I’ve been thinking a lot about setting lately. I’m about 15,000 words into the first book in my new series and I’ve already exhausted my shallow knowledge of Detroit. For a brief moment, I debated scrapping the Detroit setting and going with Flint, Michigan which is where the short story introducing my PI is set. I like Flint as a setting and I know Flint intimately. I know the secrets, the legends, the gossip, the politics and the hidden treasures. I can easily make Flint “a character” in a mystery series. But ultimately, Flint does not have the national potential that Detroit does.
I tried to argue with myself for a bit after that pointing out to myself that many PI writers have done just fine with settings outside of a major metropolis. Steve Hamilton, Sue Grafton, Andy Straka, and Dave White came immediately to mind. But if I went with Flint as a setting I would have had to scrap almost 50 pages and start over with a different story because Flint wasn’t a big enough canvass for the story I want to tell. So I decided to fake it for a while and do a little research on Detroit to see what I could use.
Now it’s not exactly like I’m a stranger to the Detroit area. I’ve never lived more than an hour or so away from the city and have always been exposed to Detroit news and happenings. I’ve been downtown many times and have even been to some of the sketchier areas (thank you return trip from Bouchercon 2004). I’m even more familiar with the suburban areas. So I know the basic geography, I know the major roads and where the varying economic barriers lie. It’s all a start, but it’s not enough to paint the city as convincingly as Lawrence Block paints New York City, Laura Lippman paints Baltimore, Dennis Lehane paints Boston, or Rick Riordan paints San Antonio. And it’s nowhere near enough to capture the city as well as local authors Loren Estleman and Rob Kantner have over the years.
So what’s a lazy and confused writer to do?
Well the first thing I did was make my guy an outsider. Instead of being a dyed-in-the-wool native Detroiter, he’s a native Flint boy forced out of his city. So he’s just as much of a tourist there as I am. And then I hit the Internet. Between some great blogs, the archives of the Detroit Free Press, and two fantastic web sites with photo tours and commentary, I’ve managed to cobble together enough knowledge of the city to write about it convincingly enough for a first draft. I even got an idea for a great subplot.
Detroit is such a great city with so much real and fictional potential that I’m excited to write about it. I’ve also been exposed to so many of the recent renovations downtown that I’m also itching to visit the new Borders and Hard Rock Café soon. I figure if the city is good enough for Robocop, it’s good enough for me.
So what about the rest of you? How do you decide where to set your stuff? And what do you like to see in other people’s settings?