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Carlene O’Neil on Location, Location, Location

Carlene O’Neil is the author of the Cypress Cove cozy series. You can find out more about her on her website, www.carleneoneil.com, or by clicking here, read her last post here, and buy her books here.

What’s most important in a novel? What pushes the story forward? If you look at the golden age of mystery writing you will see the emphasis was on plot. More recently character development is what readers are looking for. If you were to ask me, though, I would say of equal importance is the location. The location, the setting where the story takes place, should be as pivotal to the story as the plot or characters. In many cases it can become a character in itself. It can draw the reader in, create an atmosphere, express an opinion. The railroad bridge in the photos, for example, can at times look serene and safe, and is in fact a part of my morning walk. It’s also the bridge used in the movie Lost Boys. Same bridge, same location, entirely different mood.

The location can also move the plot forward, and, like the bridge, a place that once felt safe can threaten your character, adding to the suspense and keeping your character vulnerable and in danger.

Also, without fully realizing it, where the story takes place is one of the very first things we consider when deciding what to read next. Sometimes the setting is obvious and right on the cover. If you are looking to escape into a cozy mystery, for example, the gritty underbelly of Chicago likely won’t be your choice. Conversely, the next international thriller you pick up is unlikely to be set in wine country. We know the location before we know anything of the characters or plot and decide what to read next based on what setting is most appealing.

A setting should engage all of our senses. In the opening scene of Joanne Harris’ Chocolat, readers are invited into the location using sound, scent, and sight:

We came on the wind of the carnival. A warm wind for February, laden with the hot greasy scents of frying pancakes and sausage and powdery-sweet waffles cooked on the hotplate right there by the roadside, with the confetti sleeting down collars and cuffs and rolling in the gutters.

It’s impossible to read this without gaining an intimate feeling of the place, and all in the first paragraph.

When deciding what to read next, I know I’ve selected books based on where the story takes place, either because it’s somewhere I already know, or a place I want to learn something about. As a reader I will take an author’s description of the location as accurate, but the author gets one chance, and once a discrepancy is caught, the trust the reader has in the author is weakened. As an author, I know the reader is relying on me to get the facts right. They want to take this trip with me. The right novel can transport the reader to a place they may never have a chance to experience themselves. While things have changed and a lot of research can be done on-line, nothing takes the place of actually spending time at the location. When writing on a place, things change with time. It’s so much better to see the streets, try the restaurants, and take the subway.

Finally, the location should be woven through the story to the point where it couldn’t take place anywhere else. What happens in the story could only happen in that setting. The swamps of Florida, for example, will provide the choking heat of August, which leads to short tempers and poor decisions. This same setting later becomes the perfect place to hide the body. The heavy air, the smell of rotting wood, the sour taste, are all extras in a setting that becomes integral to the story.

Carlene O'Neil

You can find out more about her on her website, carleneoneil.com, or follow her on Facebook.

This Post Has 19 Comments

  1. Anne Louise Bannon
    Anne Louise Bannon

    What a great bridge. Love those old structures – and, yes, they can make amazing settings for our novels.

    1. Carlene ONeil
      Carlene ONeil

      Thanks Anne. I knew you would appreciate it!

  2. Avatar
    Margaret Mizushima

    This is a great post, Carlene! I do love a setting, and I also love the many ways it can be used to build both plot and character. Thanks!

  3. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    Great post, Carlene. As I write this comment, I’m trying to decide where my next book will be set! You’re correct: Location is where it all starts. It gives a writer a chance to showcase a skill in description, appealing to all the senses. Thanks!

    1. carleneoneilmysteries
      carleneoneilmysteries

      Thanks Sherrill!

  4. GP Gottlieb
    GP Gottlieb

    I don’t necessarily choose a book based on its setting, but if the description is rich with sounds, views, scents, and smells, I’ll be more likely to love it!

    1. carleneoneilmysteries
      carleneoneilmysteries

      So true!

  5. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    I enjoyed your post, Carlene. I especially liked your wrap-up depiction of the swamps of Florida. You transported me right there!

    1. carleneoneilmysteries
      carleneoneilmysteries

      Thanks Laurie!

  6. Avatar
    saralynrichard

    Your assertion about the importance of setting is borne out by the rules for writing loglines. Setting first!

    1. carleneoneilmysteries
      carleneoneilmysteries

      That’s what I get for being a pantser!

  7. Nicholas Chiarkas
    Nicholas Chiarkas

    Carlene, I loved this article and I will remember the importance of treating setting as another character. Great stuff, thank you.

    1. carleneoneilmysteries
      carleneoneilmysteries

      Thank you for your comment. So glad you liked it!

  8. Avatar
    Marie Sutro

    So true! Love the line about engaging all the senses.

  9. Carl Vonderau
    Carl Vonderau

    Nice post, Charlene. I totally agree. The setting is also a chance for the protagonist to communicate voice. I find that that I am always searching for the few details that communicate the uniqueness of the setting to the reader.

  10. Carlene ONeil
    Carlene ONeil

    Yes that’s it Carl. Less is more.

  11. Avatar
    Avanti Centrae

    Thanks for your post. I agree that setting brings a novel alive. Carlos Ruiz Zafron was a master at atmosphere with his Cemetary of Forgotten Books series, which took place in post-war Barcelona.

    1. carleneoneilmysteries
      carleneoneilmysteries

      So true!

  12. Avatar
    Laurie's Story

    Your sensitivity toward sight/smell/sounds shows itself in your writing AND your observations. Great post, Carlene (but I wouldn’t expect anything less!).

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