Thursday, March 26, 2009

The importance of setting

Thursday, March 26, 2009

We have a friend who lives in Boston. After he moved there, he started reading the Spenser novels through from the first with special attention to setting.

When we go to Boston, we always eat at Zaftigs, the Jewish delicatessen where Spenser sometimes eats.

I started thinking about this today because I'm reading Walter Mosley's The Long Fall. Like all the Mosley novels I've read, it is excellent so far and teeming with "under the surface" violence. You'll probably hear about the whole book tomorrow. The Long Fall is set in New York. The Easy Rawlins books were set in the Watts area of Los Angeles.

I think setting really matters. Whether a book is set in Richmond or Dublin or wherever, for me the setting becomes a character in a book.

I have always lived in small towns. That makes setting harder. My own experience about many small town mysteries is that they have stereotyped settings, the kinds of settings people think small towns would have without ever having really lived in them.

In the small town, the setting is the people. There are webs of relationship which are almost impossible to imagine unless you have actually lived in such a place. All the places, the actual settings, tie back to the people. They are unique because they reflect the relationships in the town. In other words, there is no generic drug store in a true small town. There is only Florey's Rexall. (I may have forgotten how to spell Mr. Florey's name, but I haven 't forgotten him or his drug store. And I suspect he's been dead for thirty or forty years.)

So for me, setting is important.

Do you have special books where the setting was a real part of the whole book for you? If you think they are the kind of thing I might like to read, let me know. I'm doing most of my reading now from blog suggestions.

PS. Obviously I didn't have any picture of Florey's Rexall, but all the old Rexall signs looked much the same.


Corey Wilde said...

That seems to me to be a very useful piece of advice for writers, about small town settings always tying back to the people.

I haven't read Mosley for a while, but I have a couple still in my TBR stack. Let me know what you think of this new series.

Joe Barone said...

I'll let you know. Probably tomorrow or the next day.

Cathy said...

One mystery I've read recently in which the setting becomes a character is Johann Theorin's Echoes From the Dead. An excellent read!

Joe Barone said...

I looked up Echoes from the Dead on Amazon and have put it on my TBR list. Thanks.

Helen said...

Nothing to do with your blog but just wanted to wish you a Happy Birthday Cousin!!!! Wishing you many more!!!
Helen & Jim

Joe Barone said...

Thanks, folks!