A Sense of Place

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Steven did another comment to my post on writing a mystery and he brings up a number of points that I just have to comment on. One thing I most enjoy about his writing is that he is one thought provoking guy. These comments may not be in this post but in one or two to follow, with first priority being on modern poetry.

First, though, some warm up work for my writing session tonight.

One thing that I like in a novel, and especially in a mystery, is to have the author deliver a convincing sense of place. For some reason, unknown to me, I am strongly drawn to writing that makes location or setting almost another character in the story. This prejudice is a strong one; I love Steinbeck and don’t care for Hemingway. Not that Hemingway doesn’t set his stories is distinct locales, but, to me, at least, the location is mere ornament in his stories, a backdrop to make the story seem exotic or different. As Gertude Stein once said, “there’s no there there.” As you might expect, in mysteries, I enjoy Robert Parker and his Spenser series and Steve Hamilton with his Alex McNight books. Now, talk about a location, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is one I would never have dreamed of to put a detective into, but there it is. Hamilton really captures what it is like to live in so remote a location and, even though the plots are a bit weak, I still enjoy his books.

This is one problem I’m having; I set my detective story in Colorado, but I do not have a strong sense of this place yet. As I may have written here before, I spent most of my life in El Paso, Texas and have only lived here about six years. El Paso is a place that oozes history, beginning with the Conquistadors who went through there in the 16th century; to the Franciscan friars who braved the Chihuahuan desert a hundred years later. The spirit of those friars, who founded missions named Ysleta sur del Pueblo and San Elizaro, mission churches that are still there, is alive everywhere you turn.

Then there were the mountain men, who came through a hundred and fifty years later, men who fought Apaches and discovered silver near Silver City, NM, their spirit, and heritage, is everywhere. Today the descendants of the Scots mountain man, James Kirker, all now Spanish speaking Mexican Americans, still live near and work the copper mines there at Silver City. And then there are the Mescalero Apaches, who under the inspiration of a chief named Wendell Chino, now running a ski resort and gambling casino in the New Mexico mountains near Ruidoso. The common thread for all of these men is, of course, the Rio Grande, the “Great River” that has its own biography written by Paul Horgan. This is an area that leaves anyone who cares with a sense of the place.

But Colorado has no such history. Colorado Springs was founded only a hundred and twenty years ago. It was a resort, a summer retreat for a retired Civil War general. The mountains here were too formidable an obstacle for the early explorers and pioneers, they either stayed east or went south to get around them. In a sense, the mountains are going to have to be my character.

I’m running on, and perhaps for now, this is enough of a warm up. I’ll keep you posted.

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Writing a Novel from Flos Carmeli on May 6, 2005 5:24 AM

Not me, but Ron who is blogging less as a result. Stop by, read, and give him some encouragement. We need as many catholic voices in the literary marketplace as we can muster--AND Ron is writing in a genre that... Read More

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Dear Ron,

Given your distinct preference for mysteries that make locale extremely important, you might look at James Lee Burke who uses the parish of Iberia to great effect. I have to admit to holding with you on this. One of the great joys of the well-constructed mystery is the way setting is almost a character in itself. I think that is one of the appeals of the so-called "cozy" school. Often the settings are very "confined" and very real--a bed and breakfast, an English country village, etc.

So, why don't you set your mystery in El Paso? If you have a greater affinity for it, it would do well. I know, there may be extenuating circumstances--don't answer the question, it will deflate your writing.

I feel the same way about Virginia and Florida. Florida has a much richer history in certain areas once you dig into it--but the majority of Florida history seems to get going about the time Flagler was building his "railroad across the ocean." In most places you go back about 150 years and theres nothing but sawgrass and palmetto. Of course there are isolated centers--St. Augustine, Pensacola--and there are Indian shell mounds. But Virginia--every place you go there's history--the place is thick with ghosts.

Anyway, you keep going. I'll look forward to seeing a book by you on the stands. Be true to your vision and write with God as your help--who knows, perhaps you'll produce the next Father Brown.

God bless, and keep us posted.

shalom,

Steven

Great post. I didn't realize it, but when I read mysteries it is for that sense of place you describe. I read a lot of John MacDonald's fiction when I was younger less for the plot than for imagining myself in a boat off the Florida coast.

TSO,

Yes, McDonald is great a sense of place. A new writer equally good in some ways is Randy Wayne White who does for the southwest Florida Coast what JDM did for Fort Lauderdale.

shalom,

Steven

Darn you Steven. I go to Sanibel every year and so I feel I had to put White's "Sanibel Flats" in my amazon cart. At least it's only $6.99.

Steven and TSO, thank you both for your comments.

My brother-in-law lived in Miami most of his life and, on the one visit we made down there, he was able to give us an interesting historical tour. Things may have started late, but there was a lot of interesting stuff going on, beginning in the late '20s (if memory serves). Of course, the hurricanes finally drove him out, he lives in Denver now. In any case, Florida is certainly one of those places that is distinctive and gives a visitor a sense of place.

I started to put my detective in the El Paso area, actually near Capitan, NM. To be honest, for some reason, I'm not quite sure why, it just wasn't working. I guess I have to keep him close by.

I am going to keep working at this. I am learning as I go and that is slowing things up, but I'm getting more serious about getting this done with each day that goes by.

Thanks for your encouragement.

Ron

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This page contains a single entry by Ron Moffat published on May 5, 2005 6:25 PM.

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