Friday, November 04, 2016

Time and Setting

"Well, let me catch you up. It's now later the same afternoon. . ."

That's what Blanche on The Golden Girls says when Dorothy mentions it's been years since she read a certain slow-moving, long-running comic strip. Time hasn't moved quite as slowly in my Lizzie Stuart series. But it now four year later in a series that began in 2000. The series is now set in 2004.

The first challenge I'm facing is that I've forgotten the details. I'm about to write a book in which Lizzie Stuart and John Quinn, my sleuthing couple, fly off to Santa Fe to spend Thanksgiving with his relatives. This will be the first time Lizzie meets her future in-laws. Only thing, I've forgotten the bits and pieces of their lives from earlier books. I know Quinn's half-sister owns an art gallery. I don't know if I gave her husband an occupation. I don't remember if I mentioned the ages of their children. I know Quinn's mother and step-father are coming from Oklahoma. I don't remember what the illness was that had the step-father hospitalized in the third book. All those pesky little details that I've forgotten. And I haven't been keeping a series "bible" with information about the minor characters because my editor did that so well. But I won't have the same editor or publisher for this new book. I am going to have to go back and look for these details.

Actually, I may re-read the earlier books. I have never done that – read all of the books in the series. I was afraid of an encounter with passages that would make me cringe. But much has changed in both Lizzie's life and my own since we began sixteen years ago. At this moment in her life when she is only two months away from her wedding day at the age of forty, we should look back at how she got there. Since she is not going to do that in the midst of the awful situation that I'm about to put her in, I should do it for her.

Also, re-reading could help me with the warm-up exercise that I always have to do with a new book. I've been writing about another character, Hannah McCabe, for the past few years. During those years, I wrote one short story about Lizzie. I was thrilled when that story was published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, but I didn't immediately return to the series. A reader asked if the short story was a set-up for the next book. I said "no". But as I began writing the new book, it occurs to me that one of the characters in the short story was in Paris during World War II, and Lizzie and Quinn are supposed to go to Paris on their honeymoon. The short story was complete in itself. A passing episode in Lizzie's life as the director of the Institute for the Study of Southern Crime and Justice, but there is that tantalizing mention of Paris. Who knows what . . . but getting back to the book I'm working on now. First, Lizzie has to meet her future in-laws.

I've never been to Santa Fe. Reminding myself that research trips are tax-deductible, I'm going to New Mexico later this month. A whirlwind three-day trip to try to imagine what Lizzie would have seen when she was there in November 2004. Last night I had dinner with a wonderful woman whose son lives in Santa Fe. She brought along a magazine, a map, and tips about "must sees" in downtown Santa Fe. While we were talking about where Quinn's sister and her family might live, she texted her son for more information. The pal who is coming along with me on my research trip had her travel guide to Santa Fe on hand and we discussed short trips Lizzie and Quinn might take – keeping in mind that they need to spend time with his family because that's why they are there. Thanksgiving dinner, football, conversations – except Lizzie is distracted by that missing woman back home in Gallagher, Virginia. . . the woman that she last saw changing a tire on the side of the road.

Because I'm description-challenged I need to go to the place I'm trying to describe. Yes, even if that means going to Santa Fe in this book and to Paris for the next. Those of the hardships of being a writer. But I hope that going to Santa Fe will allow me to see the city through Lizzie's eyes. She is a first-person narrator. Reading a guidebook and watching YouTube videos will not suffice. I will read books about Santa Fe history because Lizzie is a crime historian and she will read those books. I'll do research on art and culture in Santa Fe because Lizzie will want to be able to have an informed conversation with her future sister-in-law, the art gallery owner.

As I gear up for my trip to Santa Fe, I'm reading Mary Buckham's A Writer's Guide to Active Setting: How to Enhance Your Fiction with More Descriptive, Dynamic Settings (2015). I plucked this book off the shelf at a local bookstore. I brought it home and put it on top of a pile of other books that I hoped to read at some future date. Last week when I was thinking about Santa Fe and what I needed to know, I happened to spot Buckham's book. Buckham emphasizes the importance of getting inside your character's head when it comes to describing the setting. Whether it's a city street or her own bedroom, what a character focuses on should reflect both personality and mental state. Buckham analyzes passages from well-known writers to demonstrate how to use setting to strengthen depiction of character.

Lizzie once complained about New Orleans – didn't love the place and couldn't get into it – but she was there to find her long-lost mother and things were not going well. I want to go deeper with my settings, make every description work harder. That means I need to get out of my author's head when I visit Santa Fe for the first time and get into Lizzie's. I hadn't intended to write those earlier scenes in the book yet – the before-the-trip scenes when she encounters the woman who is later missing – but it seems I must. When we arrive in Santa Fe, Lizzie needs to be worried and anxious . . . and we need to be back in 2004.

1 comment:

Charlotte Hinger said...

Frankie, I've got to get to Kansas before the snow flies. I'm heading for a region known as the "Little Balkans." I'm eager to get there and it has everything to do with my next book. But the trip is such a long drive.

I'm very interested in the settings book you described. I need to spiff up my ability with descriptions.

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