where the writers are
Getting the Setting

Right now, we're experiencing the change seasons, something that was so subtle in Orlando, that I always said there were two seasons there: Summer and February 3rd. But as I type this, I'm looking out the window at the aspen trees.

They've been going from green to gold over the last week, standing out in stark contrast to the dark green pines. Not long ago, they were just getting their leaves.

Setting. I love being in the book with the characters. I may not have ever been to that location, but I want to think that if I ever did visit that locale, it would feel like I'm coming back to somewhere I've been.

When we left Los Angeles for Miami back in the dark ages, the television show CHiPs was popular. (Note-I didn't say it was good). We watched it primarily to get glimpses of the city we'd just left. We also laughed at the way Ponch and John would bike from San Pedro to the San Fernando Valley in a matter of minutes.

Other television shows claim to be set in one city, while they're actually filmed somewhere else. I started writing fanfiction based on the Highlander television series, which was supposed to be set in the Seattle area, but was filmed in Vancouver (simplification here, because by contractual arrangements, they also filmed a number of episodes in Europe). At any rate, the city was known as "Seacouver" – at least to fans.

Regardless, if you're familiar with the alleged setting of a show, it's likely you'll recognize the stock shots as realistic, while things like buildings, sky (Los Angeles rarely has bright blue skies), and local flora might give away their actual whereabouts.

In a book, if I'm familiar with the setting, I love following the characters. That's half the reason I devour Michael Connelly's books set in Los Angeles. I'm right there at the Farmer's Market with Harry Bosch.

If you're writing a book set outside your normal domain, what do you do? You can go to Google maps and get street images. I did this for one of my books where I needed to get a character from point A to point B, and wanted to make sure the streets actually went there. But what about the flavor of the location?

If a book is set in Florida, I darn well expect there to be references to the climate. It's a major player in the lifestyle there. True, buildings are air conditioned—but what happens when a character steps outside? Instant steam bath. Are wardrobes climate appropriate? How does your heroine deal with the frizzies?

For Finding Sarah, I created a town in Oregon, set outside Salem. I'd visited there, and had the good fortune to have a cooperative sister-in-law who would set me straight on things like what trees would be blooming in May when Sarah walked down Main Street. I checked the Farmer's Almanac for the right constellations.

I set Nowhere to Hide in Orlando, and made use of a lot of places I'd visited to add depth to the story. I also made sure that it took my characters the right amount of time to get from one place to another. What's in a Name? went from the mountains to Chicago to just outside Champaign. I'd been to the mountains, and knew enough to make the first scenes realistic. My daughter went to school in Champaign-Urbana and lived near where my characters ended up. I'd visited, and could ask her for help. For the Chicago settings, I asked a fellow RWA chapter member who used to live there. In Hidden Fire, Randy and Sarah went to Arcata and Eureka. I'd been to both places, and used my experience plus a little extra Googling of a campus map to make sure things were as accurate as possible for Sarah's campus tour.

For the manuscript I'm working on now, I'm using all my new experiences in this mountain community. I'm drinking it up, and actually have to cut back, because although setting is important, it shouldn't dominate the story (unless you're writing something where the setting IS the story, of course). So when I see great characters, or overhear great lines, I have to make sure they're not going to upstage my hero and heroine.

But, I'm still trying to work in what I overhead when we were out for coffee one Sunday… "Hey, how's the cow birthing going?" That's something you don't hear in Orlando!

What are your thoughts on setting? Do you like it? Are you bothered by "mistakes?" Do you enjoy lots of description, or does it bog down the story?