August 10 – 16: “Is setting or location an important element of your stories?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re joined by ITW Members Laura Elvebak, Mauro Azzano, Laura McNeill, Tim Tigner, R. G. Belsky, Bernard Maestas, A. D. Garrett, Jason M. Hough and Diane Kelly, as they discuss setting. “Is setting or location an important element of your stories? Why?”




godwin_coverBernard Maestas lives in paradise. A police officer patrolling the mean streets of Hawaii, he has a background in contract security and military and civilian law enforcement. When not saving the world, one speeding ticket at a time, and not distracted by video games and the internet, he is usually hard at work on his next book.



death by deceitMauro Azzano was born in Italy, north of Venice. He grew up in Italy, Australia and finally Canada, settling on the west coast outside Vancouver, Canada. He has a broad experience to call on as a writer, having worked as a college instructor, commercial pilot and a number of other unusual occupations. Currently, he is working on the Ian McBriar Murder Mystery series and training as a distance runner.


center of gravityAfter six years behind the anchor desk at two CBS affiliates, Laura McNeill moved to the Alabama Gulf Coast to raise her family. Her accolades in broadcasting include awards from the Associated Press, including Best News Anchor and Best Specialized Reporter. Laura was recently awarded a 2-book deal with Thomas Nelson Publishing, a division of HarperCollins. Her novel, Center of Gravity, set in Mobile, Ala., will be published in July of 2015. Her writing awards include those from William Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, Writer’s Digest, RWA, and the Eric Hoffer competition.


COERCION CoverTim Tigner writes fast-paced espionage thrillers with the tagline: Devious Devices, International Intrigue, and the Deadly Mistake of Messing with the Wrong Guy. A Soviet Counterintelligence Specialist and Veteran of the Green Berets, Tim worked out of Moscow throughout perestroika, Brussels during the formation of the EU, and more recently Silicon Valley as a startup CEO. Please visit his website to download one of Tim’s thrillers for free.


shootingforthestarsupdatedR. G. Belsky is an author of crime fiction and a journalist in New York City. His suspense thriller, THE KENNEDY CONNECTION, was published by Atria in August 2014. It is the first in a series of books from Atria featuring Gil Malloy, a New York Daily News reporter. Belsky himself is a former managing editor of the Daily News; metropolitan editor of the New York Post; news editor at Star magazine and – most recently – managing editor at


believe no oneA.D. Garrett is the pseudonym for the writing collaboration between author, Margaret Murphy, and forensic advisor, Professor Dave Barclay. Under her own name, Margaret’s novels have received starred reviews from Publishers’ Weekly and Booklist in the USA. She has been shortlisted for the First Blood critics’ award for crime fiction, and the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) Dagger in the Library, and she is a CWA Short Story Dagger winner. She is an RLF Writing Fellow, is founder of Murder Squad, a touring group of crime writers, and past Chair of the CWA.


laying down pawDiane Kelly is the author of funny, romantic mysteries, including the Paw Enforcement K-9 series and the Death and Taxes white-collar crime series. She is a former state assistant attorney general and tax advisor who spent much of her career fighting, or inadvertently working for, white-collar criminals. She is also a proud graduate of the Mansfield, Texas Citizens Police Academy. Diane has combined her fascination with law enforcement and her love of animals in her K-9 cop Paw Enforcement series.


Zero-World-Cover-1400pxJason M. Hough (pronounced ‘Huff’) is the New York Times bestselling author of The Darwin Elevator, The Exodus Towers, and The Plague Forge. His next novel, Zero World, is coming in September 2015. In a former life he was a 3-D artist, animator, and game designer. Jason lives near Seattle, Washington with his wife and two young sons.



stripteaseLaura Elvebak studied writing at UCLA, USC, Rice, and Beyond Baroque. She has penned several magazine articles, co-wrote, directed and acted in a one-act play, optioned three screenplays, and co-wrote a script for the 48 Hour Film Project. She is the author of the Niki Alexander mysteries, Less Dead and Lost Witness. A standalone, The Flawed Dance, is due from Black Opal Books on July 18, followed by the third Niki Alexander mystery, A Matter of Revenge. She is the treasurer and newsletter editor of the Southwest Chapter of MWA, a member of Sisters-In-Crime, The International Thriller Writers, and The Final Twist Writers.



  1. For me, location is very important for the Gil Malloy books, which are set in the New York media world. So there’s a lot about New York City – and a lot of New York attitude – in the stuff I write. Midtown, uptown, the Village, the boroughs – I’ve lived and worked in New York City for a long time and I really try to bring the energy of the city to my books.

    1. One aspect of the “location” topic I wanted to raise was the difference between real locations and fictional ones. For instance, my Gil Malloy books are set at the New York Daily News which is a real newspaper. But everything else about the Daily News in my books is fictional. Gil Malloy goes to real restaurants and hotels and other places in NY, but also to fictional ones. This can get really tricky. I can make up pretty much anything I want about a fictional restaurant, but I also have him going to Sardi’s in my new book – so that’s got to be factual. And, even with a fictional restaurant, I can’t have it at an address like 723 East 33rd St. because that would mean Gil was eating underwater in the East River. Living in the same town you write about really helps – because, even with the best research in the world, you’re gonna miss some things if you’re not really familiar and comfortable with the location.

  2. Setting is important to virtually every thriller. To engage readers, the author must draw them into a world, a setting. S/he must paint enough of a picture on the mind’s eye to support the action of the scene, but not so much as to detract from the experience. Finding that balance is the elusive trick of the trade.

    In search of that balance, I tend to think of setting as one of three things: a tool, an accessory, or a virtual character. When the setting is just a tool, an infrastructure for action, I use just enough description to supply a backdrop. “Rain blasted the windshield as . . .”

    When the setting is an accessory, something that adds to either the story’s allure or its plot, a couple sentences or a few scattered clauses usually suffice. Think of accessories as salt for your soup. A dash perks up the story, giving it flavor, but too much will spoil it—an all too common mistake.

    When outlining my thrillers, I have a setting or three listed as characters. These are the settings that are 1) both crucial to the plot, and 2) deserve to be crafted with the same eye to detail and originality as the characters themselves. They get a paragraph or more of description up front, and make appearances throughout. Think of the office of Bendini, Lambert, & Locke in The Firm, or the Hab in The Martian.

    1. Tim, I liked the explanation in your use of setting for your thrillers. You said what I try to do in my novels. The French Riviera, Africa, and the country of Yemen form a backdrop for my three thrillers. Many readers enjoy traveling to exotic locals while reading stories. We as writers can offer that pleasure.

      1. Art, you’ve added a new twist to the setting discussion, implied by your choice of locals. The novel experience we strive to offer reader’s isn’t just a new physical setting, but often a new social one as well. Whether it’s poverty or strife, famine or war, the social settings in thrillers are often better experienced from the comfort of a Kindle. I know your readers appreciate the authenticity you bring to those experiences from your rich foreign service background.

  3. Forged during the days of the cattle drives, Fort Worth, Texas – a.k.a. “Cowtown” – is a unique place. The historic stockyards area features saloons, a cattle pen maze, a vintage railroad, and Billy Bob’s honky tonk, the crowning glory of which is a saddle-shaped mirrored disco ball. Meanwhile, the cultural district is home to a variety of museums, the Will Rogers Memorial Center, and Casa Mañana Theatre (which resembles a Jiffy Pop popcorn package).

    With its zoo, horse shows, and annual rodeo, animals play a big role in the city. What better place to put a K-9 team to work?

    My Paw Enforcement series features a female police officer and her K-9 partner, who insisted on having her own chapters. (You don’t say ‘no’ to a police dog unless you want a bite in the butt!) The Fort Worth setting offers many places where my K-9 cop team can enjoy the outdoors and sniff for clues, such as the Forest Park and zoo areas, as well as the grounds of TCU (go Horned Frogs!). Colonial Country Club, home to the annual Crowne Plaza Invitational golf tournament, provided an opportune place for a sociopathic bomber to strike in Paw Enforcement, the first book in the series. The annual stock show and rodeo was the perfect backdrop for Paw and Order, the second book in the series, in which the K-9 team goes after a purse-snatcher/pickpocket targeting tourists who’ve indulged in too many beers. In Laying Down the Paw, the city’s location within “Tornado Alley” came into play, giving the story some literal twists and turns.

    Y’all will come visit us here in Cowtown! It’s a great place!

    1. Love your post! I really like how you capture the history, the landmarks, and the culture of Fort Worth.

      The setting clearly plays an important role in your stories. (Great titles, by the way! Punny badger approves!) From a law enforcement background, I can tell you that location definitely changes the day-to-day job, even for specialized units like a K9 team. If your story was set in rural Iowa, their cases would be wildly different from downtown L.A., neither of which would have been the same as Fort Worth.

      1. “Punny badger” cracked me up. Thanks for a laugh to start my day! You’ve hit on a big point – how the crime culture varies along with the other culture from place to place. Odd, but true. Thanks for the insights!

  4. Hello, all! I’m glad to be back and eager to jump into another of these discussions.

    Setting is critical in all of my books. In my “Internet Tough Guys” series, part of the excitement is the varying locales the heroes visit over the course of their globe-hopping careers. Location also makes a difference in the antagonists they face. Using my first book, “Say That to My Face,” as an example, the characters confronting American gangbangers makes sense in the segment set in Houston. But, the African militia from a later segment wouldn’t.

    In the sequel, “Godwin’s Law,” the story is a start-to-finish chase spanning Europe and North America and that was one of the first traits of the novel I decided upon. ITW-member Sid Williams noted in a review that the book had “fabulous set pieces” and I really feel that capturing places like Berlin added a lot of flavor which might have been lost if I’d used generic cities.

    My third “Internet Tough Guys” novel, the upcoming “You Think This is a Game?” which is due later this year, returns to Africa, mainly Somalia. The weak or non-existent government, the tribal militias and warlords, and the relative lawlessness of the country all factor into the tale which wouldn’t have worked if set elsewhere.

    For my unrelated crime novel, “Concrete Smile,” I created fictional Newport City to set my scene. In this instance, the city acts almost like another character as opposed to just a stage, and that was something I set out to do deliberately when I wrote it. I spent a lot of time and effort crafting Newport City until it came to life, living and breathing on the pages. Advanced readers were really taken with Newport City and loved its wildly different neighborhoods and attractions. A real city like Detroit or Los Angeles could have served the purpose, sure. But, again, with the city as a character, I wanted the creative liberty of a fictional setting, leaving plenty of room to use my imagination and to capture my readers’.

    One issue with real locations is battling an audience’s own perceptions of it, however. Since R.G. Belsky mentioned New York City, I’ll use it as an example. When I grew up there in the 90s it was a war zone populated by the rudest and most disgusting people in the world. Others, perhaps those who lived on the upper west side, for example have had a different experience. I’m frequently told that the City has changed since I left more than a decade ago, with four- and five-star hotels standing where the crack houses used to. When I attempted to write a book set in NYC, my personal experience colored the tale and the picture I painted of the city was harshly criticized.

    1. Sounds like you’ve traveled a lot (either actually or virtually). What fun to bring all of these worlds to your books! I just saw the latest Mission Impossible movie and the varying locations around the world added a lot of intrigue.

    2. NYC was a “war zone” in the 90s? Really? Where did you live, Bernard? A lot of people say that about the 70s, but the 90s were the years of law-and-order Rudy as the mayor. I think you somehow got a bad (as in incorrect) impression of New York City. It’s really a pretty terrific place. (And I’m from Ohio, not a native New Yorker.) I try to show that in my Gil Malloy books – the excitement, the opportunities, the fun of living here. You should give NY another shot!

  5. Setting and location is a crucial element for all my books, what some might call a main character. Setting sets the scene, creates the atmosphere, and puts the reader into the action. Location can be a city, a town, a desert, an island, a foreign country, or an intricate fantasy world the author has created. Setting delivers the mood with sight, smells, colors, sounds, weather, and time.

    I set The Flawed Dance in Philadelphia is the late sixties centered in the demimonde world of night life, dancers, and a criminal element. I had lived those years in that city and recreated the setting as I remembered it. That book could not have existed in any other location.
    The same is true for the Niki Alexander mysteries. Niki is an ex-cop turned counselor for a teen shelter loosely based on Covenant House and the street church in the Montrose area of Houston. It is an area that draws the runaways and throwaways that spill onto the streets. The area is known for its sexual diversity, the artists and actors. This is Niki’s turf.

    Stories are not written in a vacuum. We need the foundation of setting and location for our stories to come alive.

    1. I agree, Laura – setting can be (perhaps SHOULD be!) a character in our stories. It influences the human characters’ behaviour and the decisions they take. It plays a vital role in stimulating readers’ imaginations and immersing them in our fictional world.

    2. Laura, your comment that setting is the foundation a novel is on target. Characters need context, a world in which to operate. Without it, they’re a bunch of one-dimensional talking heads. Nice post.

      1. Exactly, Gay.

        I knew one writer who built an entire town in miniature with trains, houses, offices, stores, to duplicate their fictional town, and had figures for their characters. I wouldn’t go that far myself, but it was fascinating to watch.

    3. Interesting! Yep, some stories cannot exist without a particular setting. It is basically a character in the story. Thanks for your thoughts!

  6. The setting of a novel or even a scene can make a huge difference. Just as you can’t imagine Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe striding down anything but the mean streets of Los Angeles, the Inspector Morse novels would lose a dimension set anywhere but Oxford. The writer’s choice of setting can help to provide a sense of movement or stasis, claustrophobia or isolation – or even chaos (as in Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).

    If we can imagine the setting, it’s easier to imagine the people in it. Setting can convey a sense of reality to the reader, providing atmosphere and tone. It can also reinforce the pace of the novel, and provide an underlying rhythm of its own.

    Landscape can predict ‘types’ – see Chandler, above – but also the closed communities of Stephen King’s novels, the heightened colour and weirdness of LA in Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty, or Martin Amis’s Money. In my own writing, the desperation of addicts and the brutishness of the drugs barons who exploit them in Everyone Lies is reflected in the urban decay of Manchester’s outer reaches. In contrast, Believe No One, set in America’s Midwest, has a very different feel, reflecting its wide open spaces and potential for isolation, where evil deeds can to go unnoticed and undetected.

    Is setting or landscape important to you as a reader, or writer? Do you prefer to read or write about a place you know well?

  7. Hello, all.
    Ah, location. When I was trying to sell my first book, ‘The Dead Don’t Dream’, I had set it in 1970’s Toronto. This was in part because it was familiar territory, in part because it seemed the ‘right place’ to have the story take place.
    As a trial, I rewrote the story and set it in 1980’s Seattle; while this was also a familiar locale, there was something missing- it didn’t feel right.
    There have been numerous people (who live in Toronto) tell me that they can walk right beside the action, mentally, as it happens.
    Equally, there are those who’ve never been to Toronto who tell me that they feel as though they have seen the city after having read the book.
    Comfort with the setting, familiarity and authority, either of a real place or an imaginary one, are foundations of any story.

    1. Hi, Mauro,

      Familiarity with a place can create a kind of blindness, though, don’t you think? I find it useful to go back and walk the locality – try to see it with fresh eyes. I’ve discovered (perhaps I should say rediscovered) some gems that way – including a couple of great places to kill bad guys!

      1. Hi, A.D.
        My parents are in Italy. On several occasions, I’ve asked my mother for directions, and she’ll say something like ‘go down that street, then turn left at Angelo’s’.
        I’ll say ‘Angelo’s? Where is he?’ and she always answers the same way.
        ‘Angelo. Right down there. You know, ANGELO!!’
        She is unaware that I have no idea what she means.
        I agree that it’s easy to fall into that trap. I try to take a step back, see the scenery through the eyes of a total newbie, and go from there. Good catch, though.

  8. Location has been critically important to my books! I view it as another character. Not only must it have a memorable ‘persona’, but it can (must?) also change as the story progresses.

    My first trilogy was set in Darwin, Australia, which I will admit I picked solely because the name added an extra layer of meaning to the story. But the more I looked into the place, the more I loved it as a setting. However I’ve never been to Darwin, and if anything I worried I would not be able to do the place justice, in a similar way to creating a character that acts like no one you’ve ever met. The temptation (or natural inclination) in this situations is often to fall back on cliche, so I made a deliberate effort to avoid filling my version of (futuristic) Darwin with crocs, walkabouts, and shrimp-on-the-barbie. None of that in my book!

    My most recent book, ZERO WORLD, is almost entirely set on an alternate Earth, which though matching our world geographically, it has its own cultural and political history. It was quite fun to get to redraw the map, so to speak, and populate the locations in the story with peoples that felt at different times familiar and wholly alien to the reader.

    Location is extremely important, and should be carefully considered by authors.

    1. Jason wrote: “Not only must it have a memorable ‘persona’, but it can (must?) also change as the story progresses.”

      Do you mean that the characters’ – and therefore the readers’ – perception of the place changes, or that it changes physically/geographically?

      1. The characters perception changes as they become more familiar with a place, and perhaps as their actions affect the culture there. Physical changes depend largely on the story, of course.

      2. OK, here’s a different spin.
        Every location has its good and bad points.
        Exotic locales can add to a story, but they can draw attention away from the action, as well.

        Pedestrian settings- from Oklahoma in “The Grapes of Wrath” to the offices of Dunder Mifflin in The Office, give a more sterile backdrop for the action, magnifying the dialog and emotions by creating a white canvas behind.

        I went to see “Eat, Pray, Love” and was much more captivated by scenes of Bali and Rome than I was by Julia Roberts (sorry to her fans).
        In the movie, the location WAS the dialog, and the action in front of it more of an accessory.

        Any comments?

  9. Hi, Jason.
    Alternate question for you. (No pun intended.)
    I’ve had a science fiction story running through my head for almost a decade, about a distant planet and a future time.
    In my musings, I can almost draw a map of the continents, sketch out the political and sociological system, and explain, describe and reason out the very existence of the planet.

    I set my current character’s hometown as Esterhazy, Saskatchewan.
    Like your Darwin, I’ve never been there either.
    But I set part of his story there specifically because it’s so out of the way, off the beaten path.

    To sum up; location is HUGE. I agree- it’s another character.

  10. Apologize for being late to the game, everyone! I moved and started a new job, both on Monday!

    There’s no doubt that a novel’s setting, when done well, improves a reader’s experience. For example, I can’t imagine Greg Iles’ ‘Natchez Burning’ in anywhere other than small town Mississippi. ‘Gone Girl’ needed a suburban nouveau-riche feel. And Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling) does a brilliant job describing the busy London cityscape in ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ and ‘The Silkworm.’

    When I first began writing ‘Center of Gravity,’ I’d already decided to locate the novel in a fictional town south of Nashville, Tennessee. I invented neighborhoods, a school, a college, and a coffee shop—but as I went through revisions (many, many revisions) it became clear that this very authentic story about the challenges of marriage, family, and forgiveness needed a real world location.

    As I live and work in the Deep South, the overall feeling from my editors was that ‘Center of Gravity’ should be set along the Gulf Coast—specifically, in Mobile, Alabama.

    Founded in 1702 as the capital of colonial French Louisiana, Mobile offers a rich culture rooted in tradition. The city boasts lovely antebellum architecture, city parks, museums, and a lively arts community. As in many Southern cities, Mobile is a place where people greet strangers on the street like old friends, where children are still expected to address their elders with “sir” and “ma’am,” and manners and church attendance are still held in high esteem.

    In all, I believe the decision was a solid one, as Southern culture and history played into my storyline nicely!

    ~ Laura

  11. For me setting is like a character. In my newest book, Beyond a Doubt, much of the action takes place either in the city, above the city or beneath the streets where Hollywood’s storied past includes tunnels of intrigue. Those secret passages that led the speakeasys of the 1920’s and aided in the escape of its patrons. The Carol Childs mystery series all take place in Los Angeles, a city as diverse as it is multi-cultured. In many ways the city is a split personality and draws me back as a writer into it endless boulevards and back alleys, like bad boy flirting with a good girl whose knows better.

    1. So, Ms. Silverman, you make the point succinctly.
      The city in your books is a character, as important in its own way as any protagonist. Your website bio indicates that the City of Angels is feeding you plots and storylines, even as you are creating them yourself.

      Love the radio pictures, by the way. Personally, I have a face made for radio, and a voice made for newspapers……

MATCH UP: In stores now!


ThrillerFest XVI: Register Today!



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