My friend, Paula, and I are buddy-reading Julia Spencer-Fleming’s newest mystery, The Evil Days. Fleming’s books are as much character driven as plot driven, which we both love. For me, that’s what distinguishes a literary mystery from a straighforward mystery. That, and the use of language. But the other reason we love the series is Millers Kill, the location of the stories–a town in the Adirondack region of upstate New York.
In the best books, settings become integral to the storyline. If the author picked up her characters and dropped them somewhere else, the whole tone of the story would change. Sharyn McCrumb wrote mysteries about the Appalachia region with its folklore and traditions. She took the same coast as Fleming, but painted it with a Southern voice and got an entirely different feel. Martha Grimes named her novels after English pubs, and Elizabeth George nailed the tone of the English mystery and Scotland Yard. P.I.s walk the “mean streets” of big cities–like New York, Detroit, or L.A. When I think about V. I. Warshawski, I think about Chicago. They’re almost synonymous to me.
Fantasy writers have always had to create a world for their characters to inhabit, and the more real the world–whether it’s dystopian or imaginary–the stronger the series. In Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels novels, Andrews gives us a world where magic and technology clash with each other. Sometimes, magic rules and technology goes down. Other times, technology hums along and magic recedes. That creates an interesting challenge for her heroine, who uses magic, but knows that sometimes, her energy will surge, and sometimes, she’d be better off with a weapon. All urban fantasy writers take a world, much like ours, and people it with supernatural characters. The trick is defining the rules for each supernatural and staying true to those rules. Some writers only let vampires roam when the sun sets. Others let them sparkle. If they can make it believable and consistent, it doesn’t matter.
I’m always happy when a setting becomes almost a character in the stories I write. It doesn’t always happen, but it did in the Babet/Prosper novellas. River City is loosely based–and I do mean loosely–on a trip I made to New Orleans. That city had an essence I haven’t experienced anywhere else. I wanted to incorporate that feeling in my writing, especially since I wanted to have witches, voodoo, and succubi treading its nooks and crannies. Faith Hunter cranks New Orleans up even more to give her Jane Yellowrock series its gritty feel.
Emerald Hills came alive for me in a completely different way. In my mind, it takes place in Nashville, Indiana–with I.U. and Bloomington close by, the Brown County national park a stone’s throw away, and wineries within corking distance. I could picture the quaint, unique tourist shops, but those can be found many places. What makes Emerald Hills special is the magic that seeps into the bonbons, shoes, and garden gnomes that are sold. When I write those novellas, I can almost picture Tinkerbell’s magic dust sprinkled over this shop owner or that.
Some stories are universal. They can take place anywhere. The characters and plots are enough to carry them. But I always love it when a setting sticks in mind–a place so real, I want to return to see what’s happening there. It’s something to consider when you start your next book.