March 14th to 20th: “Is setting just a backdrop, or a key element to your story?”

We talk so much about character and conflict. What about setting? Is it just a backdrop? Or a key element to your story? You don’t want to miss next week’s Roundtable as ITW members D.E. Johnson, Karen Dionne, William Dietrich, Peter James, Bobbye Terry and Norb Vonnegut lead this thrilling discussion!


D.E. (Dan) Johnson‘s literary debut, a historical mystery entitled The Detroit Electric Scheme, was published by St. Martin ‘s Minotaur in September 2010. The sequel, Motor City Shakedown, will be published by Minotaur in September 2011. Dan is a history buff who has been writing fiction since childhood, but had to hit his midlife crisis to realize he should get serious about it.

Detroit native Karen Dionne is the internationally published author of two environmental thrillers, Freezing Point and Boiling Point. She serves on the International Thriller Writers board of directors as Vice President, Technology, and is co-founder of the online writers community Backspace, where she organizes the Backspace Writers Conferences held every May in New York City. Karen is also a member of Sisters in Crime and the Mystery Writers of America.

William Dietrich is the author of thirteen books that have sold into 31 languages, including the Ethan Gage series of historical thrillers. He is a Pulitzer-winning journalist, college professor, and avid traveler.

Peter James is an International best-selling crime thriller novelist published in 34 languages. In addition to early work as Orson Welles’ char, James’ vast experience includes success in TV and film production, as well as over 20 novels. His latest, DEAD MAN’S GRIP, is the seventh in his Detective Superintendent Roy Grace crime series and arrives in late May 2011.

Norb Vonnegut writes financial thrillers and non-fiction commentary (The Huffington Post, Acrimoney) about Wall Street behind closed doors. He has appeared on Bloomberg, Judith Regan, and the Laura Ingraham shows. Top Producer, his debut novel, was a featured pick on Today and one of Smart Money’s seven must-read books for the fall of 2009. His follow-up thriller, The Gods of Greenwich, takes place in the high-rolling world of hedge funds and will be released on April 26, 2011.

Pat Mullan’s recent work has appeared in the anthology, DUBLIN NOIR, published in the USA by Akashic Books and in Ireland and the UK by Brandon Books. You can find his GALWAY NOIR anthology on-line from iPulp Fiction. His latest novel, Last Days of the Tiger, is now available from Athry House Books.  New thrillers coming soon:  Creatures of Habit and Screwed. He is Ireland Chair of International Thriller Writers, Inc.

Bobbye Terry is the multi-published writer of romantic comedy, suspense and fantasy. She also writes under the pseudonym Daryn Cross and with a co-writer as Terry Campbell and has books out or slated for publication through Black Opal Books, Crescent Moon Press, Eternal Press, L&L Dreamspell and Turquoise Morning Press. Buried in Briny Bay, her first mystery novella in a series of four, released on March 7. Her next cozy, Slam Sisters of Serendipity by Terry Cambell, is slated for publication by Eternal Press in June  She is a regular writer for Writers Fun Zone and The Mojito Literary Society and is a member of ITW, RWA, FF&P, Yellow Rose and DARA chapters, Crimespace, and Savvy Authors. For more information, check out her online headquarters.

Latest posts by ITW (see all)
  1. We talk so much about character and conflict.
    What about setting? Is it just a backdrop? Or a key element in your story?

    I am very visual so I see each scene as though I were adapting my novel from a screenplay. As such the setting is an integral part. The key word is ‘integral’. To me, setting and location must cling to the characters like their own clothes. You’ll find a good example of this in Ken Bruen’s work. Galway city is the setting for his Jack Taylor series, commencing with THE GUARDS. Jack Taylor wears Galway like a hairshirt . As such, the city becomes an integral ‘character’ in the story.

    Too often I find that writers describe settings and locations as though they were describing the scene for the local tourist or real estate agency. These descriptions may be very well written but they add no value. Often they simply detract.

    Settings must be skilfully blended so that the reader does not see the writer at work. When the setting is used in an action sequence, it must underline the action and the threat, otherwise it will undermine it. When setting provides a backdrop to good dialogue, it should be used to sharpen the reader’s attention, never deflect it. Beckett’s sparse stage settings are a good, if extreme, example of this: dustbins are the setting for Nagg and Nell in ENDGAME; legless, the dustbins cling to them like body parts.

  2. The Detroit Electric Scheme is a mystery set in 1910 Detroit in the early electric car industry, so in my case the setting informed everything. The characters and the story had to work within the time period, the industry, and the historical record.

    I included dozens of real-life characters in the book, some well known like Edsel Ford and the Dodge brothers, others less so like Detroit’s first mob boss, Vito Adamo, and the 6’4″ 260-pound bouncer at a saloon known as “The Bucket of Blood,” who went by the moniker of “Big Boy.” They were all in this place at this time, so even though they are characters they also become part of the setting. My fictional characters had to be limited in their interactions with these folks to actions that don’t contradict their known history.

    I spent three months just researching the book, so by the time I started writing I had a number of mileposts set. Certain events happened at certain times, which gave me a framework for the story. I just needed to figure out how to fit my story into that framework in the most effective way.

    An example of setting creating story – Detroit Electric, the most successful electric car company in U.S. history, had a huge press that stamped out the one-piece roofs for their cars. When I read about that, I thought, What a great way to kill somebody! And the opening scene of the book was born.

  3. Great comments, Pat and D.E. I especially like Pat’s reference to the setting “must cling to the characters like their own clothes.” You’re right. It needs to be so integrated that you don’t see it as just scenery.

    In the South, setting is often a character in the story, especially when it’s small and populated with quirky citizens. There are a lot of such places out there, believe me, and I’ve lived in my share. Two of my books stand out with regard to the setting and its role in the story.

    Buried in Briny Bay takes place in the fictional town of Briny Bay that I envision as being located on the coast of North Carolina just across from the barrier islands known as the Outer Banks. People there know everyone else and they snoop into everyone’s affairs. Few people live there who haven’t had family residing in the town for generations.
    Briny Bay also lends itself to mystery, because there is a large expanse of water where people can drown and heavily wooded areas where danger can lurk.

    In Coming to Climax, my suspense coming out in September, the small town once again plays a part. Climax is a real town that, for all intents and purposes, has no real town structure. However, in my story I have populated it and grown it beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Here, just as in Briny Bay, citizens are nosy characters. In Climax, there is a group of women who are like the Steel Magnolias. They are the glue that holds the town together and the ladies also provide occasional comic relief.

    Deep in the forest of Central Virginia, Climax also has foreboding landscape for villains to hide in, kidnap from and murder the unsuspecting. Add to that the fact this place gets a lot of rain and your setting takes on an even more dismal scape.

  4. I think “place” is as vital as characters and plot in crime, mystery and thriller novels. The place can be real or fictitious, but without a credible world in which the characters in the books exist few stories can be effective. Perhaps more with crime than any other genre, a real setting is always going to give more impact than a fictional one. Look at how many crime writers have made a place their own, such as James Ellroy’s LA, or Ed McBain’s New York, or Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh.

  5. The Gods of Greenwich is my latest novel. So with a title like that, I’m almost bound to say, “Setting is a key element of the story.” I agree with Peter’s earlier comment that “place is as vital as characters and plot….”

    “Vital” and perhaps inseparable. Bianca Leeser, a character in The Gods of Greenwich, is a romance novelist who regularly quotes Dorothy Parker. I could see someone with similar attributes living in LA, Sydney, or somewhere on the streets of Paris. But she would be somebody else. Greenwich is part of Bianca’s DNA. She is one of my vehicles for taking readers on a ride inside that community.

    I think Pat started us off right with his great observation, “Setting and location must cling to the characters like their own clothes.” Because clothes come off, I would say the link is even deeper. It’s in the genes. Sorry folks, no pun intended.

  6. A writer friend of mine used to say that every word should go to plot, scene, or character. Setting the scene ranks right up there next to storytelling, as far as I’m concerned. An author has to immerse the reader in the scene, so that the reader feels as though they’re actually there – not as though they’re looking at a pretty picture hanging on a wall, or out the window, separated from the action by a pane of glass; the reader needs to feel as though they’re right there with the characters, seeing and hearing and feeling and smelling what the characters are experiencing.

    This is one of the reasons writers choose a setting that they know well, or if they don’t, why they take research trips. For my last novel, I visited an active volcano in Northern Patagonia, Chile that was officially on “Red Alert.” I stayed in the village at the volcano’s base, even though it was ruined during the eruption and was without electricity and running water, and hiked to within one mile of the new lava dome, where I saw steam vents, heard explosions coming from the caldera, and felt a small earthquake. A number of reviews have mentioned Boiling Point’s “vivid detail” – something I honestly don’t think I could have pulled off if I hadn’t gone there.

    I guess that leads to a secondary question, if anyone feels like answering it: how do you research your setting?

  7. I agree with you, Karen. I almost always go to my setting. If I don’t, I solicit a lot of help. For instance, right now I’m lauching a project set in Dallas. I’ve been there many times, but I don’t know it like I do many of my places. I am asking for help from other writers to get the information I need to make my characters fit where they live and work.

  8. Karen, you asked: I guess that leads to a secondary question, if anyone feels like answering it: how do you research your setting? A very brief response because I’m on my way to Clifden to have a couple of pints in our local and watch the St. Patrick’s Day festivities (I’d rather be in New York today ).. Take a look at my thoughts on our great Clifden Arts Week:

    Anyway, I digress! Forgive for the day that’s in it!

    As Bobbye said, I’ve been to many of the locations in my novels but that’s only one aspect of location. Much of one of my last novels was set in Russia (where I’ve not been) . My wife spent some time there teaching English to Russians (as part of an EU sponsored program in Kaliningrad ) and became close friends with a couple of young Russians. One of them vetted my Moscow setpieces – not just to get the location correct but, more importantly, to get the dialogue and action/reaction of the Russians correct. Get the location right, get the local dialogue and people wrong and it doesn’t matter whether the cityscape or hotel booking details are accurate. That will undermine it. Recently I’ve read works written by American authors set in Ireland. Even in the cases where they got the location right, they often got the dialogue and the people wrong.

    OK – happy St.Pat’s to you all,
    Slan, Pat.

  9. Great comments everyone.
    I agree, setting is an integral part of the story.
    The best examples I can think of right now is if Hunchback of Notredame would be just the “the Hunchback” if the setting were not the cathedral. Or the town of Kingsbridge in Pillars of the Earth. Or Texas in Jon Land’s Caitlin Strong series. Or the Cheitén volcano in Karen Dionne’s Boiling Point. The setting is ingrained into the story.

MATCH UP: In stores now!


ThrillerFest XVI: Register Today!



One of the most successful anthologies in the history of publishing!