Setting the Stage

Last week I talked about the importance of setting, including the role it can play in a book and how much thought I generally put into selecting mine.

Today, I’m excited to introduce you to the setting of my current work-in-progress. With this book, I’m going back to my roots, to the state where I was born and raised: North Carolina.

Like the details-obsessed writer I am, I took a vacation to immerse myself in the city of my current work. Ladies and gents, allow me to introduce you to Wilmington, NC.

Wilmington Downtown

That’s a shot of the historic downtown, next to the riverwalk that runs along the Cape Fear River. (I grew up a couple hours upriver.) Like with every Southern city, it’s steeped in history. Founded around 1740, it’s home to 112,000 people, EUE Screen Gems Studios (the largest American television and movie production facility outside of California), and the USS North Carolina, rescued from a scrapyard demise by a slew of devoted North Carolinians.

USS NC battleship

One defining characteristic of Wilmington is its coastal location, beaches only minutes away from downtown. Including this private beach neighborhood, where my characters happen to live in their gorgeous houses with their less gorgeous secrets.

F8 Island beach long

It is on this picturesque beach, complete with tide pools, where a body is found. (Hello, I write mystery. You had to know there’d be a body.) The Find occurs in a spot exactly like the one in the pic below. And by that I mean, this is the spot.

F8 Island beach tidepool

There’s nothing quite like NC beaches. I grew up playing in that sand, splashing around in those waves. (And no, I never encountered a shark.) A NC beach is one of my favorite places in the world, so it felt natural to take people there with my book, to introduce you to the South, NC-style. I can’t wait to share it with you.

F8 Island beach reeds

a little bit of atmosphere

Confession: I’m a sucker for setting.

In some of the best books, the setting or environment can transform into a secondary character, revealing moods, suggesting secrets. And it’s especially important in mysteries. I’ve talked about the Find before, that moment where a character stumbles upon the murdered victim. The specifics of the body’s location can say so much.

But equally important is the larger atmosphere. Big city? Small town? Michigan in the dead of winter? Florida in the heat of summer with alligators roaming around the swamps ready to chomp those big teeth into their next victim? (Ahem. Okay, so I have a thing about alligators. Moving right along…)

There’s a lot to consider when it comes to choosing the right place to set a story, especially a mystery. For me, the most important issues come down to five aspects:

  • Familiarity. Personally, I don’t want to ever write about a place I haven’t visited. Why? Because if someone wrote about my hometown without bothering to visit, I’d be seriously annoyed. I guess it’s a matter of respect, coupled with the desire to truly capture the setting. And I can’t do that without being there, walking around, smelling the air, seeing the landscape. I never know when a small detail could become a major player in my story, some detail I would have been unaware of had I not visited.
  • Plausibility. Does the location have the range of businesses and activities that I want to include? I mean, if I want to have a scene where people go hiking up a mountain, New York City ain’t gonna cut it. Also, could the kind of characters I want to write plausibly exist in this area? For instance, if the story is set in a small town, it’s not likely the police department would have a slew of detectives. (Do people in northern states say “slew”? Speaking of…)
  • Dialect. Is there a specific dialect in the area that I want to capture? And can I do that realistically, without making it read like a verbal caricature? Dialects can add a depth of flavor to a book, but they can also be distracting or even offensive when poorly executed. So if I decide I want to write about an area with a unique dialect, I ensure I know someone who’s familiar with the dialect.
  • Tone. Does the style of the setting match the tone of the book? For instance, if I wanted to write a fast-paced political thriller, I probably wouldn’t set it in a small town with friendly, quirky characters. Sure, there are ways to make the quirkiness of the characters seem dark, so it’s doable, but a better fit would be a larger city.
  • Fiction? The final thing I consider is whether I want to create my own town or community within a region. Obviously, there are pros and cons. Pros: I can put whatever I want in the town and I can use surrounding areas as inspiration, picking and choosing to create my own personalized location. Cons: I don’t get to visit and neither do the readers, and I may miss a chance to highlight an incredible area.

One of the classic pieces of writing advice is to write what you know. And to be honest, some of my favorite books are set in locations the authors knew well, places they had grown up in or had later adopted as their homes. There’s a richness to the way they describe the setting and the people, a believability to the location that grounds the book.

For possibly the first time, I’m taking that advice. (No, I didn’t kill anyone in order to write about it more realistically, although that’s what I think of every time someone tells me to write what I know.)

With my next manuscript, I’m going home. I’m venturing back to the state of my birth, a state I lived in for 24 years. And just last month, I spent a week in the very location where my murdered victim will be found, and I walked past the houses my characters live in, them and all their secrets.

I can’t wait to share the setting with you. Next week I’ll be revealing the city, complete with pictures from my roaming there.

Now it’s your turn to share. If you’re a writer, what helps you decide on a setting? If you’re a reader, what settings do you tend to prefer?