Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Settings in mysteries

A few days ago, I got a nice email from the Bouchercon committee asking me to be a member of the “Setting as Character” panel. One of my favorite mystery authors, William Kent Krueger, is moderating Eric Stone, Jonathan King, Tom Corcoran, and me. What a great group, I’m excited!

Writing about Hawaii, I think a lot about setting. Vicki and I used this discussion in the tour we did together, as setting is very important to both of us. But getting this recent invitation got me thinking along different lines. Yes, setting is a strong influence on our characters’ actions, thoughts, and limitations. In many cases, it defines their activities.

I’ve probably mentioned that Tony Hillerman’s books were an inspiration to me when I began my Hawaii series. I wanted to weave the legends and folklore of the islands into exciting suspense stories. And judging by the reviews, I’m pulling it off. (Whew) But I’m also learning as I go, and my eyes have been opened to the differences in how I see my setting and how others see it.

Do most crime fiction writers feel this way? Probably, or at least a good number of us. What do you think?

From what I can tell, most people consider Hawaii a tropical vacation paradise. Oh yeah, there are volcanoes, tsunamis, and hurricanes, but scientists can give plenty of warning so that people can make for the airport and take off before there’s any danger. Meanwhile the lovely hotels, hula dancers, great food, and mai tais make up for any lurking peril. It’s kind of like an exotic amusement park. No one gets hurt at Disneyland, do they?

Rick’s video (see yesterday’s post) made me think of Hawaii. Like Australia, Hawaii is a great place to hide a body. Every year, dozens of hikers are rescued from our trails, and those are the ones whose cell phones worked. Even Oahu, the most populated island, has areas of inaccessible wilderness. People disappear, or “are disappeared” in flash floods, crumbly, unstable volcanic rock, lava tubes, sulfurous fumes, and undiscovered caves.

The ocean is another unpredictable, wild environment. Contrary to belief, sharks don’t cause as many fatal incidents as rogue waves, strong currents, and unexpected beach breaks. There’s a reason that children in Hawaii are taught from an early age to “never turn your back on the ocean.” I’ll leave you with one of the Hawaii Lifeguard mottos: Mai huli ‘oe I kōkua o ke kai. Respect the ocean. Respect the Land, the ‘āina.

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