Thursday, March 5, 2009

Location, Location, Location

By: Marie Force

So you've got the brilliant story idea. Congratulations! You're on your way to writing a novel! You're starting to understand your characters and the journey you want to take them on. However, even knowing as much as you do about the book you want to write, the decisions are just beginning. On top of all the quirky things that make your characters who they are, you need to know, for instance, what time of year it is. Depending on where your story is set, time of year is critical to what your characters wear, their outdoor activities, etc. In Line of Scrimmage, when Ryan interrupts Susannah's dinner party, it's early February. He comes into the house wearing a beat up sheepskin coat that she despises. In that instance, the season provided me with a tiny slice of conflict I could use to ramp up the tension between them. All these small things add up to a big picture over the course of a novel.

Outside of characterization, I think the most critical decision we make as authors is setting. What city or town—real or fictional—will you grace with your characters' presence? With Line of Scrimmage, I had just begun to sketch out the story in late 2006 when I was sent to Denver for work. I'd never been there before and had a day to kill before my work obligation, so I wandered into tourist areas and talked to people. I asked a lot of questions such as where would a wildly successful football player live in this city? Person after person said Cherry Hills. I stayed in a fantastic hotel called The Brown Palace, which provided the location for my favorite scene in that book. The city lent its special charm to Line of Scrimmage and served, for all intent and purpose, as a third main character.

Baltimore takes center stage in Love at First Flight. For three years when my husband was still in the Navy we lived just south of the city. We strolled our toddler daughter through the Inner Harbor and Fell's Point. Our son was born in Maryland just before we left, and I landed a job in the area that I have to this day (meaning I still get to go there frequently :-) My friend and coworker lived in a fabulous rowhouse right in the city that had gorgeous details: slate countertops, cabinets suspended from the ceiling, a roof deck that overlooked the entire city, and phones in every bathroom. When I needed a place for my hero in L@FF to call home, I didn't need to look much further than April's rowhouse. (She's going to provide some photos for launch week festivities!) Baltimore is a fantastic city with many eclectic neighborhoods that provided just the right atmosphere for Love at First Flight—a big city with a small-town feel. So how did I decide to set the book there? You've heard me say before that I overheard a conversation in the Baltimore Washington International Airport that gave me the inspiration for the book. Since I was already there, I figured why not stay?

Love at First Flight gave me the opportunity to revisit some of my other favorite places and/or former homes. After we left the Baltimore area, we lived for four years in Jacksonville, FL. In L@FF, we'll visit Jacksonville Beach, Ponte Vedra Beach and Amelia Island. We'll also take a trip to Dewey Beach, Delaware (never lived there, but it sure is pretty!) and my hometown of Newport, Rhode Island, where my hero, Michael Maguire, grew up. Each of these locations adds something special to the book's atmosphere.

To the authors out there, how do you decide where to set your stories? To the readers, how important is setting to your enjoyment of a story?


  1. I agree, Marie. Setting and weather provide context and mood for every scene.
    Usually I can draw on my memory for my settings but for SEALed With A Promise I needed a grand and imposing mansion to be the home of the Senator Teague Calhoun, the object of Caleb's revenge.
    I wandered the wavy, cracked sidewalks of Wilmington historic district for half a day before I found Graystone Inn, a B&B.
    The owners kindly gave me a top to bottom tour and helped me to decide if one were to rappel out a second floor bathroom window, where one would land.

  2. Great post, Marie! I loved setting my stories where I've lived and taken many trips and enjoyed the surroundings--Colorado and Oregon for the wolf series. Other locales for many of my stories. I never thought living so many places would help in a writing career! :) As a reader, I always wonder if the places I'm reading about are based in reality or just the reader's imagination. :)

  3. Hey MM,
    That's great you were able to tour the house you wanted to use in your story. April's rowhouse was perfect for L@FF, and it included features that figure into the plot. Certain things that happen in the story wouldn't have happened if I hadn't used that particular house. I find the way the setting informs the plot to be a fascinating part of the whole process.

  4. Terry,
    You've had the military wandering experience, too! All those years of nomadic living sure do pay off when one sits down to write, doesn't it?

    I've only set one of my books (as yet unpublished) in a fictional town. I did that because I needed to set it up a certain way, and it was easier to make it up than to find a town that fit my needs. I did use a compilation of local towns in that area to come up with my fictional town so that it would ring true to the locale.

  5. Great post, Marie!

    Location is so important in books. If it's done well, the location can become a true character.

    As a kid, the thing I loved best about reading was that I could travel the world without ever leaving my bedroom. I explored Africa with Wilbur Smith, Russia with John LeCarre and Robert Ludlum, and regency England with Jane Austen.

    When I wrote Romeo, Romeo I set it in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan. One of the best compliments I ever received was from a reviewer when she said she'd read Romeo, Romeo and felt as if she was in Brooklyn with my characters.

  6. Hi Robin,
    Your comment made me think of the Dr. Seuss book, "Oh The Places You'll Go." :-) I've been trying to hammer home that point with my 10-year-old son, who is kind of meh about reading. Take a trip to the South Pole or the summit of Mt. Everest, I tell him. Books can take you there.

  7. Great post, Marie!
    When your books are set in outer space, they tend to draw more on the imagination than any personal experience. But I still have to create worlds and some of them are patterned after places here on Earth, some I've visited, but most I haven't. Obviously I need to get out more!

  8. For my first story, I knew I wanted it to be placed along the borders of England and Scotland, choosing a place wasn't too hard once I did a bit of research for the era I was writing.

    My newest story had to revolve around two specific events, one dealing with trains. I also had my heart set on Kansas. I know the scenery, the seasons, especially the stormy weather. And I know how the fields look like a blanket of gold silk.


  9. Renee,
    Sounds like you've perfectly captured the atmosphere needed to make your stories shine! Good luck with them!

  10. For historicals I crave any location that's different than England. I want to read about different places.

  11. Indeed, setting and so on is so important. In my case I had to not only learn all I could about England - a country I have never been to. But I also had to research what it would have been like 200 years ago! Yikes! All the hard work pays off though. For me it has been the numerous emails from folks who live in the UK saying it got it spot on. Describing the scenery and atmosphere is essential in conveying the tone. I have come to realize that Pemberley, the English countryside, and even pre-Victorian London are characters in my story as real as the people who walk the halls and streets.

    Excellent post Marie, as always.

  12. I think location also fits my characters' lifestyle. I know Jazz needed to be in Santa Monica near the boardwalk and Stasi and Blair were happier in a small mountain town. Thea's the only one who won't be happy with her surroundings.


  13. Thanks, Sharon. I don't know how you historical gals manage to get everything so spot on. When the book money starts rolling in, I hope you'll take yourself on a trip to England to see it for yourself!

  14. I like the idea, Linda, of locating a character somewhere she won't like. That's some built in conflict right out of the gate!

  15. Setting is sooo important to a book, providing mood and atmosphere. For me, the setting of Lady Anne and the Howl in the Dark just had to be Yorkshire, both for the scenery - moody, wild, gorgeous and rugged - but also for the hero, Lord Darkefell - moody, wild, gorgeous and, yes, rugged!

    But the setting has to become another character in the book, and like a character, you have to get to know its temperament and positive and negative traits.

    Great post!

  16. Thanks for your insight, Donna. You are so right, sometimes the location dictates the story. That is certainly the case in some aspects of Love @ First Flight!

  17. I have to add this one to my to buy list. I loved the first one.

    Pat L.

  18. Thanks, Pat. That's very sweet of you! I hope you enjoy L@FF just as much!