Ah, New York City. Statue of Liberty, Ground Zero, the smell of exhaust and incessant blare of horns honking, more taxis in a row than floors in the Empire State Building.
Can you see it? Does it bring any visual images to your mind?
How about this?
…the gleaming facades of new high rises and business developments gave way to older, established buildings that were gradually getting facelifts. The area was fondly called Old Town by the locals...
Hilly streets wove past buildings scattered along the roadside. This part of the city was old, the houses and shops plain. The real business of commerce was done in the area where Farraday worked, the other side of the city from this, the original town. This street had a Mom & Pop Convenience Store, a local grocer instead of large chain stores and a no-name hardware store in desperate need of a repairman’s attention. Somehow, this neighborhood had eluded the development overtaking other areas. Branches dangled over the sidewalks; already leaves were starting to collect on the pavement, the red, orange and yellow hues slowly claiming dominance. In the stretches between the buildings bushes pressed against the road. While other cities were defined by steel, cement and man-made structures, this area was distinctly green and ungoverned.
Lara liked driving along these roads. The lush foliage and quiet streets seemed more human than the concrete jungle expanding to the west.
One of the things I’ve looked at, long and hard, is the setting in books and I’ve come to a conclusion. A lot of books skim the setting.
The reason it concerns me is that I’ve started to realize that with a lot of books, whether or not the reader feels there’s a sense of place has more to do with what the reader brings to the table than what the author puts into the book. Face it. Anyone can mention New York, the Statue of Liberty and endless streams of vehicles honking and we start conjuring up mental pictures, gleaned from Law & Order and NYPD Blue repeats. The overwhelming majority of people know a fair bit about NYC and so it isn’t hard for a writer to insert a few token location names and the reader ends up with a strong visual image.
I think it’s when the author writes about a place that’s less known that they’re more likely to get criticized for not giving the book a sense of place.
I’ve been thinking about this for months. The more you write, the more you start reading differently. You analyze the books you read, even if only on a subconscious level, then you find yourself at your desk later, thinking about it.
I think that the authors who do setting exceptionally well are the ones who’ve taken a place they know and love and really made it a character in the books. The automatic one that jumps to mind? Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan books. Well, all of Laura Lippman’s books. I love Baltimore, and a big part of the reason I’ve developed such an interest in that city is because Laura’s love for the city translates through in her work. The city is more than the backdrop, more than a few choice locations and labels inserted to give the books a setting. It lives and breathes and has a life and character of its own.
The other person I consider to be a master of setting is Ian Rankin. (Yeah, yeah, just shush.) Scotland has always had an enormous appeal to me in general, and I fell in love with Edinburgh with the first book. I have never been to Baltimore, but I have been to Edinburgh twice now, and last summer I was freaking people out when I went. Normally I’m pretty obsessive compulsive, and I like to know my itinerary and have my route mapped out. Like I said to Kevin this morning, “I don’t like driving anywhere if I don’t know where I’m going.” (Makes it hard to go new places.) But I stepped off the train at Waverly, had the name of the hotel and knew I’d figure it out when I got there. By the time my travel companion met me at the hotel I had the bus system figured out for getting to and from downtown, with multiple options. I feel at ease in that city, and a big part of the reason is because of how much I’ve gleaned about it in the Rebus books. Kevin and I always say some day, when we can take a month, we’ll go just spend time in Edinburgh.
Sometimes, I wish authors would have the balls to forego the standard advice and instead set their books in lesser known places, but places they love. I just read Alain Mabanckou’s African Psycho, which has its own sense of place, with the story taking place primarily in He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-An-Idiot. In a story that was dark and disturbing on so many levels the wondrous African town names cracked me up. I’ve always been a huge fan of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I just got Peter Temple’s The Distant Shore, and I’m looking forward to Toni McGee Causey’s Bobbie Faye’s Very (very very very) Bad Day, which is set in Louisiana. Why? Because it’s someplace different. I’m tired of the same-old, same-old. Tired of books and TV shows set in NYC and LA. I want to recapture that feeling I had, reading my first Rebus book, that I could close my eyes and see this place, that it felt so familiar to me just from reading the book that I knew it. I got that sense when I read Bill Cameron’s Lost Dog and when I read Anne Frasier’s Pale Immortal. It was so refreshing to read about new places.
The setting for Suspicious Circumstances was one thing I struggled with. I was unhappy about the pressure to move the book to a US setting. One thing I realized was that if I tried to represent an actual place I hadn’t been to I would definitely get it wrong, so I followed the Lake Wobegon approach, and fictionalized a town, referenced it off real places but tried to make it vague enough that nobody could put a finger on a map and say it was a substitute for any actual real place.
Despite my google searches, my attempts to get professional contacts in the area and input from a friend familiar with the area (the one who recommended the setting to me for that book) I made a technical mistake. I just heard about it Monday. I’m not surprised, but this strengthened an already strong resolve within me:
I want to set my work in a place that lives and breathes for me.
So… The current book I’ve been working on is titled What Burns Within. And it’s set in the Greater Vancouver Area (GVA), specifically the Tri-Cities: Port Moody, Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam. Anybody heard of Port Coquitlam? Maybe something about a pig farmer?
That isn’t why I picked that setting. I picked this setting because I used to live at, essentially, the crossroads, where New Westminster, Burnaby and Coquitlam intersect. From my balcony I could see the Fraser River and into Coquitlam. We spent the majority of our time in Coquitlam and Port Moody. Oh, how we loved to walk at Rocky Point, even at risk of encountering bears, cougars and coyotes. Coquitlam Centre was our favourite mall, hands down. They have a great sandwich shop in the food court. Although I’m not supposed to eat sandwiches I couldn’t resist the place.
(Sunset off our balcony when we lived in New Westminster - this is Twitch's place in Fucked Again. And yeah, it was suitably sleazy for him...)
(Above two photos both taken at Rocky Point park, in Port Moody. The park wraps around the Burrard Inlet.)
My close friends used to live in the same building as us, then moved to Port Moody. Now they’re in Port Coquitlam. This is 100% where I hang out when I visit the lower mainland, and if Kevin had a transfer back there… well, I love Alberta, but I love BC differently. I spent more than six years living in BC, both on Vancouver Island and in the GVA, and I love going back there. It’s a place that has it’s own pulse.
Plus, with my friend Steve being on the New Westminster Fire Department, I hear all kinds of stories. Steve’s wife, Alison, is a nurse, so between the two of them they can keep me suitably disgusted and put me off my dinner any night of the week, although since I started writing crime fiction I’ve been able to hold my own a bit better. When we’d hang out I always felt ganged up on, because Kevin was in the military, he’s a qualified social worker and worked at a mental hospital, and now with the fire department he’s seen his share of wild stuff.
But I digress. I just have so much passion for the GVA. The longer I live here, the more I miss BC.
Someone asked me recently if I would ever set a book here. Maybe. Probably not until I move away, though. I think the distance gives you perspective. In one respect, I’m just like Cornelia Read’s protagonist from her Edgar nominated debut: “There are people who can be happy anywhere. I am not one of them.”
But sometimes, for just a few hours I can be happy in a new place in a book.