Carl Vonderau is the author of Murderabilia and Saving Myles. You can learn more about him at his website, carlvonderau.com/, by clicking here, and you can buy his books here. This is his first post for the Blackbird Writers.
When setting is evoked well, it is another character in a story. But how do you get it right if you don’t live in the place you’re writing about?
My solution is to go there and walk around. Like Bogota. Or Tijuana. I even strolled through Algiers at the height of North African terrorism. As I walked, I found I not only needed to take pictures but to write down all the interesting things I saw. I’ve found that, even with photos, the images often didn’t translate to the pages. Scribbling down what caught my interest got me closer to where my scenes took place. And what about the other senses besides sight? David Morrell, the author of Rambo and many other books, had an interesting take on that. He thinks that authors rely too much on sight and tries to get at least two other senses in each scene.
But if you don’t know the area you’re writing about, how do you scout out the right locations? I try to find a local person and let them help me find the setting I need for my scenes. Even a taxi driver can guide you to the right places. I recently went to Tijuana and asked the driver where a restaurant might be where a cartel would murder someone. That brought a strange look. I also needed a place in Tijuana where a kidnapping could occur. For that one, I got in touch with some friends at the YMCA in Tijuana. They took me to a crowded location of about 20 bars with loud music in every genre. It would be hard to kidnap someone with so many partying people around, I thought. The parking lot outside wouldn’t work either; guards were there. But a driveway led to an underground garage that was dark and dank, the cement on the ceiling crumbling. Perfect!
My friends also showed me Coahuila Street, where scores of prostitutes sold their services. Okay, I could use that in the book. How about the wealthy business owners, government officials and cartel capos? They lived up on a hill with views of the city. Huge walls surrounded them, some of their estates as big as football fields. Armed guards sat in cars on the street outside. Perfect. I also needed a setting of a poor barrio where a ransom could be paid. My friend drove me around and I took in amazingly creative houses made of garage doors, truck tires and mismatched windows. I never could have imagined that.
So what details do you use? I think the trick for conveying a setting is to ground the reader but also to provide only the most evocative details. Too much commonplace description bores the reader. In my prior book, Murderabilia, I talked to a guard at the San Diego County jail. For almost an hour he told me how the inmates were processed and what their jail cells looked like. The detail that caught my attention was that the sink was connected to the toilet. I had to put that one in the book. In the heavy traffic of Bogota, I found the white church atop the green mountains was a symbol I could use. The church promised miracles.
If the description of the setting is nested in the character’s point of view, it can carry attitude and emotion which adds to its power. However, sometimes just the plain description casts a mood. In the garage I found in Tijuana, I saw the sharp edges of a shattered lightbulb on the ceiling. Just that image seemed to foreshadow what would happen to my character. In San Diego, an ancient cave inside a cliff gave view of a the endless waves of the Pacific. That seemed like a perfect location for a father and son to have the kind of talk that all fathers have had with their sons. In Algiers, the traffic shut off for prayer so men could lay their rugs on the street and pray. What a wonderful image of religious devotion.
I think effective setting comes from getting down a few unique details that will resonate with the reader. For me, the best way to discover those gems is to visit the setting itself.