Friday, June 3, 2011

Setting as Inspiration

Focusing on the setting of a book can add layers of depth. Sometimes, it's as if the setting is another character. You don't have to live there, but visiting is definitely a help. So is having someone who does live there who can answer questions, from what trees line the streets to what color the deputy sheriff's uniforms are.

It's important to be accurate with your setting. I lived in Florida for over 3 decades, in Miami and in Orlando. They're both Florida, but each has its own flavor. However, sometimes, I think authors simply want a place to plunk their characters, and they might do some rudimentary research. Google Maps can get you down to street level. You can research sunrise and sunset times, and what constellations will be visible in the night sky on any given day. But what any reference source can't give you is what it feels like to be there.

I've read numerous books set in Florida that totally ignored the climate. Trust me, the Florida climate is NOT to be ignored. For at least nine months of the year, simply walking from your front door to the street is enough to film your body in sweat. Then, there are the 3 PM thunderstorms for at least half the year. Leaving things like this out of a book will misplace the trust of reader familiar with the area. If they can't trust you to get the setting right, how much else will they not be willing to accept.

When I moved to Colorado a year ago, the change from central Florida was monumental. And, being new, I had a heightened sensitivity to the nuances of the terrain and climate. There's the altitude. Cooking pasta or boiling an egg is a totally new experience. Living in the mountains means your vehicle is covered with red dust—or mud if it's rained.

It was only logical to incorporate what I was learning about my new home into a new book by making the heroine a transplant as well. Because she's sensitive to the different environment, it's logical for her to share this information with the readers, so they can pick up on the flavor of the setting.

DANGER IN DEER RIDGE is set in a fictional town that just happens to be very much like where I'm living, but I definitely didn't want to set it specifically in my town. It's much easier to manipulate things you need to include in scenes if you're not locked into well-known landmarks. For example, if my characters go into a local restaurant and I need something on the menu that the "real" restaurant doesn't have, I can add it to my "similar" restaurant's menu. If I need a few more shops, I can create them. And I don't worry about getting the streets right.

Not to say that setting books in real places doesn't have its own advantages. Michael Connelly and Robert Crais write about Los Angeles, and I enjoy trips down memory lane when I read them.

Just remember, setting should go beyond landscapes, shops, streets and temperatures. It includes the types of people your characters will run into. How they dress, how they talk. The local population here bears little, if any, resemblance to that of central Florida. And even though these characters might only populate the background of a book, they're going to add to that sense of place.

Terry Odell writes romantic suspense. Her latest series, featuring the covert ops team of Blackthorne, Inc., includes When Danger Calls, Where Danger Hides, and Danger in Deer Ridge. Visit her website, her blog, or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.


Terry Odell said...

Just letting you know I'll be away from my computer most of today, but I'll respond to comments when I return.

And if you want to see some photos that might inspire settings, you can check my blog, Terry's Place.

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Laurin Wittig said...


Excellent topic! I have to find my story's setting/place before I can even begin to imagine who might live there and what their story might be. For me, place comes first and it's always an important character in my stories.

Ann Cory said...

Excellent post and I love your cover :)

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Hi Terri: Being a native Floridian, I have to take issue about "6 months of afternoon rainstorms". I hate them because I have to turn off my desktop and go to my laptop (on batteries), and I'm afraid of lightning. But I count the weeks. It's generally only 3 months. After that, our wonderful fall weather rolls in, and this spring we had a really cold spell in late May. You are so right about bringing the flora, fauna, and climate in to authenticate the story. BTW, love the cover of Danger in Deer Ridge. I love those guys.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Setting becomes an important "character" in any novel.
And as you point out, authenticity is vital.

Terry Odell said...

Laurin -- putting the same characters in a different setting would end up being a different book, wouldn't it?

Ann - glad you like the cover. Those pictures were taken where I live. As a matter of fact, the deer was in our front yard.

Joyce - I lived in Florida (Miami and Orlando) and while the storms weren't every day (hyperbole is a writer's friend), the threat was there for about half the year. I don't know where you lived, but we had very little of what you're calling wonderful fall weather. We had summer and February third. :-)

Glad you liked the cover.

Jacqueline - most certainly. Things don't happen in a vacuum.