Friday, March 22, 2013

Is This Place For Real?

I was only a few pages into Wicked Autumn by G M Malliet when the word “Brigadoon” popped into my head.  Like the magical village in Lerner and Loewe’s musical of the same name, Malliet’s fictional village of Nether Monkslip seems not quite real. Happily, I found out that I was not the only one to feel this way -- on page 129, one of the characters refers to the place as “our Brigadoon.”

Mystery Book Club members generally begin the discussion of each monthly selection by reviewing setting, characters and plot. For some of us, setting carries great importance because, in most cases, it establishes the whole ambience of the story. In some cases, the setting plays an even more important role: it “becomes a character,” as we might say in our discussion. Think Downton Abbey.

It would seem that one of the first things an author must do when beginning a new book (or series) is tackle The Dilemma of the Fictional Setting. Will the story be set in a real city with the actual streets, buildings and other sites described? Will the reader be able to get out his map and follow, for example, V I Warshawski (Sara Paretsky) on her adventures in Chicago? We walk the streets of LA with Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch or visit Cleveland’s metropolitan area with Les Roberts’ Milan Jacovich.

Many of the books in Deborah Crombie’s Kincaid and James series include beautifully drawn maps of the London neighborhoods that serve as her settings. Authors who create settings that are not real may also provide maps, perhaps not as detailed, as does Malliet in her books set in Nether Monkslip.

Maybe the story will be set in a fictional city or town that is loosely based on a place that readers might recognize. Sue Grafton’s Santa Teresa feels very familiar to readers who have visited southern California, but we probably won’t find Rosie’s restaurant or the offices of California Fidelity in any west coast city. Some of our favorite authors are very good at creating new places that feel just right. Charlaine Harris’ Bon Temps has the right feel as a small Louisiana town, a place that must surely have a bar like Merlotte’s.

Some amazing authors (George R R Martin comes to mind) create entire continents dotted with diverse cities, towns and wild places, and people them with fascinating and complex cultures. One of my favorite authors, J K Rowling, moves readers effortlessly from muggle London and its suburbs to magical Hogwarts, just a leisurely train ride away.

Of course, some authors craft their stories in such a way that setting doesn’t matter, the action could take place anywhere. But for my part, I would always prefer the book that takes me to a lovely place that is familiar and comforting,  a wonderful place that is new to me, or an exciting place that makes me stop reading to wonder “Wow, is this place for real?”


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