One of the most important aspects of your writing is the setting. You want to accomplish a couple of things when you write about a particular place. First, you want to give your reader a sense of the place you are writing about in a descriptive way that transports them there. There are books I have read that have made me feel that I was experiencing the place even if I hadn’t been there. One of my favorites, To Kill a Mockingbird, made me feel the humidity of Alabama. The Shining gave me a chill through Stephen King’s description of the unrelenting winter around the Overlook Hotel.
There are authors that excel at describing their surroundings. Dean Koontz is especially astute at describing indigenous vegetation in California, where many of his books are set. In his Odd Thomas series, the fictional California desert town of Pico Mundo comes to life and becomes a character in the story.
Koontz is especially good at using setting as a character, but he is also known for over-describing elements of the setting sometimes taking a page to describe a particular type of tree.
Using the familiar:
I have lived in two places over the course of my life. I lived in the city of Syracuse, New York, in the center of the state, for the first 33 years of my life. The city is known for its lakes, its cloudy, rainy weather (second only to Seattle) and its snow. Syracuse and Buffalo, New York are usually contenders for the snowiest cities in the United States each year. The area also has some of the most beautiful summer weather in the country even though there are precious few of those days.
About 22 years ago, I moved to Jacksonville, Florida in a state that has a reputation for beaches, sunshine, tourists and embarrassing news stories. All of those things exist in Jacksonville except for the tourism. The cost of living is low, the weather is beautiful and I haven’t had to shovel snow since we moved.
It makes sense that my first book, Frankly Speaking, featured a main character that grew up in Syracuse and, as an adult, moved to Jacksonville, Florida. I knew both locations very well and used my experience to describe them in the book. This experience gave credibility to the setting.
In my day job, I’m ‘lucky’ enough to travel all over the United States. I travel 45 weeks per year and have been to 46 of the 50 United States. Very often I spend 2-3 months traveling to each location and this has given me the opportunity to explore many U.S. cities and use them as settings or file away details for future stories and books.
When I wrote my second book, Let Me Be Frank, I had the urge to explore the life of one of my secondary characters. Samuel ‘Fat Sam’ Monreaux is an entrepreneur from New Orleans that also settled in Jacksonville. Part of the book involves the main characters driving around the U.S. Gulf Coast with significant action taking place in New Orleans. I had been to New Orleans a couple of times, but not enough to know the area well. This is where the Internet and services like Google Street View came in handy. I was able to get an aerial and street view of the French Quarter’s police headquarters and use it in the story.
Because I travel so much, I’ve started to record interesting places with both my cell phone (as a camera) and a little notebook where I can describe important details like sounds, sights and smells for use in future stories.
How about you? Do you invent locations? Use locations from your own experience? Do you travel and research locations? Please share your tips and tricks.