Monday, June 20, 2011

The Scene of the Crime

Lowell, Massachusetts is full of grit and pride. Once a thriving mill city, it fell on hard times and bounced back again. It has a network of canals that used to float barges that took cotton to the mills and left with bolts of cloth. In the early 1900s perhaps a dozen ethnic groups toiled there, each living in its own neighborhood. Asians came along starting in the 1980s, adding flavor to the stew. Wang Laboratories was a big presence in the city once, and it played a role in attracting Asians to the area.
A Cambodian strip mall in Lowell 

Many of the neighborhoods are old, and if they aren’t necessarily run down, the shine is off the paint. There are plenty of multifamily dwellings including three-and four-deckers, with small shops on the corner selling cigarettes and lottery tickets. Over a couple of years, a storefront might go from being the Happiness Restaurant to Uncle Fred’s Used Appliances to Casa de Dios with a large purple cross painted over the door. The neighborhood called The Acre is one of the city’s toughest, and it’s been a haunt for my characters in both Getting Lucky and Little Mountain.

My research included a police ride-along, a citizen police program, a visit to the county morgue, even a day helping a group of volunteers clean out the canals. Lots of strange things get thrown into the canals, including everything from trash to stolen goods to dead bodies. On downtown Merrimack Street, I ate lunch at a Cambodian restaurant where the waiter took my order and went back to cook it. He was the owner and the only employee.

Not all of the interesting detail I observed has made it into my fiction, nor will it. Lowell is a nicer city than my brief description suggests, but it is a fine venue for fictional miscreants.

How important is the setting for other mystery writers? I’m sure this varies from one tale to the next. Do you find it important to get the details right, or is the plot all that really matters?

I hope you’ll visit all the great blogs on my tour. Please post a comment for a chance to win an ebook or signed paperback copy of one of my novels. And thanks for visiting!


Morgan Mandel said...

Setting is important to a novel. The author needs to decide exactly how true to life to make it. Some of us make up fake streets and phony towns so nobody gets upset if a murder happens to happen there.

If you're describing a real spot in a real town, it's a good idea to at least get that description right, or readers will catch that.

Morgan Mandel

Marian Allen said...

Some mysteries could be set anywhere, but some are dependent on the setting. All, in my opinion, are richer if the setting is integral to the story. That canal in Lowell, with its wealth of detritus, is not only an interesting detail, but the full of possibilities for all kinds of plot points.

I love it when a mystery gives me a strong sense of place, whether it's Chicago or St. Mary Mead.

Marian Allen
Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

Maggie Toussaint said...

I view setting as a character. As such, I like to make sure I understand its flaws and strengths, and I use them to put my protagonist at cross-purposes to his/her goals. Sounds like you know Lowell, Mass. really well and I'm sure it shines in your story.

Nice post!

Helen Ginger said...

Fake settings give the writer a lot of leeway, but s/he still needs to map out the city or town. The book I'm working on is set in a real city. Even if you know the city, you sometimes have to do a bit of research on it.

Bob Sanchez said...

I had one of my characters jogging along a street, and a friend in my writers' group who knows the city very well reminded me that the street goes slightly uphill at that point. He lives and breathes the city, and wanted me to get it right.

Cheryl said...

Great article, Bob. I live in Massachusetts, but I don't think I've been to Lowell more than once in the 40+ years that I've lived here.

I'm not a mystery writer; though it is one of my favorite genres to read. In my stories I've used real settings and fake ones, but I feel most comfortable using areas I know something about. I'm particular about getting it right too, so if I know something of the area it truly helps.

Best of luck on your tour.


Turning the Clock Back said...

Too funny! I recenly read a book that stated 'all people, places, etc are fiction' but the author included the names of schools, streets, etc that are right here in my home town! I thought that was wild!

Mark Haile said...

I've heard great arguments over whether to use a real location or create a 'fake' city that both have valid points. Interesting that you would post about Lowell and not mention their most famous literary son, Kerouac--who they initially disavowed. The ways in which economically depressed towns try to re-invent themselves --as Lowell has-- can add a lot to the setting as character (and fuel for plots/subsplots).

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Wish I could've gone into space for my research!

terri.forehand said...

Setting is vital to hooking the reader and providing a backdrop for the action. I have trouble with setting sometimes either putting in too much and distracting from the action or too little making it confusing for the reader to relate. I clearly have much to learn.

LH said...

The setting is the most expressively silent character in a book or story!

Holli said...

I think setting is important in all novels to the extent the reader should be able to visualize what is happening, but more so in novels where the setting plays a role.

I skim over books with too much description of setting, but feel unsatisfied if I have to guess what the area looks like. It's a difficult balance to achieve.

I use my own city, New Orleans, as the backdrop in my series, and a lot of the places I write about are real places you can visit, but I do make up some places--I wouldn't want to get sued for putting a murder in a real place.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Very good article, Bob. I always write about places where I've been at least once and use MapQuest and Google Earth to zoom in on certain areas to make sure I'm accurate in my descriptions, but like Holli, I don't like lengthy descriptions when I'm writing about an area, or reading it someone else's book.

Bob Sanchez said...

I don't like large blocks of description. Much better if you can weave in the details, and people are more likely to read it if action is mixed in.

Cheryl, did you know that Lowell has an urban National Park? I think it's the only one in the country. Lots of history in the old mills and canals.

Mark, Lowell is certainly Kerouac's city. He's one of a number of colorful characters to come out of that burg.

Terri, we all have a lot to learn.

Alex, I can picture you having a nice chat with HAL.

Bob Sanchez said...

Jean, I read several Sue Grafton novels and enjoyed them until I came to one that had a large, dense block of exposition that stopped me cold. I tried on two separate occasions to get past it, but never did.

Holli, New Orleans is where I was born, though I haven't been back in ages. What a wonderful setting for any kind of fiction!

Helen, I found it useful to personally explore the city and walk around in it. You can't know too much about a place.

Bob Sanchez said...

Congrats to Maggie Toussaint, winner of the virtual door prize. Actually, only the door is virtual. The prize is a real copy of Little Mountain.

Heidiwriter said...

I believe setting is very important in any writing. It helps put the reader into the story even better.

Farrah from The Book Faery Reviews said...

How difficult is it to ask to tag along with the police for research? Are they usual very open to it?