Sunday, October 31, 2010

Setting As Character

Today's guest author is Kathryn Casey, an award-winning journalist, the author of six highly acclaimed true crime books, and the creator of the Sarah Armstrong Mystery series, published by St. Martin’s Minotaur. The latest book in the series is The Killing Storm (November 2010). Her Web site is:

I had choices when I wrote my first novel, Singularity. I’d covered sensational murder cases for more than two decades, traveling the U.S., interviewing prosecutors, defense attorneys, victims’ families and convicted killers. At first, I wrote magazine articles, later true crime books. In Virginia, I investigated a case of a well-to-do husband and father who turned out to be a pedophile. In Colorado, a black widow that dispatched husbands with a gun got my attention. In Pennsylvania, a meticulously dressed high school student raped and attempted to murder a neighborhood woman. It turned out that he’d been more successful in three other cases. The teenager, Harvey Miguel Robinson, was a serial killer.

So, I could have made my main character a Pennsylvania homicide detective or a Florida state trooper. She might have been a Michigan prosecutor or an Arizona defense attorney. An FBI agent? Why not?

Actually, I knew from the beginning that none of those would work, at least not for me. To my advantage, I had Texas at my disposal. It’s not that I see the state as superior to others, but rather that Texas is my home. I’ve traveled it often as a journalist, and I know it well.

In the best books setting functions as a character. It’s more than location; the right setting gives insight, sets the mood and helps nuance the plot. Could James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux be a Bronx detective? Sure, but would he be the Robicheaux we know? Isn’t the South in his genes? Don’t we hear it in his voice? Even when Burke relocates Robicheaux as he did to Montana in Swan Peak and Black Cherry Blues, Louisiana is never forgotten.

So, I chose Texas, because after living in Houston for thirty years, it’s a place I understand, one I can competently explore in my books. Once that decision was made, it influenced everything that was to come. My character became a Texas Ranger/profiler named Sarah Armstrong, because as a ranger I could take her where I wanted, across the state without worrying about city and county jurisdictional lines. In Singularity Sarah entered the shadowed forests of the Big Thicket hunting a killer, and in Blood Lines she explored the world of celebrity, oil, greed, and murder.

Yet of all my mysteries, it’s in the third novel in the series, The Killing Storm, that the setting plays the biggest role, in the form of a hurricane bearing down on Houston, one that becomes the book’s ticking clock. It’s not surprising that I wrote this book in 2009, months after Hurricane Ike devastated the Gulf Coast, is it?

The Killing Storm isn’t out until November 2010, but is already garnering rave reviews. It’s been chosen as a Mystery Guild and Doubleday Book Club selection, and Publisher’s Weekly called it “the best in the series so far.” Library Journal gave the book a star, and Kirkus has called it “pulse-pounding.”

In addition, Ann Rule has called Casey, “one of the best in the true crime genre.” Her non-fiction books all published by HarperCollins include: A WARRANT TO KILL, (2000); SHE WANTED IT ALL (2005); DIE, MY LOVE (2007); A DESCENT INTO HELL (2008), EVIL BESIDE HER (2008), and SHATTERED (2010). Three were Literary Guild, Mystery Guild, and Doubleday Book Club selections.


peter_may said...

I agree absolutely, Kathryn, about setting. In my China series, China is the main character. In my Enzo series it is France, and in my upcoming trilogy it is the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. When I wrote the first of those everyone loved the setting so much I was offered a three-book contract to write more stories in the same setting. I think when readers find a setting they love, they want to return again and again - like a favorite holiday destination. I know Houston quite well, actually, having set one book there (along with Huntsville). I look forward to reading your books.

Donis Casey said...

I have the same feeling about setting. I, too, chose a setting (Oklahoma) that I know in my bones, and the stories could not unfold the way they do, nor would the characters be the way they are, if they were set somewhere else.

Rick Blechta said...

You know, I just realized something. Kathryn's name is spelled incorrectly on the cover of her book. I certainly hope I'm not the first person who's noticed this...

Kathryn Casey said...

That is a hoot, Rick! The printed book covers are fine. That's a photo St. Martin's sent me early on to approve the cover. I forgot that it was before they made the correction. I'll have to ask them for a new one!

Funny thing: in my first novel, SINGULARITY, my name is misspelled on the top of every other page. No one noticed it, including me. Stuff does happen!

Yes, setting is so influential. It's fascinating to see how it impacts the action in a book and, of course, the characters.