February 18 – 24: “Location, location, location…”

In real estate they say there are only three important things when buying a house: location, location, location. “Is the location of a novel as relevant?” Join ITW Members Jeffrey J. Mariotte, Jennifer Moss, Heywood Gould, Julia Pomeroy, Linda O. Johnston, Ralph Pezzullo, Lori Armstrong and Robert S. Levinson to find out!

Robert S. Levinson is the bestselling author of nine prior crime-thriller novels. His short stories appear frequently in Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock mystery magazines. He is a Derringer award winner, Shamus award nominee, has won the Ellery Queen Readers Award recognition three times, and is regularly included in “year’s best” anthologies. His nonfiction has appeared in Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Written By Magazine of the Writers Guild of America-West, Westways, and Los Angeles Magazine. He has served four years on Mystery Writers of America’s (MWA) national board of directors, as well as wrote and produced two MWA annual “Edgar Awards” shows and two International Thriller Writers “Thriller Awards” shows.

Linda O. Johnston’s first published fiction appeared in ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE and won the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for Best First Mystery Short Story of the year. Since then, Linda has published more short stories, plus 33 romance and mystery novels, including Harlequin Romantic Suspense as well as the Alpha Force paranormal romance miniseries for Harlequin Nocturne. Linda’s Pet Rescue Mysteries, a spinoff from her Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime, feature Lauren Vancouver, a determined pet rescuer who runs a no-kill shelter. In this cozy series, “no-kill” refers to pets, not people!

Julia Pomeroy was born in Okinawa, and spent her childhood in Benghazi, Mogadiscio, and Rome. At nineteen, she came to the States and worked as an Italian interpreter and an actor, eventually going back to school and graduating from Columbia with a degree in Lit/Writing. Soon after, she and her husband opened and ran a restaurant in Chatham, NY. It wasn’t until they sold it that she finally started to write. Her previous books are THE DARK END OF TOWN, and COLD MOON HOME. She is a member of ITW, SinC, and on the board of MWA-NY. Her talent for the plotting, characterization, pace and impetus required of a classy thriller has been recognized by peers and reviewers alike.

Jennifer Moss was born and raised in Evanston, Illinois and is a graduate of Northwestern University. Although she received her degree in music theory/composition, Jennifer had an affinity for computers and entered the technology field upon graduation. In 1996, when the internet was at its infancy, Moss launched one of the first parenting websites, BabyNames.com. She also served as Director of Development and consulted with several Los Angeles internet companies. Jennifer began her writing career as a freelance author for articles about the internet industry in 2000. Her first book, THE ONE-IN-A-MILLION BABY NAME BOOK was published in 2008 by Perigee Press (a division of Penguin) as a companion to her website.

Jeffrey J. Mariotte is the award-winning author of more than fifty books, including original supernatural thrillers Season of the Wolf, Cold Black Hearts, River Runs Red and Missing White Girl, horror epic The Slab, thriller The Devil’s Bait, teen horror quartet Dark Vengeance, and more, in addition to dozens of comic books and graphic novels. He has worked in many positions in the publishing industry, and is an owner of specialty bookstore Mysterious Galaxy.

Heywood Gould got his start as reporter for the NY Post. Later he financed years of rejection with the usual colorful jobs – cabdriver, mortician’s assistant, bartender. He is the author of fourteen published books and nine screenplays, including FORT APACHE, THE BRONX, BOYS FROM BRAZIL, COCKTAIL, and ROLLING THUNDER. He has directed four features, ONE GOOD COP, starring Michael Keaton, TRIAL BY JURY with William Hurt, MISTRIAL starring Bill Pullman and DOUBLE BANG with William Baldwin.

Ralph Pezzullo is a New York Times bestselling author, and award-winning journalist and playwright, and screenwriter. His books include Jawbreaker, Inside SEAL Team Six, The Walk-In, At the Fall of Somoza, Plunging Into Haiti (winner of the 2006 Douglas Dillon Prize for American Diplomacy), Eve Missing, Blood of My Blood, Most Evil, The Navy SEAL Survival Handbook, the SEAL Team Six thriller Hunt the Wolf, and the upcoming Hunt the Scorpion and (with Don Mann).

Lori Armstrong left the firearms industry in 2000. Her 1st book, BLOOD TIES was nominated for a 2005 Shamus Award. HALLOWED GROUND received a 2006 Shamus Award nomination, and won the 2007 WILLA Cather Literary Award. SHALLOW GRAVE was nominated for a 2008 High Plains Book Award and finalLed in the WILLA Cather Literary Award. SNOW BLIND won the 2008 Shamus Award. The 1st book in the Mercy Gunderson series, NO MERCY won the 2010 Shamus Award for Best Hardcover Novel and finalled for the WILLA Cather Literary Award. MERCY KILL released in Jan. 2011. MERCILESS released in Jan. 2013. Lori lives in western South Dakota.

  1. A bleak wintry countryside; a sprawling city, populated by strangers; a small town, hiding secrets behind familiar and friendly smiles; a foreign country, where the protagonist might be unfamiliar with language and customs. There’s no question important how location is to a good book, right?
    Location is not just the physical background, but it encompasses the society and the mores that surround and sometimes force our characters to do what they do.

    Here’s a question: let’s say that many of us start out writing about a location that’s familiar, just as the characters we first write about are similar to people around us. As we gain confidence, do we get braver (or more foolhardy), and start to write about more exotic locations, ones that we don’t know as well, but that intrigue us? I’ve stayed pretty close to home, because it fitted to stories I wanted to tell. But I’m feeling the itch to move on. What about anyone else?

  2. Say the vehicle you’re driving in breaks down. Bummer, right? Now, say, you have a choice of driving in Beverly Hills, the Mojave Desert, or southeastern Afghanistan (which is Taliban territory). Now ask yourself how important location is. If you’re an American journalist driving to cover a story, it’s vitally important.

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that in writing a novel or any work of fiction, location ranks right up there with defining your characters, theme, and plot. And it certainly affects all three. Interesting, exotic, colorful locations excite the imagination. Ian Fleming got that part right. Think Jamaica in Dr. No, or Istambul in From Russian With Love. In those cases just setting the novels in exotic settings lent them a certain dangerous sizzle.

    I, for one, love reading about locales I know little about and haven’t visited. If I can read a good thriller or mystery and find out about the culture, local politics and corruption of a place like Bangkok in the James Burdett books, so much the better. On the other hand, nothing is worse than a novel gets the setting wrong, or smooths out the rough edges. Like a thinner set in New York City in the ’70s or ’80s that doesn’t capture the grit, danger and desperation.

    So, yeah, location is huge. I spend a lot of time thinking about how it defines plot and affects characters. But the most important thing is to get it right so readers can experience what it’s like to be there.

  3. When I think about the novels that really stick with me over the years, most of the ones that come to mind have locations as fully developed and interesting as any character. I’m talking about the Louisiana of James Lee Burke, the Los Angeles of Michael Connelly, the small-town Maine of Stephen King, the Baltimore of Laura Lippman, the coastal Southern California of Don Winslow. I’m sure you can name a dozen more, from Tony Hillerman to Dana Stabenow to Arthur Conan Doyle to Craig Johnson–and that’s not even getting into the hot new flavor of Scandinavian writers. These writers make location come alive, and that location, in turn, illuminates character and story and grounds their books in real places. These become places I want to return to (even if only fictionally, in some instances). These are books that will last.

    Part of the necessity of a thoroughly considered and fully developed locale is that a person’s physical environment defines that person in a number of very real ways, and the broader environment, which includes other people, is a determining factor in who that person will be and how he or she will interact with everybody else.

    Growing up in inner-city Philadelphia is different from growing up in rural southeastern Arizona, or suburban Virginia, or a small city in Germany, or the outskirts of Paris. Each place will influence a person’s life in substantially different ways. (As an aside, though I never lived in inner-city Philadelphia, I have lived in those other places; this is an argument for creating complex characters, not simple ones, with many different forces dictating who they are and not just a single overriding one—but that’s a topic for another roundtable).

    So location determines character, to a great extent. Location also determines plot. On the sidewalks of downtown New York, cell phone coverage is pretty omnipresent. A character in trouble can usually call the cops, if she needs to, and expect to get help. In the high-desert border region, cell coverage is skimpy to nonexistent. If you’re in trouble there, you’re on your own, pal. And the kinds of trouble you can find there—smugglers, coyotes bringing in undocumented aliens, meth dealers, bandits who prey on the aforementioned, plus rattlesnakes, mountain lions, bears, the very occasional Mexican wolf or jaguar—are very different from the trouble lurking on those big-city sidewalks.

    To get specific, my newest novel, Season of the Wolf (you can read all about it over there on the right side of the page, near the bottom), is set in a small Colorado town, high up in the rocky mountain. As a result of a changing climate, a pack of wolves (very unusual wolves, in fact) have been forced into lower elevations than their usual turf, putting them into conflict with the people of that town. There’s more going on than that, including a human villain, but the overarching story—wolves and humans in mortal combat—couldn’t happen in many other locations. And that setting not only triggered the story, but it determines, to a great extent, who the characters involved would be.

    I have to agree with Ralph here–location is one of the tent poles of any successful novel. And the necessity to get it right is paramount.

    Julia, I do mostly stick close-ish to home in my locations, but not always. More about that in a later post, but I think one key consideration for me is that I like to be able to at least visit my locations, even if they’re otherwise foreign to me. That’s part of Ralph’s point. You can research the hell out of a place, but that doesn’t necessarily give you the real experience of standing on the corner there and knowing you can hear the streetcar from that street, and smell the garlic wafting from that restaurant’s dinner prep, and so on. The place always seems more real if the author has been to it.

  4. I’ve set my books where I live because I like where I live. It’s interesting to me, the issues we have out here in the rural west are different than you’ll find elsewhere, which gives the crime another layer. It’s the ultimate compliment when readers comment that my setting is it’s own character.

    However, that can hamstring you as a writer too. So like Julia, I’d like to stretch my boundaries and write outside of what I know, where I live, etc.

    And I’ll play devil’s advocate a bit and say that the reason I’m drawn to some books is because the setting is just a backdrop–the story is almost…deeper because the cityscape or countryscape isn’t prominent and that allows the characters to remain the main focus of the story. Sometimes those pesky background details can pull you out of a story and it’s almost as if the writer wants you to know that he/she has been to X and has done the research and they’re going to dump it into the story at every opportunity.

  5. If you’ve written your setting correctly, then location can almost be a character in your novel. As another author stated, it can define your characters and can forward (or thwart) your plot! It can be a device of conflict (fish out of water) or of comfort (home). A story without a well-developed location is like watching a play on a blank set.

    I chose the city of Chicago as the setting for my series of detective novels. Mainly because I grew up in the city and have an ongoing love affair with it. I want my readers to know the secret treasures of Chicago, along with its warts. It’s a unique urban environment and infamous for its crime and criminals.

    However I created one setting from scratch: Catharine’s mansion. Catharine is a character who sold her company stock for thirty million dollars. I thought, “If had thirty million dollars and could build a house from scratch, what would it look like? What would be in it?” And then I proceeded to create my dream house…in print.

    When I get fan mail, the first thing the reader mentions is Catharine’s house. “How did you think of it?” “Does your house look like Catharine’s?” (I wish.) It was purely from my imagination, dreams and desires and it’s so cool that I could give every reader a tour of it.

    I would say that Catharine’s mansion is indeed a character in my story!

  6. Okay. Here’s another thought to throw out there. Do you think series books, in which the protagonist goes to an unfamiliar locale – when we’re used to seeing him or her in mostly one place – do they work? Or do we enjoy it, but look forward to the return to the proper stomping ground? Harry Bosch in China, Longmire in Philadelphia – two that come to mind. Both good books, right?

  7. How important is location to a story? Very important! I sometimes even consider location an extra character in my stories.

    Both my Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Rescue Mysteries and my spinoff Pet Rescue Mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime take place largely in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. It’s where I live, and so I can throw in a lot of local color. In fact, my latest Pet Rescue Mystery OODLES OF POODLES is themed around the film industry, which of course is very important around here.

    OODLES OF POODLES is sort of a story within a story, since it’s about a movie being filmed about rescued poodles, starring– you’ve got it!–rescued poodles! My protagonist Lauren Vancouver, chief administrator of a fictional no-kill pet shelter in the San Fernando Valley, gets involved because of those cherished and adorable poodles. She visits the film sets often to observe how the dogs are being treated. Also present is a Certified Animal Safety Representative™ of the American Humane Association, which is the only group that can provide the coveted “No Animals Were Harmed”® designation–their registered trademark. And how did I come up with that particular theme? Because I kept passing the offices of American Humane’s Film and Television Unit on Ventura Boulevard near where I live and stopped in one day to find out more about them! That wouldn’t have happened anywhere else.

    I also write romances for Harlequin, including the Alpha Force miniseries for Harlequin Nocturne, which is a paranormal line. It involves a covert undercover military unit of shapeshifters, mostly wolves, so a lot of my stories are set in areas where people wouldn’t be particularly surprised to see wolves. For example, my latest Alpha Force book, also published this month, takes place largely around Bar Harbor, Maine, which is near Acadia National Park.

    So, yes. Location, location, location? It can make all the difference in how a story works!

  8. Try to transplant a story you’ve stumbled upon in one locale to another that’s more familiar and you’ll see how wedded story is to place. See how you’ve changed personally upon moving from one area to another, even in the same city, and you’ll see how location dictates behavior and attitudes. The hardest thing is to offer interesting perspectives on a place to people who live there. Make them look at their world in a new way.

    In writing about an unfamiliar location I don’t try to fake familiarity, but do it from the perspective of a traveler. So it’s more a voyage of discovery than a confident, intimate look. I don’t try to fool the reader into thinking I know more about an area than I really do.

  9. Julia, I think that “fish out of water” scenario is a lot of fun, especially when it’s a character who is very much identified with one type of locale. It doesn’t even have to be a familiar character as long as it’s a type. I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember the TV series McCloud, but you knew right off who McCloud was when you saw his boots and cowboy hat, so when he hit the big city it was beautiful.

    Heywood, I’d argue that even with your “perspective of a traveler” approach, you the writer still have to know a good deal about the location, so your traveler encounters the right things in the right places and it all feels authentic to the reader.

    Which brings up another question for everyone: real or fictional locations? I use both, sometimes in the same book. Of course, in my 46 novels I’ve written science fiction and fantasy in addition to thrillers and supernatural thrillers, and those almost by definition use imaginary locales (the deep space of Star Trek, Conan’s Hyborian Age…). But sometimes the small town you need isn’t where you need it to be, and you just have to make it up. Anybody else use locations they can warp to suit the story as needed?

  10. Jeffrey– The locations I use in my books tend to be real ones, but that doesn’t mean I’ve been to all of them. Muynoq, Uzbekistan, for example. I set a scene there in my thriller THE WALK-IN. And I think anyone reading it will get a strong sense of the place. (NOTE: It’s not a town you want to visit.)

    The point I’m trying to make, is that you don’t have to have spent time in a place to make it real. (Sure, it helps.) So fictional locations, why not? As long as you, as a writer, can make me feel that I’m there and tell me what is unique about it.

    Man, I’ve read books and short stories by writers who have lived most of their lives in a certain place, and as a reader I just don’t feel it.

  11. Absolutely true, Ralph. Bringing a place to life is as tricky as bringing a character to life, and if it falls flat it can affect the whole experience of the read.

    Speaking of writers who really do get a place right, today is George Pelecanos’s birthday. He captures Washington DC–where the real people live, not the corridors of power–better than almost anybody. He does it in a variety of ways, by knowing (or seeming to, or making up) the small businesses and the neighborhoods, the streets and the parks, the music you hear coming out of windows (and the radio stations playing them), and it is so concrete you feel like you could plot it on a map. Happy birthday, George!

  12. Location absolutely defines my books. My protagonists are forensic geologists, and the mineral clues they follow are, natch, very site-specific.

    In a larger sense the books are environmental thrillers, in which the story IS a threat to a specific environment. For example, in book one of my series, Badwater, a terrorist threatens to unleash stolen radioactive material in Death Valley. The desert is uniquely fragile, the target is water, water is key to survival of life there, and poisoning the water there is a very different threat than it would be in, say, the Great Lakes area.

  13. You can make up settings for stories other than sci fi, too, Heywood, although if a location is somewhere here on earth in a non-sci fi story, it should probably have some resemblance to reality.

  14. The tricky part about science fiction is that you can’t just make up any old thing–you have to come up with something that’s scientifically/sociologically plausible, so it can take a lot more effort than just using an existing setting. Say you want to use Chicago circa 2120. You have to figure out what changes might have taken place by then, and come up with a plausible reason why those changes occurred (even if you don’t spell out in detail every step between now and then, you need to understand them in your own mind to convincingly extrapolate them). If your story needs a certain situation there–a new landmark, an old one erased, a neighborhood changed in some specific way, or whatever–you have to be able to explain how that came about; you can’t just do it because the story demands it, but it has to be justified in a way that matches the internal logic of the story.

    Same thing with a location in outer space–you have to know the reality of whatever planetary body you’re setting it on (what’s the planet’s diameter? How fast does it rotate? How far from its sun is it? How many suns? How many moons, if any, and how do they influence the gravity? How long is a day there? A year? And so on. If you’ve got earthlings living there, how do they live? How is the environment controlled to provide them with conditions suitable for life?

    Then you also have to address the various sociological issues and implications of your decisions. What’s the class system like? Is there poverty? Crime? Why or why not? What neighborhood does your heroine live in, and how does she pay the rent?

    The decisions the writer has to make about a character in a contemporary American city are all there with the science fiction location as well, only there’s a whole other set of problems to go along with them.

    Which is not to say I’m disagreeing with you, Heywood. You can make up the location your story requires–you just have to do a ton of work to justify the decisions you make about that location.

  15. Some different ways I’ve approached location in my thrillers: In the book THE DEVIL’S BAIT, I went all out on exotic locales–Manhattan, Paris, the Cayman Islands, Geneva, Florida, and Ohio in winter. Okay, that last isn’t so exotic–and it’s the one I haven’t actually experienced for myself. But I’ve been other cold, flat places, so I think that counts.

    My horror epic THE SLAB was inspired by a real place–California’s Slab City, which is one of the strangest places I’ve ever been. I went back again and again, when I lived in San Diego. And I always knew I’d have to write about it. If you don’t know Slab City, look it up–it’s fascinating and unique.

    A few years ago, I wrote a loosely linked trilogy of supernatural thrillers set on different parts of the US/Mexico border (which is where I live). These books, RIVER RUNS RED, MISSING WHITE GIRL, and COLD BLACK HEARTS, are connected primarily by location, not by continuing characters or plot threads. Border issues run through them, though they’re most central to MWG and only incidental plot points in the other two. But again, the location is more than simply the place the books are set—it’s determinative in what the books are, essential to the plots and characters contained within. (Commercial aside—originally published by Penguin, these books are about to be released in a beautiful uniform signed, limited collector’s edition set, with some all-new material added. Get in touch if you want details).

    So one writer, many approaches. You always pick what works for the book.

  16. NOTE: I just heard from Bob Levinson, who has been trying to get on here to join the conversation but is having technical difficulties. He’ll be here as soon as he can, and asked me to let you all know that he’s not just ignoring us.

  17. Apologies for being late to the party… Days ago I wrote a lengthy response to what was being said here and—it disappeared when I tried to upload; lost, never to be found. If you’re seeing this, it means the problem has been corrected, with thanks to Jeff for pointing me in the right direction.

    I recall starting off my original response by agreeing with Jennifer and Linda, who observed that location can be a character in the story. For me, it’s not a maybe, it’s a must, pretty much has been since my first novel ten novels ago and in most of my short stories.

    A good deal of what I write is centered in Los Angeles and show biz, current times and the 30s-40s Golden Age of Hollywood. My constant challenge is to avoid settings that have been used by dozens of authors (not always possible) or give those settings a fresh depth that informs the reader. I work at putting a reader inside a location, not outside looking in.

    As examples, in last year’s A RHUMBA IN WALTZ TIME, I elected to set a meeting between key characters at the Hillcrest Country Club, a locale I knew well, had visited frequently in an earlier lifetime, and could describe and talk about in terms that gave the location a depth of presence, description and participation that simple research might not have uncovered. Elsewhere, the story moves to the Will Rogers Ranch, where I was able to play out the scene against the backdrop of a star-studded polo match in progress. The match wasn’t important to the story, except that it helped put more truth in the fiction.

    The Round Table discussion was moving into the area of location invention, something I believe in and have practiced when obliged by story considerations. In THE TRAITOR IN US ALL, as example, in order to make the story work to my specifications, I built a city in non-existent hills north of San Diego—the hotel over there, the hospital over there, no, over there; better. But in sections of the story set in East Berlin, I held true to my own experiences there before the Wall came down.

    I’ll quit here for now, hopeful this’ll make its way to you while I catch up on the posted comments and observations. Cheers!

  18. Julia Pomeroy asked if experience inspires us to write about “more exotic locations, ones that we don’t know as well, but intrigue us.” My answer: probably not. Or, putting it another way: nope. If I had a story idea that called for a locale I didn’t know well or at all, I’d either switch the location to one I did know or, if that couldn’t be made to work, move on to another idea.

    While so much of my stuff is based in Hollywood, the stories have provided multiple opportunities for travel to places I’ve been and could use, e.g., New York, Boston, Fort Worth, Nashville, London, Palm Springs, San Diego, Catalina Island, Indianapolis, Myrtle Beach, Marion, Indiana. … I mean, how more exotic than Marion, Indiana, can you get?

    I did make a “travelogue” exception of sorts with the novel ASK A DEAD MAN, where I needed Belfast as base for a story about terrorists-for-hire, whose assassination target is a world leader scheduled to visit Pasadena, CA (Yes! That Pasadena!) It leaned heavily on personal history shared with me by an Irishman who grew up there.

  19. You don’t even need a “resemblance” to objective reality if you’re making up your own subjective reality. You can do that “ton of work” creating your own world and making it believable. The beauty is when your fantasy becomes reality at some later date,i:e Asimov’s robots. It means that your antennae were up; you were anticipating a future that no one else could imagine.

  20. Jeff mentioned three of his books are “connected primarily by location, not by continuing characters or plot threads.” Call them a “series,” then? I would, mainly because I’d be a beneficiary of that designation with my six-going-on-seven stand-alone novels that have disconnected Show Business location plots as the common denominator, not lead character(s). I understand that it’s easier to focus on and stick with leads who, if you’re lucky, keep your readers coming back for more-more-more, but I need to please myself first, and that’s by writing stories that have different people moving in different directions from a central location.

    At the same time, (full disclosure) I haven’t entirely forsaken the lead characters in my first four novels, an “Affair” series built around a newsman, Neil Gulliver, a soap star, Stevie Marriner, and a frequent traveling companion, Augie Fowler. They pop up every so often in stories that have run in Queen and Hitchcock, some later gathered for eBook exploitation. And ex-LAPD detective Chris Blanchard who now works for MGM, protagonist in last year’s stand-alone, A RHUMBA IN WALTZ TIME, takes center stage in (shameless plug) “In the Land of Make-Believe,” scheduled to run in the July-August Queen. But do notice the title—it’s a direct reference to the location I call home. Hooray for Hollywood!

  21. Robert,

    I call my border-region books (creatively enough) my Border Trilogy. Not to be confused with Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. I think that sums up what links them (location) and how many books there are (although if I could be permitted an aside, one of my first jobs in comic book publishing was answering fan mail and deciding which letters–yes, they were actual, physical pieces of mail–would be reprinted in the comics. One letter, in response to a limited series called “WildC.A.T.s Trilogy,” asked, “How many issues will it be?”

    And yes, we have to take advantage of whatever slender hooks we can.

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