Thursday, February 18, 2010

When Theme and Setting Intertwine

We at Working Stiffs are thrilled to have the fabulous Nancy Martin visit today! Thanks, Nancy, for joining us!

By Nancy Martin  

A while back, the NY Times said that all mysteries told pretty much the same story. What set one apart from another is the setting.

Do I agree with this opinion? Not entirely, but I like to read about a setting so vivid that it’s becomes a character in the book—one that has an impact on the story and in the end helps illuminate the theme of the book.

With that in mind, let me tell you about winter in Pittsburgh.

First of all, we’ve had enough snow this year that my husband broke down and looked at airfare to San Juan. (He looked, that’s all—didn’t buy!) He snapped when the pile where we toss the snow from the driveway buried the nearby birdfeeder.

The snow is bad enough, but now comes (cue Darth Vadar music) pothole season.

Pittsburgh has more miles of bad road and bridge decks than most cities in the world. Our roads climb steep, icy hills and dead-end at weed-infested vacant lots into which dirty piles of snow are repeatedly plowed. Our valiant road crews spread tons of salt and cinders that eat away at asphalt and concrete so that potholes get a foothold early and then spread like virulent cancer. If you take your eyes off the street for a second--blam!—you can hit a crater the size of your sofa. The guys in the garage laugh as they hoist your car up to look at the damage underneath, but they’re careful to make sure you’re safe when you pull out onto the street again.

Two years ago, it was cheerful laughter in just such a workplace—combined with the pride those tire guys took in their jobs--that got me thinking.

People in Pittsburgh take their work seriously. Hot steel mills aren’t so distant in our past that we can’t put just as much muscle and sweat and commitment into the work we do now. And yet we’re soft-hearted enough to help me with my alignment and Mrs. Donatelli carry her groceries across the icy supermarket parking lot.

Years before we moved here, my husband and I drove our minivan to the city to see a traveling Broadway musical. We had our two tween daughters in the vehicle---all dressed up in their white tights and mary janes. But they had wanted to wear their dress-up coats over their outfits, not warm jackets. We hit a pothole on the highway and immediately knew we had a flat tire. With the wind whipping icy snow against the windshield, we pulled over. As cars whipped by and my husband—dressed in a suit--pulled the jack from the van, I dialed AAA on my cell phone and chivvied the kids out into the snow so the vehicle wouldn’t be too heavy to jack up.

A minute later, a guy wearing a couple of sweatshirts and grease-stained overalls pulled over and insisted on changing the tire for us. While he worked, two more strangers stopped and asked if we needed help. To me, that’s Pittsburgh. Guys who will stop and change a tire in a blizzard for a family of dingalings who didn’t bring their warm coats.

I try to communicate that good-natured, workingclass heroism in my new book, OUR LADY OF IMMACULATE DECEPTION. (Due in stores—egad!—in two weeks!) I’d been struggling for years to figure out what kind of story might best be set in Pittsburgh. I thought long and hard about the social issues I could capture using this setting. What kind of characters would best illustrate the values this city embodies? I came up with tough-talking, hard-working Roxy Abruzzo who runs a salvage business out of her Monster Truck, but also helps friends in trouble—particularly friends who can’t go to the police for justice. She takes the reader on the kind of tour of Pittsburgh that the guidebooks don’t feature.

Does the setting fit the themes of Roxy’s story? I’ll be interested to see if you think I pulled it off. Come back and let me know.

Meanwhile, tell me about other books in which the theme and setting are intertwined. I’m thinking specifically of Richard Price’s LUSH LIFE, a book that captures New York so accurately you feel as if you’re peeling back the layers of the neighborhood just as the characters slowly reveal one nuance after another. And Denise Mina’s Glasgow is vivid in her book THE DEAD HOUR, a story in which the protagonist’s hard won successes at work and in life seem ideally set in that tough city.

What about you? Any books with vivid settings come to mind?

Visit Nancy's wonderful Web site:

Go here to read an excerpt of OUR LADY OF IMMACULATE DECEPTION:

To order an autographed copy of OUR LADY OF IMMACULATE DECEPTION:

Nancy Martin is the author of nearly 50 popular fiction novels, including the award-winning and bestselling Blackbird Sisters Mystery Series. Nancy serves on the board of Sisters in Crime, and was awarded the 2009 Romantic Times Lifetime Achievement Award for mystery writing.


Annette said...

Hi, Nancy! I can't wait for the new book. It sounds great.

Two books with vivid settings come to mind (pre-coffee, that's pretty own name doesn't really come to mind until after my first cup). Julia Spencer-Fleming's Miller's Kill, NY and Chris Grabenstein's Sea Haven, NJ.

One more. Going back a few years and a little less fictional, there was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. That book made me feel like I'd been to Savannah.

nancy martin said...

Annette, I totally agree about MitGoG&E--the theme of corruption hidden in garden-like delights really worked in Savannah! (And if you didn't figure out the theme, the title really hits you over the head with it.) Masterful work.

BTW, people can read the first chapter of my new book here:

Joyce said...

Welcome back to the Stiffs! For those who don't know, Nancy was one of the original Working Stiffs. As a matter of fact, she wrote the very first WS post!

I was going to say Julia Spencer-Fleming, but Annette beat me to it. Nevada Barr does a wonderful job making you feel as if you're in whatever park Anna Pigeon happens to be working in. I'm sure I'll think of more later.

Anonymous said...

Let me say that I've read Nancy's new book and guys are going to love this! And it's definitely not The Blackbird Sisters Redux!

Potholes...hate them. I hit one that cause me to roll my SUV...complete rollover with me ending upright. Luckily no one was in the passenger seat and I walked away. But it total my beloved Bronco II (which was known for rolling over)

Not enough coffee to come up with examples of vivid settings. It one does, I'll be back.

nancy martin said...

Wow, Cyndi, that must have been some pothole to roll over a Bronco!

Paula Matter said...

Welcome, Nancy!

The live link to read the first chapter of Nancy's new book is in her post. It's right above the link where you can order the book. Because once you read the first chapter, you'll want the the whole book!

Jennie Bentley said...

Definitely agree about both Julia Spencer-Fleming and Chris Grabenstein. Elizabeth Peters does Egypt supremely well, and Lillian Stewart Carl nails Scotland. I think Janet Evanovich does a pretty good job on Trenton, too. Of course, I've never actually been there... Tori Carrington really gets Astoria in the Sofie Metropolis books, though; and there I lived for seven or eight years!

Can't wait for the new book, Nancy! (Although I'm kinda sad to see Nora and especially Mick go!)

Dru said...

I was lucky to win an ARC and this book is great and I plan to add this book to my keeper shelf.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Nice to meet you Nancy.

This may seem a little out there, but for me, Sci Fi, Fantasy and even Horror genres seem to capture and interwine theme and setting best.

Of course most of these are ficticious places, but somebody like Tolkien or even J K Rowling did masterful jobs at making the setting seem like characters.

nancy martin said...

Wilfred, thanks for bringing up other genres. You're right.--S/F and fantasy writers are the very best at world-building.

I can't help noticing that the mystery writers here today can talk about setting, but not about theme. C'mon, guys! Let's get the coffee going and brainstorm!

Joyce said...

When I begin writing something, I don't do so with a conscious theme in mind. The theme seems to develop itself as the book goes along. Once I recognize what it is, I can focus more on it in subsequent drafts.

I do think the setting, and even the weather, can bring out a theme even if the writer isn't aware of it. If a book is set in the heat of summer for example, part of the theme could be something 'simmering' under the surface.

Speaking of weather, my word verification is "feezin."

Karen in Ohio said...

Hi, Nancy!

Toni Hillerman's books really bring the Southwest to life for me. And Dick Frances always did a great job of making the horse world real, as well.

Diana Gabaldon, of course, evokes an accurate sense of place and of time.

And then Sarah Strohmeyer and Elaine Viets both do a very good job of giving the feel of steel-town PA and suburban St. Louis, respectively.

ramona said...

I'd like to nominate Louise Penny's Quebec village. Three Pines is a real place, in my mind, thanks to her suburb creative skills. I also ditto any and all praise for Chris Grabenstein, especially today, when the beach sounds fabulous!

The ultimate theme and setting combo, IMO, is the "tired old town" of Maycomb, Alabama, in To Kill A Mockingbird. Maycomb was a character in and of itself.

nancy martin said...

I'm just back from Mystery Lovers Bookshop (where I had a newspaper interview) and the interviewer insisted I pick up a Charlie Huston mystery. My first. Anybody have comments on that? I also grabbed the new Kate Atkinson. I'll have some great reading this weekend--a good thing, since we're supposed to get more sn-----er, wait, I don't want to be the bearer of bad tidings!

Gina said...

If we're including imaginary settings, dare I mention Hogwarts?

Anonymous said...

Hi, Nancy!

I agree with Jennie. Janet Evanovich does a great job with Trenton! Of course, like Jennie, I've never been there. All I know is that after reading a Stephanie Plum novel, I really want to try a Butterscotch Krimpet Tastykake and I have a strong craving for fried chicken.

I also like the descriptive settings of Frank McCourt, Wilkie Collins, Rosamunde Pilcher and Louise Penny.

One more. I can't believe that I almost forgot Sara Paretsky's, Chicago!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hey Nancy! I guess my advance copy of "Our Lady" BLEW OFF THE PORCH or something...luckily I've already pre-ordered from Mystery Lovers Bookshop.

Stephen King, you know? Have you read Duma Key? You're totally there. Stefanie Pintoff did a wonderful job with turn of the century NY in In the Shadow of Gotham. And oh, Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale. The pefect mix of theme and setting.

I confuse myself with setting though--of course my books are in Boston and New England, and there are times when we're driving on the Mass Turnpike and I think--oh, exit 17, here's where Charlie got chased by the guy in the turck.

And then I think no--I made that up.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

I meant--chased by the guy in the TRUCK.

She gets chased by a turck in the next book, maybe.

nancy martin said...

Wait--wait--! Hank, I have 2 ARCs here that were supposed to go to somebody, and the tags--er, well, got lost. Does one of these go to you?? I'm such a frantic mess these days. How come every year when my book is released, it's exactly the same time next year's ms is due??

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh no, kidding kidding..I really have already ordered your book from MLB!

Send the arcs to someone who can make a real difference--maybe, Michelle Obama? Diane Sawyer? Hmmm...who would be your very first choice to love it?

nancy martin said...

Stephen Spielburg?

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

OH, DEFINITELY! You're brilliant.

Jemi Fraser said...

Good post - book sounds great!

I think my favourite novel setting is Pern. Anne McCaffrey creates a world I know, see and feel. I would recognize it in a heartbeat.

Joyce said...

Thanks for being our guest, Nancy. You're welcome to blog here anytime--you don't have to wait for an invitation!