Thursday, August 26, 2010

Where the heart is

I’ve been lucky enough in my life to live in several beautiful places. I grew up in Norway, which is considered one of the loveliest places in the world. Mountains, forests, fairytale landscapes with rocks and rivers—not to mention the coast, long enough to reach from Mexico to Canada and beyond.


From Norway I went to New York City, which may not have the reputation of being particularly lovely, but to someone who adores it, it has a beauty all its own. The skyline all lit up at night, the bustle of the streets, the people: all different shapes, sizes, and colors, in their different clothes. The different neighborhoods, with their different personalities. Rockefeller Center at Christmas, with the tree and the skaters.

My last stop so far has been Nashville, which is different again. There’s the Parthenon, of course, and the Country Music Hall of Fame. The Ryman Auditorium, the Opryland Hotel, the Belle Meade and Belmont Plantations... To me, the beauty of Nashville is all about buildings. And not buildings plural, like New York’s skyline. Buildings singular, one at a time. Gorgeous Victorian cottages, rambling Arts and Crafts bungalows, quaint fairytale Tudors with towers and points...

We’re talking about moving again, this time to Saint Augustine, Florida. The oldest town in the United States, settled in 1565 by Pedro Menendez de Aviles. Gorgeous little town with narrow cobblestoned streets, old French Quarter-style buildings made of coquina shell mixture, a fort guarding the harbor, and of course the beautiful Anastasia Island beach, with white sands and azure water. Dolphins breaking the surface on the intracoastal waterway, slow manatees bobbing, graceful sailing boat and—yes—some rather attractively muscled people in skimpy clothes.
Where I am is a big deal to me. What I see around me, what the place smells like, sounds like, feels like. How hot or cold it is. Each place is different, distinctive.

And it’s the same when I write. The setting becomes almost like a character in the book. Distinctive and different. And like the characters, it drives the plot forward. The fact that Waterfield is on the coast of Maine has influenced the kinds of stories I include in the DIY-series; there are subjects I just wouldn’t have been able to tackle had the books been set elsewhere. Smuggling, human trafficking, the US Navy, Marie Antoinette’s cats...

Same thing with A Cutthroat Business. Savannah Martin is who she is because of where she grew up; setting very literally influenced the character, and setting continues to influence the plot and background in that book, and in the ones that will follow. It’s all about the Southern setting, Southern mores, a Southern background.

It probably goes without saying that I also enjoy reading books with a distinctive setting, be it domestic or foreign, real or imagined. Elizabeth Peters’s Egypt in the last century. JD Robb’s New York City anno 2060. Lois McMaster Bujold’s planet of Barrayar. JK Rowling’s Hogwarts. Deborah Crombie’s London and Carla Neggers’s Boston. Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Miller’s Kill. Frank Baum's Land of Oz.

So what about you? Is setting important to you when you read? Do you have any favorite authors whose settings you enjoy? Have you ever read a book specifically because it was set in a certain place? (I have to confess to gobbling up books set in Cornwall. Comes from growing up on Daphne de Maurier, I expect.)

And how about when you write, if you write? Is setting important to you then, or can your books be set practically anywhere and not change appreciably because of it?

Inquiring minds want to know.


Bente Gallagher is the author of A Cutthroat Business, first in the Savannah Martin real estate mysteries (June 2010) and the Do-It-Yourself home renovation mysteries (three strong; DIY-4, Mortar and Murder, coming to a store near you on January 4th, 2011) written as Jennie Bentley. You can read more about her doings and undoings on her website: www.bentegallagher.com

11 comments:

Kat said...

My favorite author is James Lee Burke, particularly his novels set in Louisiana. His sense of place is absolutely pitch perfect. I have begun writing again, and I am finding that the setting does help drive the story. Great post!

Jennie Bentley said...

Thanks for stopping by, Kat. Yeah, setting is incredibly important, and James Lee Burke does it well. Good luck with your own writing!

Peggy Webb said...

Your descriptions of place are simply lovely, Bente. Like fellow Mississippian, Edora Welty, (whose work I adore), I am strongly influenced by the Deep South, the slow rhythm of days and words.

Laura Marcella said...

I do pay attention to setting! It shapes the characters for sure. One of my most memorable settings is Prince Edward Island from the Anne of Green Gables series (by L.M. Montgomery). I still haven't gotten there yet, but I will some day!

Jennie Bentley said...

Thanks, Peggy, you're so sweet! I'm glad you liked it.

Laura, excellent example! That's another question I should have included: have you ever visited a place because you read about it in a book? If you love Anne of Green Gables, I bet you will get to PEI one of these days!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I've visited most of those places, but never Norway. Would love to go!

Jennie Bentley said...

Norway is gorgeous! Everybody should go see it. Seriously. Just be prepared to pay, as it's one of the most expensive countries in the world. Of course, it also has the highest standard of living. And you can always visit vicariously through one of the many Scandinavian crime writers published in the US these days. Jo Nesbø, Anne Holt, Karin Fossum, Unni Lindell...

Nancy said...

Hi Bente! I love the post, and I love settings as characters. I use St. Augustine, FL to enrich my books, and I love the Maine town you use in the DIY mysteries!
Can't wait to read A Cutthroat Business for its southern setting!

Joe Lansdale's books are filled with the flavor of place, and so are Tamar Myers, Charliane Harris, Joan Hess - gee, the list could go on and on!

I'm still rooting for you to move to St. Augustine when the time is right!

Jennie Bentley said...

I'd love to, sweetie, you know that. And it isn't completely off the table. We're still talking about it... Hope you'll like the new book; let me know what you think!

Ad Hudler said...

Bente: Which book of yours should I read first? What would give me the best feel for your work?

Jennie Bentley said...

Hiya, Ad! Nice to see you!

Sweetie, the only book I've written that's really 'me' is A Cutthroat Business. I wrote all the others, as well, but they're less 'me.' That said, there are a lot more of them and they're selling a lot better, so maybe the real me isn't as desirable as the fake me. I don't know.

The first DIY book is called Fatal Fixer-Upper, if you want to start the series at the beginning. You don't have to; they're all self-explanatory, really. The last to come out was Plaster and Poison; Mortar and Murder comes in January.