Saturday, January 23, 2010


I've been thinking about surroundings lately - witness my blog entry of last week.  I noticed that my own private space says a lot about me, and it's made me consider how important it is, therefore, to describe a character's environment a novel. You can learn a lot about him from the setting in which he is placed.

You know how it is when you buy a red Toyota, thinking you're all unique, and then every other car you see on the drive home is a red Toyota?  It's the same with what you think are original observations.  On Wednesday, I heard Rhys Bowen speak about her writing process.  One of the many things she said that struck me was that when she begins a novel, she often doesn’t know the complete cast of characters, who’s going to get killed or how, or who did the deed, but she knows where the story will unfold. 

The night before I heard Rhys say this, I was reading  P.D. James’ new book, Talking About Detective Fiction, and came across this :  “My own detecive novels, with rare exceptions, have been inspired by the place rather than by a method of murder or a character."    She then describes a moment when she was standing on a deserted beach in East Anglia.  She could imagine standing in the same place hundreds of years ago, until she turned around and saw a nuclear power plant, and “immediately I knew that I had found the setting for my next novel.”

Ms. James also observes that : "When an author describes a room in the victim's house, perhaps the one in which the body is found,, the description can tell the perceptive reader a great deal about the victims character and interests.” 

Vicki Delany said on this very blog that in creating her novels, the setting comes first. 

Setting is important to characterization.  Even if the murder unfolds the same way in two novels you'll have two very different mysteries if the victim is killed in a beach house in Thailand or in a prep school auditorium; if the suspects live on deep in the  moors, or in Manhattan across from Central Park; if the detective lives in a fifth-floor walk-up on the south side of Chicago or in a mansion in Beverly Hills.

If Miss Wonderly had walked into Spade and Archer Detective Agency on the first floor of the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, The Maltese Falcon just wouldn't have been the same.


Ann Elle Altman said...

Wonderful post.

I agree, setting is important. I have read PD James and setting is obviously very important to her and her stories. She has wonderful places for murder.

As a mystery writer, what the author describes in the room, the reader is likely to observe intently for clues. As writers, setting should be important to us.


Donis Casey said...

Thanks, Ann. you're right that mystery readers are always looking around the scene you set in their heads, always scoping out the surroundings.

Hannah Dennison said...

So true! I believe the setting is a character in itself. Great post Donis!