Please welcome back Jeanne of the Bristol Public Library as she has some thoughts about the importance of place in a mystery. This is part two of a two part guest post. If you missed part one last Saturday, you should go read it first and then come back here.
Location, Location, Location: A Very Personal View of the Power of Place—Part 2
If physical description doesn’t make an impression on the geographically and directionally challenged, what does? For me it’s cultural settings, and I particularly enjoy those books that use their location to good advantage. Given my fondness for cozy mysteries, many of the books I read use a small town setting which is fine as long as I can discern at least the region in which the book is set. There are some stories where I don’t know if the characters are in California or Connecticut, and it mars my enjoyment of the book if I have to stop and go back to the beginning to try to figure out where in the world I am. I’m not a fan of generic small town. Sometimes I’ve wondered if the author has ever visited some of the locations used or if a publisher just thought it would be good to have a series set in, say, Wisconsin.
Building a sense of place is more than just repeating the name of the town or state, or sticking in some superficial or stereotypical details. Weather is, of course, a big tip off; but again, is it really always sultry in Georgia? Or always snowing in Maine? There are some series which have never had a change in weather. I notice it most often in books set in the South, when the weather is always sweltering. My Florida relatives assure me that it does seem chilly in January, even if their chilly is low 60s.
Laurie Cass is working her way through the seasons in her Bookmobile Cat series, with vivid snowstorms and spring mud. Clea Simon’s Cambridge is also seasonal, though I remember best the howl of the winds and bits of ice and snow that sting the face as Dulcie Schwartz makes her way down the street in the Mister Grey series. Anne Hillerman’s Navajo characters are used to the heat of a southwest summer, though outsiders not so much.
Food is good way of letting us know where our characters are. If the characters always eat burgers or tuna casserole or brownies, they could be anywhere. Throw in the occasional local delicacy, and readers are reminded of location. In the Mainely Needlepoint Mysteries by Lea Wait, Angie chows down on comfort food of baked beans with the occasional splurge with lobster (if someone else is buying) but also eats Tex-Mex from her Arizona sojourn. Qwill in the Cat Who series by Lilian Jackson Braun was fond of pasties, a delicacy I’d never heard of before reading those books.
Local custom and mores can also come into play. I just finished Betty Webb’s The Puffin of Death and was delighted with the way she portrayed the Icelandic setting. Bryndis, a local zookeeper, helps American Teddy navigate Icelandic society where flirting seems to be a general pastime and there are apps to determine if the cute person is actually a close relative. Other places have their own quirks, such as gathering at a private home for a wake, baptisms in rivers, or ethnicities that add local color.
Finally, dialog and dialect are easy ways to express a region, but a little can go a long way in that department. Speaking strictly for myself, I prefer the use of idiom and local expression with only light dialect because it can be difficult and tiresome to read the phonetic rendering for long periods of time. The author also runs the risk of making a character seem uneducated or ignorant, whether or not that is the author’s intent. I like the way Carol Miller handles it in her Moonshine Mystery series: light dialect used occasionally and a bit of regional terminology gets the point across. In the No.1 Ladies’ Detective series, McCall-Smith does a wonderful job of conveying the rhythms of speech in Botswana—or what I assume they are, since I have no first-hand knowledge.
One author who pulled it all together for me was Valerie Malmont. Her Tori Miracle novels had an outsider bemused and/or bewildered by naming customs, peculiar foods, unfamiliar idioms, and local history, but what really came through was Malmont’s obvious love for the northern Appalachian region. Those qualities added a lot to the story as far as I’m concerned and make her books particularly memorable.
These are just some of the things which, for me, help make a book come alive. Your mileage may vary.