June 13 – 19: “What are your favorite countries for settings?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re joined by ITW Members Tim Baker, Sidney Williams, Karen Harper, Robert Walton, Tom Breen, Connie Di Marco, J. T. Ellison, A. J. Kerns and John Farrow, to answer the question: What are your favorite countries for settings and why?




SEVEN DAYS DEADJohn Farrow is the Canadian author of five thrillers; and another seven novels and four plays under his real name, Trevor Ferguson. Seven Days Dead, the second in The Storm Murders Trilogy, has received a starred review in Booklist, while a great review in the New York Times (Marilyn Stasio) is forthcoming on June 12th. The Detective Émile Cinq-Mars series has been called the best of our time by Booklist, the best of all time by Die Zeit in Germany.



royalnannyPBKaren Harper is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of contemporary suspense and historical novels. A former Ohio State University English instructor and high school English teacher, she has been published since 1982. Her latest books are THE COLD CREEK TRILOGY from Mira Books and THE ROYAL NANNY (Edwardian England intrigue) from HarperCollins out this June.



Fever City Europa World NoirTim Baker’s debut noir thriller, FEVER CITY (Europa Editions & Faber), has just been longlisted for a CWA Dagger award. Other longlisted writers this year include Stephen King, Don Winslow and Lee Child. Prior to publishing FEVER CITY, Tim liaised with international authorities on cases involving murder, kidnap, terrorism and disappearances in North Africa and Europe. He currently lives in the South of France with his wife and son. Twitter: @TimBakerWrites



FIELD OF GRAVES front cover low resNew York Times bestselling author J.T. Ellison writes dark psychological thrillers starring Nashville Homicide Lt. Taylor Jackson and medical examiner Dr. Samantha Owens, and pens the Nicholas Drummond series with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. Cohost of the premier literary television show, A Word on Words, Ellison lives in Nashville with her husband and twin kittens. Follow J.T. on Facebook or Twitter @thrillerchick for more insight into her wicked imagination.


mask minosRobert Walton grew up in a multi-cultural village of Narberth in the main line of Philadelphia. Armed with a degree in Anthropology from Penn State, Bob has worked tirelessly over the years to live up to his father’s expectations. Having failed at that, he has traveled the world in search of the true meaning of life. Still, this has not stopped him from pursuing a career in writing that began over 35 years ago with unpublished poetry and short stories, and then in earnest when he began writing his first novel Fatal Snow. Since then he has joined Pennwriters and The International Thriller Writers and has published his second Harry Thursday thriller, The Mask of Minos: Bruno’s Inferno. There is more to come of Harry Thursday and more.


yemenArthur Kerns is a retired FBI supervisory special agent and past president of the Arizona chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO). His award-winning short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies. He is a book reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Diversion Books, Inc. NY, NY published his espionage thriller, The Riviera Contract, and the sequel, The African Contract. The third in the series, The Yemen Contract, is set for release in June 2016.


Device Trial cover.inddTom Breen has practiced law over twenty five years and is currently a partner in a law firm in downtown New York. Tom’s litigation experience has enabled him to realistically create courtroom and deposition scenes with tense dialogue and interesting characters that simulates actual courtroom dynamics. He lives with his wife on Long Island and their two daughters are practicing attorneys living in New York City.



Dark Hours2-2Sidney Williams is the author of numerous traditionally published books, and he is currently published by Crossroad Press, which has brought out many of his original novels, plus a couple of new books, in Kindle and other e-book editions. Sidney has worked as a newspaper reporter, marketing professional and more recently as a professor of creative writing. While working as a reporter, he covered the crime beat at night and also wrote feature articles, religion news and conducted hundreds of celebrity interviews. He’s interviewed television stars such as Matt Leblanc, Jennifer Anniston, Gates McFadden, Raven Symone, Alex Haley, Shirley Chisholm and many others. He also covered speakers as diverse as Mother Teresa, Alex Haley, Robert Ballard and Wendy Wasserstein.


Madness of MercuryConnie di Marco is the author of The Madness of Mercury, first in the Zodiac Mysteries from Midnight Ink. Writing as Connie Archer, she is also the national bestselling author of the Soup Lover’s Mystery series from Berkley Prime Crime. Some of her favorite recipes can be found in The Cozy Cookbook and The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook. Connie is a member of International Thriller Writers, Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.



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  1. Sometimes an old 1948 tune titled, “Far Away Places with Strange Sounding Names,” plays in my ear when I plan a setting for a story. The South of France brings to mind fragrant sea breezes, delicious food, and forbidden romance. The writer Somerset Maugham said of the French Riviera that it was “a sunny place for shady people.” What better setting for my first book, The Riviera Contract, an espionage novel where one can die in colorful surroundings? My second novel is set in beautiful, exciting Africa. The times I visited that fascinating continent I always had an overhanging apprehension not of falling victim to a terrorist or thug, but to the local fauna. Leopards are known to sit on roofs at night waiting for someone to walk out the door. They then pounce on the person and drag their bodies up onto a tree limb to age before dining. The black mamba will size you up while deciding when to strike and then if you run will chase you across the bush until you’re out of breathe. Now there’s a backdrop for your protagonist while he or she is trying to deal with the bad guys. My latest novel, The Yemen Contract, takes place in the mysterious, largely unknown country of Yemen on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. There amongst the rugged beauty of an ancient land everyone carries an AK-47. The surroundings definitely keep my protagonist, Hayden Stone, on his toes while he tries to save Western Civilization.
    For me the setting is very important, a character itself, that not only serves as background tapestry but something for my characters to take into consideration as they travel through the story.

  2. While it’s true that my literary fiction has spilled over into Europe — with French and Dutch connections — my crime writing has been set close to home, and for me that means Quebec. Utilizing a French-Canadian detective (and, ahem, the first to do so in our era, thank you), I am able to demonstrate the mix of cultures and tensions between French and English. French history and politics provides a backdrop that is both rich and unique on the continent, so in a way I’m able to leave home without going anywhere. Lately though, my Sergeant-Detective Cinq-Mars has been on the move, to New Orleans in The Storm Murders; in the next two books after the current one he’s off to New Hampshire. He will then be returning home. For as long as he is a French-speaking Canadian on American soil, I can again take advantage of different attitudes and cultures, and bring out the differences between those who share the continent and hold to a different perspective. He’s an outsider in the United States, and that shows; and in the current novel (Seven Days Dead) he’s on an insular island with its own history and culture. While the island of Grand Manan is in Canada (although off the coast of Maine), it is a unique place by virtue of its isolation, and he is an obvious outsider there.
    Being on the outside, then, bereft of local knowledge which is crucial to any case, necessitates that my detective explore and scratch around for secrets. He must be on the ball to acquire knowledge that many may know but few are willing to share, and only grudgingly, with him. This works as an intriguing set-up for any investigation, as the stranger in a strange land is always a compelling circumstance.

  3. Unlike the majority of suspense/mystery/thriller writers, I always begin with place. P.D. James (yes, honesty, THE P.D. James) once told me at a writer’s conference that she always began with place: “If the place seems real, the story and characters will also,” she said. Her characters and plots were so strong that I was amazed she started with setting. This week, I hope we can discuss “Setting as Character.” I think it’s that important. Also, especially for my contemporary suspense, more than my historicals, which have ‘real’ main characters and the settings are more dictated, I try to find settings which are not only unusual but which have some sort of internal conflict as background for the character conflict. See you right here for discussion in the next few days. I always learn something too.

    1. Thanks for those comments, Karen, I really agree with you that a sense of place is absolutely vital, and is the starting point for all my own fiction – so I’m happy to be in the company of the great PD James!

      As you say, at its best setting is not just an essential element, it is an actual character. We can seen this in the work of Ross Macdonald, a master of crime fiction. His locales always bring nuance, texture and danger to the narrative, and impact upon the story in meaningful and surprising ways.

      1. MacDonald is a great example. Somehow the “It was a dark and stormy night” so many joke about is an example of what not to do. It’s really good to turn what the reader expects on its head. Terror can happen in a “lovely setting.” A carnival; a country picnic… It’s hard to believe some people are actually afraid of clowns…endless possibilities.

  4. I am very excited to be a part of the roundtable discussions. I think it is a great way to network with other writers and hopefully get in front of readers and potential readers. The best way to learn about things is to teach it, and I hope to learn something from the other writers this week.
    Of all the places in the world I have visited I find my country of choice is the United States, and perhaps mainly because I know more about this country than others. That said, my first novel, Fatal Snow, takes place in both Wyoming, and the Chilean Andes during the 1970’s, in two parallel plots which tie the whole story together. Wyoming happens to be the perfect backdrop for wild mountain country and a lot of snow, both of which I experienced first-hand.
    I didn’t have to use Chile for a location, but as the characters developed themselves, the need for a more exotic local took shape, and the Andes was the best choice. It’s funny though, but I know authors that write stories close to home and it seems to work for them. But for some reason I try and stay away from my home town. Probably because from an archaeological point of view, very little happens in central Pennsylvania that would likely lead to what amounts to the type of plot I gravitate toward.
    I’ve used Costa Rica, Switzerland and Greece for my second Harry Thursday novel, The Mask of Minos, and that was very exciting to write about. I think it adds depth to a story to use places most people don’t necessarily get to visit, and Greece is one of my favorite. In fact, my third novel, 47 Crates, starts in the Greek isles, and comes home to Philadelphia. It’s been a while since I lived in Philly so I get to travel back to the city of brotherly love for some hands-on research. Lucky me.

  5. You knew this would be a lively discussion. There’s nothing a thriller author likes better than picking the perfect setting. I am so blessed to have three series to place. I realized early on I didn’t want to be constrained to one place, one city, one country, and so my books have traveled from Nashville and Washington D.C. and Colorado to Italy, England, Scotland, France. These are my favorite countries to write about because they are my heritage. It’s so fun to cook up ways to get my characters on a plane and into a new country.

    What’s also fun is deciding which countries I want to feature next. I absolutely choose places I find interesting and compelling. I am a fan of hands on research, so I have a tendency to travel to the place I’m writing about either before or during the writing process. There’s something special about traveling overseas, seeing how other people live, explore other cultures, test my acumen with a map. It’s one of the most exciting parts of being a writer, actually.

  6. So much of what influences us as writers can be traced back to our childhood experiences, and this is certainly true not just of my choices of locales in my fiction, but also my own life choices.

    As a child, I devoured every book I could find on Greek Mythology. It was a dramatic universe charged with bravery and betrayal and in many respects those tales of the cruelty of gods, and the futile nobility of mortals as they tried to challenge the cosmic order, were the first crime fiction I ever read.

    Although the subject was definitely Noir, particularly for a child, the landscape was anything but, replete with a glorious poetic beauty.

    So it was only logical that once I started traveling, I headed straight for the Mediterranean region. The countries where I have set most of my fiction – France, Italy and Spain – all have rich cultures, dark complex histories and spectacular scenery: a perfect terrain for fiction.

    But the country I keep returning to the most in my writing is the one that I know best and yet can never return to: the Past. It’s a country saturated with an amber light, full of promise and possibility. For me one of the most exciting elements of visiting the past is re-interpreting and re-imagining recent history by placing fictional characters within momentous historical events, such as the assassination of JFK.

    And the best thing about traveling to the Past? No passport or visa required. All you need to slip through the border is a vivid imagination…

  7. I think when you get into discussions of favorites, the most recent project is almost always the default. It’s the focus of your thoughts and imagination, and the possibilities seems infinite.

    I’m writing a book at the moment that’s to be part of the Crossroad Press ongoing O.C.L.T. series. That stands for Orphic Crisis Logistical Taskforce. In the series, O.C.L.T. operatives respond to strange events around the world.

    When I sat down to outline my O.C.L.T. entry, I knew I wanted to use Ireland as a backdrop. I visited the Emerald Isle several years ago, and my favorites stops on our tour were ruins and historic sites.

    A few years before that, I’d spoken with a man who visited Britain, and he mentioned to me how profound he felt when he stepped into structures hundreds of years old.

    I experienced that as well, walking the grounds at spots like the 6th Century monastic site at Glendalough. The grey stone towers and old gravestones evoked a deep sense of the past and of the people who’d walked there long before my visit.

    My story opened up as I recalled the land and the stones. Ancient bits of walls still stick up beside roadsides and history is everywhere. While I was in Ireland, Dublin became the base while excursions took us all over. It’s a great city as well, filled with statues of writers and mythic figures. It’s become the jumping off point for my characters as well.

    It’s streets, pubs and museums became perfect spots to send characters in search of clues and lost bits of ancient alphabets, and my memory and imagination united to help craft the world of my project.

    Beyond that locale, I often prefer to stick closer to home, or a fictionalized version of home. Much of my work has been set in Louisiana. That’s where I’m from, though I now live in Florida.

    When writing of Louisiana, I’ve always tried to show a bit of the state that’s not often showcased in books and movies, the world between Shreveport and New Orleans. I’ll probably wind up talking about that more as the week goes on.

  8. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that it works well to have a setting/background for a suspense story that has conflict built in. This ‘ups the ante’ of the main plot and character conflicts and tension. For example, I’ve done books set in Amish country where the Plain People are in conflict with the so-called English. (As we know the Amish are peaceful people, so the conflict is that some “English” try to harass the Amish.) When I used Appalachia for the setting for several suspense novels, I included the incursion of outsiders–rich weekenders from the city who are building condos in the mountains. The haves vs. the have nots works well as does the big money fracking people vs. the environmentalists. I’m fascinated by cultural conflicts in suspense novels to support character and plot.

  9. The immediate post-WWII years saw a surge in popularity for the “travel log” novel and film. The James Bond books incorporated this element, as did some of the best Hollywood films of the era, “Roman Holiday” and “To Catch a Thief” for example. And “The Day of the Jackal” is a good example of a thriller novel from the end of this era, when travel was still relatively rare and infused with the notion of glamor.

    But as mass tourism began to surge from the late ’70s onward, and the cost of flights and accommodation became more affordable, there was less automatic mileage to be gained simply from including exotic locations for their own sake.

    The challenge for writers today is not just to find a location that is unusual or visually striking, but to incorporate motifs from the location into the story in a convincing and dramatic way. In other words, the place has to resonate within the story, or be an organic part of the narrative. It gets back to the notion of place as character . . .

  10. One of the most interesting developments in recent years has been the rise of regional crime books.

    Nordic Noir is probably the best example, but there is also Mediterranean Noir and the Mexican border books of Don Winslow and Sam Hawken among others. Scotland has been very popular recently, and of course places like LA continue to maintain their allure.

    What it could indicate is that there are favored locales – places that resonate in a massive way with readers, who then want to continue exploring them in greater depth.

    Is it just a coincidence that a number of great crime writers from Scandinavia all emerged at the same time? How important is the Nordic/Arctic landscape to Nordic Noir’s success?

    And where can we expect to find the next popular region? With books like “A Rising Man” by Abir Mukherjee and the Baby Ganesh Agency series by Vaseem Khan, perhaps it could be India…

  11. I can’t speak first hand of settings in foreign lands because I haven’t (as yet) set a story outside the U.S. My two series are both domestic – one in Vermont, the other in San Francisco. However, my village in Vermont (the Soup Lover’s Mysteries from Berkley Prime Crime) is so damn idyllic, it might as well be another country, one I wish I could live in. And one many of my readers have told me they wish really existed. The Madness of Mercury, the first in the new Zodiac Mystery series is set in San Francisco, a city in which I once lived and one I know quite well. San Francisco, more than any other city in the U.S., in my opinion, offers an ever-changing palette of moods.

    Both of these series depend greatly on setting, so I heartily agree with Karen when she speaks of setting as character and I love Arthur’s reminiscence of “Far away places with strange sounding names.” I think the deeper question to ask is how we as writers mold and transform and massage our settings. How we bring to the fore aspects of setting that align with our vision of a certain place.

    My imaginary Vermont village is much like any small New England town with certain exceptions. The electronic age barely rears is ugly head. Yes, my characters have cell phones which, because of the surrounding mountains, conveniently don’t work at critical times. There are no serial killers or homegrown villains in the village. Danger and evil come from the outer world. Is this today’s reality? Of course not.

    Does the Paris of fiction truly resemble today’s city? Or do writers pick and choose? Do they incorporate the graffiti-covered walls and horrific slums seen outside Charles de Gaulle airport? Or is that conveniently not mentioned? Instead, would a writer describe a clandestine meeting on the Pont Neuf with fog rising from the Seine? How do we create our real or fictional settings in a way that connects with our readers’ cultural expectations of that setting? What do we incorporate versus what do we eliminate for the progress of our story?

    Personally, I’ve always wanted to travel through the Middle East and North Africa, something I haven’t been able to do. Not yet anyway. And now it would be a far more difficult and dangerous journey. I have a sensory idea of Morocco and I hope the book I read will enhance and deepen that Moroccan fantasy.

    And let’s not forget time in relation to setting. Can I ever visit Alan Furst’s Eastern Europe in World War II, a world he’s expertly created and resurrected for his readers? Can I actually meet someone like Jason Goodwin’s fictional detective in the late Ottoman Empire? Not possible. At least not until that time travel gizmo is invented.

    What is it that calls to each of us, that inspires us at a very personal level, about a certain place or time?

  12. Being a practicing attorney in downtown New York, I naturally developed a story line that centered around legal proceedings in the downtown Courtrooms.
    In THE COMPLAINT, the lawsuit against ZeiiMed, the diabolical health care company, resulted in a Fairness Hearing in federal court on Pearl street. In THE DEVICE TRIAL, to be released on July 1st, the trial against ZeiiMed takes place in state court located at 60 Centre Street. Since I am familiar with the judges and juries in these venues, I was hopefully able to simulate in my novels the real life experience of actually being there as judicial events unfolded.
    Outside the Courtrooms, my characters interacted in various well known locations around NYC, such as the 9/11 Memorial, the Kimberly Hotel, PJ Clark’s and the Ritz Carlton. In both novels, there are several
    scenes that take place at the fictional street-side restaurant Tres Bien, with the CEO Of ZeiiMed having his apartment above
    Tres Bien. The idea for that was taken from an apartment building one of my daughters lived in on the upper east side.
    In THE COMPLAINT, I created a scene in the very beautiful Turks&Caicos Islands because my family loves visiting this piece of paradise. In THE DEVICE TRIAL, two of my primary characters meet at the Long Bay Resort on Tortola, another breathe taking Caribbean getaway.
    The point is, I guess, that you write about what you know and what is familiar.
    However, for my third novel, I intend to break from this formula and include several
    chapters that take place in Rome and the poppy fields of Afghanistan. Hopefully, I won’t get writer’s block attempting to write about things outside my zone of comfort!
    Thanks for reading.
    Tom Breen

    1. Kind of on the flip side, I find the more I know of a place, the more I enjoy reading novels set there. As I’ve become more familiar with NYC, it’s become really fun for me to read novels that hops around city locales, either new or old works. It’s fun to me to drop back to Nero Wolfe novel every now and then and see what areas Archie’s visiting. The same’s true of New Orleans, and now that I live in Florida, it was interesting to see a detail such as a Publix Grocery turning up in the modern noir “Miami Purity.”

  13. I think Connie is on to something when she talks about Alan Furst’s Europe of WWII. Time has a definite affect on the location, and that is why my novels are set in the 70’s. I feel a romantic tie with Greece of that decade, and indeed of my youthful travels in the wild west of the Teton mountains. One of my favorite authors is Martin Cruz Smith and his Arkady Renko series depicting the Soviet Union of the 70’s and after even the fall of the Berlin wall. Of course Smith was writing those in the current time but I have fallen in love with the whole Russian theme because of his work.
    Each author has his own niche’ when it comet which country he writes about. Ian Pears in Paris and England, Cormac McCarthy in the south west, Cornwell in the England during the Norse conquests.
    It’s funny to listen to James Patterson talk about the great tool the Google maps is to a writer where he can pull up exact locations, streets and even what buildings look like to add authenticity to a story.

  14. I’m getting a kick out of the times of day we are all writing. Especially you Tim, I’m in my second REM by that time. It reminds me of when I had my bagel restaurant, I’d get up at midnight and do my best thinking at that time of day. Of course it isn’t easy writing things down then without getting dough all over the notes.
    Now that I’ve retired, so to speak, the daylight hours are filled with my retired wife and daughter’s constant demand for my attention.
    I have to take mini vacations to my locals to rejuvenate my creativity.

    1. I guess I’m cheating Rob, because I’m in the south of France right now!

      But I like what you say about time and how we think and write at different times of day depending on what’s happening – or not! – in our lives.

      Your comments also made me think of something I hadn’t before – the idea of jet-lag; how travel resets not just our minds but our body clocks. How many times has an inspiration come from disrupting routine – I think travel is the best (or at least happiest) disrupter…

  15. When the setting is chosen for me (through my research for my real-life heroine British historicals,)I still try to find something about lovely, merry-old England that is scary or threatening. And in some of those old castles, that’s not hard to do. In my current novel, THE ROYAL NANNY, (which sounds so sweet and charming–but isn’t since it’s loaded with suspense)a Scottish castle that belonged the the royals works well. But one of the most terrifying scenes in the novel works because the reader expects it to be lovely (having tea on the terrace of Sandringham House)but it turns into a WW I Zeppelin bomb attack. Much more terrifying because it is totally unexpected and a contrast to that setting.

  16. The vitality of setting is something that this discussion has demonstrated. And yet for many young writers, the benefit and richness of setting is not instinctive. Having been a university Creative Writing teacher in my past, I was struck by how many students simply wanted to dispense with place. They’d rather be in a generic city, or on a generic farm. Post-apocalyptic stories, for instance, would usually be located in the middle of … nowhere. I blame TV, which often provides a pan shot and no more to situate a tale. I preached the opposite, of course. A setting always helps to create the tale. There’s history, there’s internecine tensions, there’s a geographic grid which might inform which way your characters take their next turn. In an upcoming New Hampshire novel, for instance (a foreign place to me), the heroin epidemic in the State naturally slid into the tale, as did the rape culture on campus in another upcoming novel. In my current novel, Seven Days Dead, how could I possibly have ignored the habit of arson on the island of Grand Manan to express one’s displeasure with a neighbour? You can make that stuff up, but when it’s drawn from reality a greater richness is unearthed.

    1. John, first of all big congrats on the great review by Marilyn Stasio in the New York Times yesterday!

      Interesting that she zeroed in on precisely the subject of this discussion: “Farrow is an authoritative writer who creates characters with depth and plots that say something about them… But the author’s true forte is setting, especially rock-cliff islands lashed by storms, buffeted by winds and clinging to generational secrets that poison the lives of people.”

      What you said about arson on the island of Grand Manan is a great example – it written well enough, places are characters and characters reveal themselves in surprising and powerful ways…

  17. Thanks for the quote! And the congrats. And yes, places are characters and do much to not merely colour (excuse my Canuck spelling) a story, but to shape and invigorate a story, and in many cases to determine how it proceeds on the page. Authors who are respectful to place and sensitive to its nuances may find that the geography is a most helpful assistant.

    And back at you, Tim. Congrats on the CWA Dagger long-list distinction. That’s grand!

  18. What a wonderful and poetic review, John: “Rock-cliff islands lashed by storms, buffeted by winds and clinging to generational secrets that poison the lives of people.” Move over, Ann Cleeves!
    Islands alone offer such rich possibilities — a select and isolated population, intertwined by bloodlines and marriage, incestuous relationships — lots of possibilities for a deadly cocktail. I recently managed to catch an Icelandic production called ‘Trapped,’ where the same island-like setting is achieved with ice, snow and avalanche. The claustrophobic Sartre-like effect can really ramp up the tension.

    1. Thanks, Connie. That’s another aspect to setting, of course, and as the author of books with titles such as City of Ice and Ice Lake, I know all about winter settings and snow and, obviously, ice. That is another aspect to this discussion. There’s an old standby in crime fiction, possibly fostered by Elmore Leonard, that you leave the weather out of it. Yet all rules are made to be broken, and there are times when the setting demands the storm, be it a blizzard or a hurricane. In the old days, who would have written about London without the fog, or Ireland without the drizzle? In fact, one of my novels was a bestseller in South Africa specifically because the snow and ice was considered to be exotic. So whether you’re home or on the road, your locale can be exotic to someone elsewhere, and at times that’s merely an effect of the weather.

  19. The novel I’m writing right now is set in Mexico, which is an extraordinary country. The diversity of culture, language and people, contrasting landscape and astounding history, especially pre-invasion, is all just overwhelming.

    But writing about any particular country involves a certain responsibility. Not to over-simplify. Not to fall back on stereotypes or cultural cliches.

    I think that, like stories, sometimes countries choose us, rather than us choosing them…

    1. Tim, I concur. The responsibility is large. At least, it should be perceived that way. A writer who uses only the colourfulness of a setting, and foregoes the history and the social context of the place, is perhaps not unlike the magnate who rips off a nation’s resources, then departs, leaving only a scarred landscape behind. More and more, crime fiction — thrillers and mysteries — are revealing more of the world in which we live other than just chills and spills. It’s not like this across the board, nor does it have to be, but for many writers and readers there’s an appreciation for an insightful exploration of a story’s time and place.

  20. My book “Dark Hours” that’s just out, takes place mostly on a college campus, the latter portion in one building with my heroine trapped and facing a series of puzzles and games. But it’s set in the Louisiana location of many of my early horror thrillers.

    I worked as a reporter for years in that territory, and even thought the book’s contained, there are reverberations from the outside world. The heroine’s on the phone with cops from time to time, running down info as she seeks to prove a killer’s hiding out on her school’s campus.

    I could feel the outside world even when she’d started her descent to the library’s basement floor, and eventually Louisiana weather factored in as it has in other bits of my work.

    I think even in small ways, setting finds its way in.

  21. Well, I have certainly been feeding on the wealth of information and insight given here this week from my other colleagues with their vast experience in writing. I have just published my second novel both of which take place in multiple locations. I find for some reason drawn to doing it this way. My current project starts in Greece and finishes off in Philadelphia and is more of a mystery type thriller than the other two.
    On the whole my characters tend to be ordinary people thrown into extraordinary situations in which they find themselves challenged by the environment as well as the cast themselves. Harry Thursday is a simple archaeologist that perhaps takes the wrong door in the dim passage of his life.
    Thinking, perhaps, to further his career, and as an academician he is always up to a challenge to learn something new. He does not seek out dangerous situations but contrary to that, they find him. And thus he must fight to stay alive. I call it the hero’s journey. And that is not an original term, but one from Joseph Campbell.
    I think every story has that element in it, The Hero’s Journey. That is where the setting, country, planet, what have you, plays a huge part in the story as a whole.
    It makes it easier for me to raise the spectacle of the novel if my hero has to travel long distance to avoid or to seek out the dangers he must overcome in order to solve the task at hand.

  22. John, you’re right. It is one of Elmore Leonard’s ten rules – “Don’t talk about the weather.” Fortunately, Raymond Chandler either didn’t know of, or didn’t pay any attention to, that rule. Remember this quote? “I guess God made Boston on a wet Sunday.”

    I’ve been on the west coast for a long time, so it was easy to wax poetic about snow in Vermont and the body of a tourist found frozen in a snow bank. And I appreciate Tim’s comment about responsibility toward a culture. If there’s a dead tourist, there’s a ski resort and automatically there are built in tensions between the ‘haves’ and the ‘locals.’ It’s important to expose the seamy underbelly of a place, especially in crime fiction.

    1. Connie, thanks for the great quote from Chandler, which I didn’t remember! And yes, those rules of Elmore Leonard are a lot of fun. But I think there’s a difference between talking about the weather and having weather as a character in a work.

      I had the pleasure of meeting William Styron in Paris and we spoke about the extraordinary opening of ‘Lie Down in Darkness’ and how important weather was to him. He said the work was born out of it, and also spoke of weather’s importance in ‘Sophie’s Choice’ – the contrast between the blistering Brooklyn summer and freezing Polish winters.

      So perhaps the weather is like a country: if it’s integrated in a meaningful way into the story, it will possess its own integrity and add complexity and nuance. If not, it becomes what Elmore disliked – idle filler.

  23. I guess it’s the former university/high school English teacher in me, but I wanted to make a couple of “teacherly” points about what my agent calls enclave novels–ones that are set in a particular, well-defined subculture setting. I love this Arthur Conan Doyle quote from his short story The Copper Beeches: “The lowest and vilest alleys of London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” Right on, Sir Arthur! I have found small town settings (Don’t they look charming?) can be very scary. In my Amish suspense novels, I really utilized the lack of light at night, distrust of lawyers and police, dark barns, lack of house phones, and tall corn fields out the back door. Besides, in small towns, the enemy is often ‘us,’ and that can be more devastating than impersonal, urban crime. Close contact treachery and betrayal have more impact than random evil.

  24. I like that phrase, Karen — ‘enclave novels.’ I’ll have to remember that. And your Amish setting offers so many wonderful possibilities of darkness and isolation!
    What I think of as village mysteries is, I guess, a version of the ‘English Country House’ murder, a la Christie — a select group of individuals, one of whom is a murderer. My series with Berkley was a cozy series, so I felt it best to go the other way. The core characters were innocents (although I did toy with the idea of killing one of them), but evil always came from the “other.”
    I too find small towns scary and New England, with its many wars and Indian massacres, so creepy one can almost smell the blood in the ground. Shirley Jackson, a transplanted Californian, had the same reaction. A good thing. Otherwise we’d never have had The Lottery.

  25. One of the craziest things I’ve ever read about Tony Hillerman’s great Navajo novels was that, when he first tried to get published, he got a rejection letter that read, “The police plot is good, but can you ditch the strange Navajo stuff?” WHAT?! Thank heavens, regionalism of various kinds is so fascinating, compelling and popular. It works well to tie the human characters to setting-as-character. In DOWN RIVER,my suspense novel set in Alaska (written after we took a trip there,) the heroine fears the setting at first but learns to love it. It begins as her enemy, but she makes peace with it and overcomes. To use the opposite pattern, for example, in books about the Titanic (my current main characters–real people–survived that tragedy) the setting of the ship begins as a glamorous, sheltering place, then shifts to become the enemy, a killer. Although GONE WITH THE WIND seems so dated now, one of the timeless elements in it is Scarlett’s shifting “romance” with the plantation Tara. That stubborn, strong woman loved it more than she did Rhett(!) Well, back to writing about the enemy iceberg and the ship…

  26. Karen’s reference to the Navajo twigged a memory that’s germane to the discussion. For a number of years, I was enjoying annual option payments (back when studios still ponied up good money; it’s much less now). Good news, my bank account was appreciative; bad news, I had to field offers from television networks who wanted to move the novel out of Montreal (because that’s Canada, and these were American networks). The initial suggestion was to Detroit. The book, City of Ice, is based largely on the biker wars in Montreal; they didn’t happen in Detroit. And then someone came back with an offer conditional on moving the film to New Orleans. Think about that for a second: City of ICE in New Orleans. Of course, I rejected the idea, but only after crying in my beer, partly from laughter. We’ve written here about a lot of good stuff regarding place, but there remains an element in our industries (film, TV, books) that is willing to bastardize or diminish place, or opt for a generic big city (oh, what the hell, let’s make it New York) or for generic countryside. We must resist that impulse for the sake of our craft. Writers need to recognize the vitality of a good setting, deliver it well, and make it so deeply interwoven into the narrative that readers will come to expect a superb engagement with setting to be part of their appreciation of crime fiction. Many writers do that now; some don’t bother. The latter, is my speculation, will find that their books will travel less well, and age less well.

    1. I guess there are many facets to the question. Some countries are so associated with our perceptions of what the weather there is (Gorky Park, as you so rightly point out, Robert, or The Sheltering Sky) that readers expect it to somehow resound within the story – it’s all part of the choices we make when choosing countries…

    1. That’s a very funny story John, and as Connie says, that is Hollywood for you.

      I agree entirely with John. When you see Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls transferred to Seville because it’s more “scenic” than Pamplona (“Knight & Day”) or even the transposition of the Rio Carnival and Junkanoo Mardi Gras into the wholly fictious Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City in “Spectre” it seems somehow disrespectful and just plain dumb. There are so many traditions and spectacles around the world – with a little bit of knowledge and empathy better choices can be made.

      Still City of Ice set in the Big Easy… Could have been the Wayne’s World of biker flicks!

  27. Because I’ve been interested in “setting as character” for so long, I have collected some book reviews in which the reviewers were so impressed that they highlighted and praised talented writers who use place well. In a review for Annie Dillard’s THE MAYTREES: “Dillard writes so beautifully about the ocean, the clouds, the stars, the bogs and the sand that the landscape becomes the most memorable character of this novel.” Laura Lippman’s IN A STRANGE CITY: “The town…becomes an endearing if dangerous character in her books.” Jessica Speart’s GATOR AIDE: “The writing is palpably atmospheric (“The air heavy with humidity, broke like a giant sponge that had been squeezed”), and the brooding swamp itself becomes a memorable character.” So, as challenging as this can be, our labors are not in vain!

  28. On this last day of our ‘favorite places’ topic, just wanted to say I’ve enjoyed and profited from reading everyone’s comments. Whether you choose the setting or the setting chooses you–which is sometimes the same thing if you love or are drawn to a particular place–setting matters. I’d like to share a quote from author Eudora Welty that is key to this topic and rather sobering: “One place understood helps us understand all other places better. I think that if you go deep enough into one place, you hit the universal.” Karen Harper adds, “And that is serious stuff.” Writers write to entertain but also more than that.

  29. A very relevant and brilliant quote, Karen!
    This has been a wonderful discussion and I’ve so enjoyed joining in with everyone on this Roundtable!

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