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 include 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 might be a larger city.
  • Fact or 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?


  1. Jennifer Zarifeh Major
    Jul 09, 2015 @ 21:51:09

    The setting was part of the story from minute one. Since the prison camp was in New Mexico, that’s where we’ll be!


    • halee
      Jul 09, 2015 @ 21:53:17

      Keeping it true to history. I like it!


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