Friday, April 19, 2013

Setting...Local or Widespread?

By Chester Campbell

When deciding where to set a novel, an author has a choice of restricting the story to a single locale or spreading it across a wider tapestry. There are several factors to consider in making the selection. Sticking to a single location, which is one of the hallmarks of cozies, has the advantage of requiring a minimum of research. If you are like me and choose the city where you've spent most of your life, it's an easy choice.

My seven books in two mystery series featuring PI's are set primarily in Nashville. Since I've spent most of my 87 years here, it makes describing the locale simple. During the early part of my writing life, I was a newspaper reporter or a local magazine editor, giving me total familiarity with the area. The city has changed considerably in recent years, but I've watched it grow and develop. When I need to, I do a drive-by in a particular area to check out recent changes.

The first two books in the Greg McKenzie series are set only partly in Nashville. The first takes place also in the Holy Land, which I had just visited before I started writing. The second starts in Nashville and then goes to Perdido Key and the Pensacola area. Part of it was written at my brother's condo on Perdido Key, which my wife and I visited twice a year.

Both of my Sid Chance PI stories are set in the Nashville area. But I didn't start out locating books in my home town. My first novels were a trilogy of post Cold War political thrillers. I spread the action across the map.

Research is a major consideration when choosing a widespread setting. Getting an unfamiliar area right can be a problem. I set the first two books mostly in locations I was familiar with.

Star Ferry in Hong Kong Harbor
The first involved the Great Smoky Mountains, an area I tromped about many times in my younger days; Washington, D.C., which I had visited many times on business, and Hong Kong, where I spent several days during a Far Eastern tour. I had made several visits to other American cities used in the story. Brief scenes were set in Vienna, Austria, Tel Aviv, Israel and the island of Cyprus. I used tour books and online research to provide sufficient background for those.

Seoul Subway
A large part  of the second book takes place in South Korea. My familiarity there came from a tour in Seoul during the Korean War, plus a visit to the modern city while on the Far East tour mentioned above. That trip also provided several days in Chiangmai, Thailand, which I also featured in the book.

The third book, written in 1993 but never published, will be out next month. Overture to Disaster required the greatest amount of research, since much of it is set in areas I had never visited. A portion of it takes place in Mexico, mostly in the area of Guadalajara. I had been to Mexico City and taken a bus tour from there to Acapulco, so I knew the countryside fairly well. To get the flavor of Guadalajara and Lake Chapala to the south, the number one destination for retired U.S. servicemen, I corresponded with the editor of a retiree newspaper. She provided loads of helpful information.

The second area was a small community in the Zagros Mountains of northwestern Iran. I chose it after reading a book about Army Special Forces that told how U.S. soldiers became heroes to the locals in the wake of a deadly earthquake. That was during the Shah's reign in the late seventies, but the people still would have viewed American soldiers with fondness.

The home of a character who was an investigator for the Minsk prosecutor proved the most challenging area to portray. The time was shortly after breakup of the Soviet Union and formation of the new Commonwealth of Independent States. Things were changing in the capital of the Republic of Belarus. I corresponded with an attache at the American Embassy there who provided me with answers to all my questions, including political conditions and locations of various government offices. 

The important thing in spreading your setting around the globe is to do everything possible to get it right. So far I've had no problem with readers taking potshots at my descriptions. What's your take on how to handle unfamiliar settings?

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1 comment:

Morgan Mandel said...

I've used Chicago and its environs in some of my books, since that's my area, and I know it best.

Scottsdale is also a setting for recent books. I was able to incorporate much about that setting after a few visits there.

When venturing into unfamiliar territory for a book, I'm able to get details from the Internet without making a visit. That's a bit more tricky, because I need to check more than one source to be accurate.

Settings are important, because the action has to take place somewhere!

Morgan Mandel