue, and if it weren't so danged expensive, I might just have my release party there...)

Waterfield, Maine, on the other hand—the setting for the DIY-books—is a fictional place. It’s located about 45 minutes up the road from Portland, on the coast, but it doesn’t exist. It’s more a conglomerate of every small town I’ve ever seen, with the landscape I grew up with. Dark pine trees and white birches, a craggy coast dotted with rocky islands, and a Main Street made up of turn-of-the-last-century Victorian commercial buildings. Waterfield’s history is the history of downeast Maine, and if Waterfield was located somewhere else, the series would be different.

While I enjoy reading about ‘real’ settings, though, some of the best locales out there are the fantasy kind. And I mean that literally. The Harry Potter books, with their alternate universe, away from prying muggle eyes. Tamora Pierce’s Pebbled Sea and the countries surrounding it, steeped in ambient magic. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, taking place on planets like Barrayar and Komarr and Beta Colony and Jackson’s Whole. Or if sci-fi doesn’t count—the earth is mentioned once or twice, so it’s not technically fantasy, I guess—Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion series. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. (Flat, carried on the backs of four elephants standing on the shell of a giant turtle, inhabited by dwarves and trolls, vampires and werewolves. And people. Strange people.)

So what about you? Do you care about setting? If you write, do you make setting an integral part of your work, or could your book be set anywhere and not really miss much by it? (That’s just fine, and works well for some types of books.) As a reader, does it matter to you where the book is set, or is one place pretty much like another? Do you have a favorite locale? Or a favorite author you think nails the setting for his/her books?

I’ll only be around in the morning today, so play nicely amongst yourselves, please, but I’ll check back over the weekend, in case there are any questions I have to answer.

Till next time!


Joyce said...

I think setting is very important.

My first book is set in the Pittsburgh area, but I did create a fictional township so I had more leeway and could move things around.

My second is set in Gettysburg. I had to create a farm near a portion of the battlefield where some of the story takes place.

My WIP takes place in the fictional town of Spite, West Virginia. I think the name says it all.

I find it much easier to describe a place I made up. With real places, I'm always worried someone won't like the description, or I get it wrong somehow.

Jennie Bentley said...

Spite, WV, is great, Joyce! Yes, the name says it all. Is that the story with the red-headed bombshell police secretary? I love it already!

The funny thing about real vs. imagined, is that unless someone is familiar with 'your' area, they're not going to know whether the place is real or not. But if you describe it well enough, to someone unfamiliar with the geography, they'll take your word for it that it's there, and it becomes real! (Until someone comes along and says, "Sorry, Charlie, there's no farm on the southwest corner of Gettysburg..." of course!)

Joyce said...

Yes, that's the one with the police secretary protagonist.

If book #2 ever gets published, I plan on putting a big, fat Note To The Reader at the beginning because I know some people won't like me changing anything to suit the story.

Have a nice vacation, btw!

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Have a great time basking in the sun, Jennie. I've been to St. Augustine once and I remember it was my fav on the east coast of FL.

My first book, the primary setting was near Yellowstone National Park. I picked it mainly for the geology. Technically it fit beautifully with the plot. The more I researched it, the more I want to go there.

My second book doesn't focus on a particular setting, just in the New Jersey/New York area.

The suspense I'm beginning to work on needs a home. Setting will be more important. I need a city with a midsize Asian (Chinese in particular) population. New York doesn't fit, but San Fransico keeps bubbling up in my mind. I even thought about placing it here in St. Louis, but It's not clicking. I even thought maybe Hawaii. I'm sure it's been done to death, but San Francisco fits all the criteria.

Jennie Bentley said...

Good idea, Joyce. Always safeguard!

Will, do you know Kelli Stanley? She lives in San Francisco, and just sold the first couple of books in a historical series to St. Martin's Press. The first deals with Chinese-Japanese relations in the 1940s. Very interesting stuff. If you need a go-to person, talk to her!

Dana King said...

Setting can be critical to a book, and can always enhance the story by providing a tone for the voice, and a basis for the background characters. (Manner of speech, ethnicity, etc.)

I set my first (unsold) novels in Chicago, as I lived there when I started writing. (I am not blaming Chicago for their lack of succes.) My current WIP is in a fictional town near Pittsburgh that is, geographically, identical to the three small cities where I grew up. I incorporated them into one created a unique backstory, but all the people and food and habits are Western Pennsylvanian. Just the name of the town--and the events--are fabircated.

Jennie Bentley said...

Thanks for checking in, Dana! Looks like most of us fall into the category of picking a real place and then adding what we need to it. Or maybe that should be that we create a fictional place and put it in a real one...

I'm shutting down and heading out, folks. The car is packed and the road is calling. See y'all next time!

PS - My word verification is happitse. Sounds about right!

karen in Ohio said...

Wil, I don't know if this will help, but Seattle also has a large Asian population.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I didn't know that Karen. Actually Seattle would be an intriguing location.


Annette said...

Jennie, tell Nancy Haddock that I said "Hi!" We used to be critique buddies before she made the big time. ;-)

queenofmean said...

To me, the setting is important. It kind of rounds out the whole package. Not just the city with neighborhoods & streets, but the people themselves. How they live, what's important to them, what they eat, what they do with their leisure time, etc. It's the finished background that gives the story depth.
Enjoy your trip. I've never been to St. Augustine, but it sounds like the type of place I'd enjoy visiting.

Jennie Bentley said...

I'm back, for a minute, from a Hampton Inn in Macon, GA. Stopping for the night so as not to overload the kiddies.

Karen in Ohio, thanks for helping Will!

Annette, I will certainly say "Hi!" to Nancy, and give her a hug, too.

And Queen of Mean, I defy anyone not to fall in love with St. Augustine. I don't like tropical stuff, heat, sun, sand, big bugs, usually, but I love the place, and if I do, I think pretty much everyone would!

Patg said...

My travel agent books are set in Portland OR. I think setting is important as a steady and standard backdrop, however it bores me silly to read pages, even paragraphs of description for everything from the kids of bricks used in the building to the surrounding flower beds.
Yes, to begin with this is necessary to a degree, but as the story progresses it should deminish, so that by the end--NO descriptions of surroundings.
As you can imagine, I skim a lot.