When it comes to setting in fiction, I’m wondering if each of us has ingrained within our being a setting we feel most comfortable describing--a place where sight and sound, texture and smell, time and character collide with a rush of memories so powerful that they are impossible to ignore. For most of us, it’s a place we call home.
I grew up in the sixties in an eclectic small town in upstate New York--“Northern Appalachia” as poet Robert Morgan likes to call it--where silent cows grazed in a pasture just beyond our backyard fence accompanied by the clanking rhythm of plastic injection molding machines from my one of my father’s factories, which also happened to be beside the yard. I remember the smell of my mother cooking pancakes and sausage in the kitchen, the softness of the living room carpet my twin brother and I ran our Hot Wheels cars across, the empty stillness of the house after my father died.
Downtown was only two blocks away. It featured one traffic signal, an incredibly well-endowed public library, the Congregational church we attended, a Civil War monument honoring a famous local Union officer killed in action, a drinking fountain that runs cold to this day with the local water’s slight taste of sulfur --said to be good for your health--and a small smattering of stores. The pristine Chenango River, home to early morning artillery on the opening day of duck season and where the fishing was usually good, ran smooth and silent a half a mile beyond. The fire whistle blew every day at noon.
You see what I mean? I can go back right now and conjure up a thousand more details from the time and place of my childhood--the long, bone-chilling winter blizzards, wind rustling through the high corn, the pungent scent of fresh mowed hay, and precious summer heat baking the air. A mixture of the natural and the manmade, peopled by an industrious population of survivors: farmers, factory workers, artists and artisans, some of whom come from families that have lived there for generations. Home in some ways is like a touchstone for me when it comes to my writing and especially when it comes to creating setting.
For the past twenty years I have lived in the South. Before that, I lived and worked around New York City and other metropolitan areas, so those influences often play a big role in my writing as well, but when it comes to conjuring up the details of a setting, as the cliché goes, there’s no place like home.
Andy Straka is the author of the Shamus Award-winning and Anthony and Agatha Award-nominated Frank Pavlicek novels. A licensed falconer and co-founder of the popular Crime Wave at the annual Virginia Festival of the Book, Andy is also the author of Record Of Wrongs, which Mystery Scenemagazine calls "a first-rate thriller." His latest novel is Kitty Hitter (ISBN 1594148120 Cengage/Five Star $25.95).