Sunday, March 28, 2010

Guest Blogger - Carl Brookins

Peter May writes:  Five years ago, I was at one of those dreadful publishers' cocktail parties at Bouchercon in Chicago - where those in the inner circle greet each other like long lost lovers, while glancing around to see if there might be anyone more interesting to talk to.  I, of course, was not a part of that inner circle (and clearly not very interesting), so stood around like a lemon, nursing a glass of wine and wondering if I could slip out unnoticed. 

I was rescued from the ignominy of sneaking out by a charming man with silken silver hair and bristling beard.  He turned out to be Carl Brookins, that distinguished member of the highly entertaining Minnesota Crime Wave.  He shoved another glass of wine in my hand and we began to talk - and have been firm friends ever since.

Variously a freelance photographer, a director and producer with Public TV, a Cable TV administrator, and a faculty member at Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Carl is a top rate mystery author and well-known book reviewer. 

He writes a sailing adventure series, the Sean Sean private investigator series, and has introduced a new protagonist, Jack Marston, a mid-level administrator at an urban college. His short work appears in anthologies Silence of the Loons, Resort to Murder, and Heat of the Moment.


There are two sides (at least) to the question of settings. Real or fictional? In my sailing series I tend to be precise. Since the books are grounded in the real world, at least as I define the real world, and by that I mean this one I’m living in, I believe readers are interested in the locations as well as the sailing aspects of the mystery.

Location, that is the geography of the story, has, or should have, some discernable influence on the action, the attitudes and even, perhaps, the kind of characters who show up. Otherwise, the story could be lifted from one city and placed in another with almost no noticeable difference. When I was in Morocco, we learned a couple of interesting things. Each of the major cities was distinct, different in atmosphere and style. Add to that each city had a unique identifiable color that they exploited. If you’re going to use Marrakesh, it better not be sort of like any number of early Twentieth-Century French cities, even though France ruled Morocco for many years and its influences on the architecture of these African cities is apparent. Marrakesh is a unique city with its own personality. Fes, the red city was an amazing and different place.

On the other side of the argument is first, the obvious one, that by establishing a completely fictional setting, even if similar to real locations, you, the author, are free to manipulate things to the needs of the story. Kent Krueger does that extremely well in the Cork O’Connor series set in the Minnesota north woods. His town and county are completely fictional, yet his careful research has grounded him to the specific characteristics that are unique and unusual to the scenery in northern Minnesota—with only one or two very minor missteps early on.

The principal danger in writing about totally fictional places is something I see quite often in crime fiction. An example: your protagonist is running down a street away from the killer who is about to shoot her in the back. Conveniently, an alley appears on the left. She darts into the alley just as the killer fires a bullet that chips some granite from the building just beside our heroine.

Easy. But if you are dealing with a real place, you have to figure out the details that let you save your heroine in real terms and real time. That leads, I believe to more thoughtful, careful plotting and writing. And to return to my own writing, readers of my sailing mysteries expect to be told about real places where the action could only happen the way it happens because the geography is what it is.

My short story, “A Winter’s Tale,” available on line, takes place on the snow-locked wind-blasted northern plains. Read it and tell me if the story could have taken place anywhere else?

Carl's latest sailing mystery, DEVILS ISLAND is out now.


Vicki Delany said...

Good points, Carl. I spent a lot of time last week in NYC walking the streets where a foot chase takes place. I spent far more time on that scene than on most things that take place in the fictional county.

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