Location, location, location

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?

10 thoughts on “Location, location, location

  1. I cheat like a bastard and make chunks of my settings up. That said, I also do scads of research (not even living in the same country and at times writing about places I haven’t even been makes this pretty much a necessity). But not using many real-world locations, even in, say, the big section of TDI set in Boston, makes things easier. If I want a coffee shop next to a precinct house, there it is, etc. The research gives me enough info to know where to drop my fictional things, and it allows me to use real ones when it matters.In Boston’s case, even Lehane hasn’t been immune to that in the past. In Mystic River, East Buckingham’s a fictional amalgam of a couple of real neighbourhoods, and there is no real Shutter Island in the harbour. But it feels real, so it works.I guess that’s the aim. I don’t care if a given building, area, city or whatever is actually real or not, so long as my disbelief is well and truly suspended.

  2. Jim Fusilli, who writes so well about New York, has stories in Washington DC and Baltimore Noir (among others), so he might be a good person to chat up about how to do this. It definitely can be done, but I don’t have a clue. I think half the battle is giving yourself permission. To write a novel, to write a certain kind of novel, to set that novel in a certain city. To write about a character of the opposite gender, of a different race, or sexual preference or age. To write about cops or PIs or lawyers or nurses or librarians or hotdog vendors. In short: You’ll be fine.

  3. I tend to set my writing in Los Angeles. Partly because I know it, and partly because it’s so damn big it’s just as easy to make stuff up as it is to use reality. If there’s no conveniently placed strip bar / police station / all-night diner, it’s easy to just plop it in the middle of the Valley and no one’s the wiser.That said, I think there’s a danger in writing about real places. If you get the reality wrong readers familiar with the area are going to call you on it. Point a freeway in the wrong direction and somebody squawks.Either way, the trick is to create a reality that a reader doesn’t have to think about, one that they can accept without pause. I don’t know Detroit, for example, but I know what I’ve seen in movies. As long as the setting doesn’t go so far away from my expectation that I have to stop and think about it, I’m sold.Oh, and as a side note, Flickr and Google’s image search are great ways to get visual details on specific areas you’ve never been.

  4. I’ve set my first PI novel in Sydney because I live here. It’s possibly the most commercial city in Australia to use as a location, aside from Melbourne, so that’s not something I’ve worried about.What I did agonise over now sounds extremely silly to me.At first, I planned on writing a PPI (Paranormal Private Investigator) novel set in an Australia of the future, something like 2030. Think of a cross between Magnum PI, Ghostbusters and Demolition Man, with a bit of Blues Brothers thrown in for flavour. Yikes.I scaled back enormously, realising that a paranormal sci-fi mystery was far too complex for a first novel. I brought my character back into the present, and set it in and around the suburb of Sydney I live in. I know Newtown well, having lived in about six different places in the area over the last five years or so. When it comes down to it, I think a setting is really about the people. What kind of jobs do they do, what do they wear, what are their friends like, what matters to them? If I set a scene in a dingy pool hall, it’s definitely going to be different to an upmarket cafe. Not because of the ambience, but because of the people.I’m working on Paul Guyot’s short story comp at the moment, and I’m doing my best to set in St. Louis. It’s an eye-opening experience.

  5. I tend to roam. I put Beneath A Panamanian Moon in DC and Panama City, both places I know, but not places where I’ve lived recently. I’m sure both people who read my book and are intimate with today’s Panama City will find fuck-ups in the geography. Hey, I did my best. As for DC, I put action in places I knew well, like the State Department.I’m ghosting a novel for a graduate of Harvard Med School and had to learn Boston. I made a few trips, once gripping a short film so I could afford it and at my age, gripping is tough. What I couldn’t learn on short trips, I researched. Does it work? I don’t know, but I think so. The Harvard doc thinks so, which is all that really counts when you’re ghosting.My next book is set in 1941 DC. Now, that’s tough. The city has changed so much and, contrary to what Dusty Rhoades would tell you, I’m not that old. But I’ve spent days in the Library of Congress and the MLK library and on the Internet, getting to know Washington on the cusp of WWII. I even knocked on the door of a mansion on Dupont Circle and asked if I could see the place, as I had a scene set there. The people were wonderfully gracious and showed me around like I was the ambassador from Belgium.So, place it where it needs to be and do as much homework as it takes. Only you will know how much that is.As someone who has lived in Detroit, Flint sounds OK to me.Knock ’em dead, Bryon.

  6. When I was speaking to a publisher last summer, I told her I had fictionalized the town for my first intended book in a series, but that for subsequent books I planned on using a real location (there was a plot point that required the first book to be somewhere other than the main protaganist’s home base). It’s like Laura said – I gave myself permission to get to know my character and one of the ways I eliminated the location obstacle was to create it. I reference it off of real locations and I know the generic area well enough to make it sound like it really is a small city in the mountains.But I told this publisher I was a bit nervous about the real setting for book 2. And she said just to fictionalize places within the city.So, when I started the first draft, I taped a big map up on the wall and, well, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it might be. Helped I knew the general area a bit, in terms of geography and such.Think of a movie set in Detroit and then watch it, get a feel for the style. Oh, and on The First 48 recently they’ve been following homicide cops in Detroit. So if you like being lazy with a tv and popcorn, that might help.

  7. Setting, for me, was a lot more important when I lived in New Brunswick. It was a lot easier to get a handle on the pulse of the city. But now that I live about 40 minutes away and don’t get there as often, I find I don’t put as much effort into setting as I used to. I get street names right, I picture locations, but I’m not sure my characters really jibe as much with NB. Or maybe I’m so used to doing it, I don’t even think about it as much anymore. Then again, I’m more into getting all of New Jersey right rather than New Brunswick.

  8. Hi Byron,Lots of folks have said this already but I think the key to making the setting work is not so much slavish attention to detail but the ability to capture the spirit of a place. Any moron can use mapquest to get the street names right. And we’ve all read books where the author has tossed in local color shit (ie Vernors Ginger Ale or Win Schuler’s Cheese for Michigan minutae) as a substitute for truly “getting” a city’s soul. But you have to use the good writer’s basic tools of empathy and imagination to make a setting come alive. That said, I think your idea to make your hero an outsider could work well. That’s what I do alot with my Louis guy. It gives you some room to play with perception in that an outsider would have a distinctly different take on Detroit than a native. (I was born and raised in Detroit for the record!)p.s. Where you been lately? Haven’t seen you around the blog world??

  9. I like the way you plan to do this, Bryon. For me, it’s not much of an issue. That world has disappeared almost completely, so I can work from research and imagination. I do pick famous places because they are more interesting to the reader, and agree completely about getting the atmosphere right.

  10. For whatever it’s worth, Google Maps has directions for major thoroughfares (for those pesky one-way traffic issues). What I have found very, very helpful is a copy of AIA Detroit: The American Institute of Architects Guide to Detroit Architecture. It’s pricey, but man, there’s lots of info on Detroit buildings and areas and maps that can save lots of time for quick research. The Cleveland one is thinner, but also useful for me.

Comments are closed.