Carl Vonderau says, “Getting the Setting Right Can be Fun and Dangerous”

Carl Vonderau is the author of Murderabilia and Saving Myles. You can learn more about him at his website,, 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.

Carl Vonderau

Carl Vonderau is the author of the Left Award-winning Murderabilia and Saving Myles. You can find out more about him on his website,, or follow him on Instagram, and/or Facebook.

This Post Has 17 Comments

  1. Anne Louise Bannon
    Anne Louise Bannon

    Checking your settings out is also a great excuse to travel. But I love your comment from David Morrell. I hear things better than I “see” them, so I often include sounds. I just wish I had a better sense of smell.

    1. Carl Vonderau
      Carl Vonderau

      I loved David’s comment too. I actively try to get two other senses in each scene now.

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    Margaret Mizushima

    Great post, Carl! I love reading about different places and setting in a book is important to me. I loved hearing about your trip south of the border!

    1. Carl Vonderau
      Carl Vonderau

      O’m listening to Standing Dead and you too found some nice setting details south of the border.

  3. Sheila Lowe
    Sheila Lowe

    You are so right, Carl. Youtube can only go so far in helping. You don’t get the feel of the literal atmosphere (the same weather feels different in different places), or the smells. I had to smile at your mention of Coahuila Street. It’s the name of a street I used in the first book in my series, but the street is located near Palm Springs. I never expected to see it anywhere else!

  4. Avatar

    Just reading your blogpost took me to so many fascinating places. Now I can’t wait to read your books!

  5. Christine DeSmet
    Christine DeSmet

    Such interesting travels you’ve had, Carl. I’m eager to check out how you use several senses in your writing of “place.”

  6. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    When I was a teacher, my students and I would work on writing evocative settings by listing the five senses, then expected as well as some unexpected things our senses might share with us in a place. Sometimes now, I actually make such a list for my own writing. Thank for the trip to fascinating places, Carl!

  7. joyribar

    Your setting descriptions are provocative, and certainly seem to pair well with your genre. What thrilling tours you’ve taken! I love writing that explores sensory details and stretches the use of all the senses. Like Sherrill, I am a former teacher. My favorite class was teaching high schoolers creative writing. We did many fun short exercises in using sensory details. I miss those lessons. You’ve inspired me to work on my settings.

  8. Colleen Winter
    Colleen Winter

    Setting is everything. I love your thoughts on the importance of traveling to your destination in person and also the benefit of a local guide. To get below the veneer of the tourist experience, having a guide is priceless. Thanks for the reminder to get out there an explore where our books are set.

    1. Carl Vonderau
      Carl Vonderau

      The local guide is great when you can find one. I went through the internet once go find a guide servide. When he heard I was interested in finding cartel locations, he stopped responding.

  9. Tracey Phillips
    Tracey Phillips

    I love to think of setting as a character. And you’re right, using more than one sensory detail helps ground the reader. So far my books are placed in my old stomping grounds. Traveling to the next book location is on my to do list!

    1. Carl Vonderau
      Carl Vonderau

      When you travel there take a notebook and write things down. Try to get it on the page right away.

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    Avanti Centrae

    Completely agree, Carl. I love to travel to the places I write about!

  11. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    Carl —

    Great post! Like you, I travel to where my crime thrillers take place because it elevates the series’ location to character status in my books.

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    Jacqueline Vick

    How intriguing, Carl. I can’t imagine driving around barrios and kidnapping locations unless I really knew the taxi driver! 🙂 But it’s that kind of detail that makes your writing shine.

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