by: Joelle Charbonneau
Welcome to theme week #3. This week we are going to be chatting about setting.
When you tell a story you have to cover certain things – who, what, why and where. For me, the where determines so much about what kind of story a person is going to tell. A story set in a rural, economically depressed town is going to be very different than one set in downtown Chicago. For me, the setting is more than just a backdrop to a story, it is a character that lives and breaths just like all the other people who populate our books. The houses, stores, landscape and socio-economic climate of a book impacts everything in the story from the tricks a sleuth can use to investigate to the personalities of the characters who populate the area.
For my Rebecca Robbins books, I deliberately chose to set the stories in a small town in Illinois. Why? Well, one, because I know Illinois and while I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, I have been in many of those small town and feel like I know and understand what those towns look like and the kinds of people who live there. But more important, I needed a town where a roller rink was still a vital heartbeat of the community. In the suburbs, roller rinks are fun places to hang out. Kids and adults enjoy spending a few hours in one and then move onto the next activity. And if the roller rink closed…well, they’d just go to another one a few towns over.
In smaller towns, father away from the cornucopia of activities found in more urban areas, roller rinks are a gathering place for people of all ages. It is part of the culture of the town. The mere possibility of closing the rink would create immediate conflict. Small towns also have a lot of personality. There are less big box stores. Shops often reflect the owner’s style. And let’s face it—in small towns everyone knows everyone’s business. There is no blending into the background which means people tend to embrace their differences as opposed to trying to be like everyone else.
In my upcoming Paige Marshall mystery series, I dropped my opera singing/theater loving character in the north shore Chicago suburbs. (Because face it—there aren’t a lot of professional opera jobs in rural Illinois!) The setting creates a completely different kind of conflict for an amateur sleuth. For one thing, there are more cops. Something tells me those police officers are probably not inclined to let someone get away with poking their nose in a murder investigation. Not to mention the fact that almost every block in the suburbs has that neighbor that watches ever car and pedestrian coming down the street. It isn’t exactly easy to snoop around a suspect’s house with the neighborhood watch on patrol. The more urban setting is important to the story and creates a whole different feel and investigative style to the book than perhaps I might have originally intended. But that’s what makes it fun.
For me, the setting impacts everything in the book. Character expectations, motivation and relationships are all driven by the setting. Which makes me wonder, as a writer, how does the setting you’ve chosen for your books impact the way you tell your story. And for all the readers out there – do you find yourself drawn to reading books set specifics kinds of settings? Inquiring minds want to know!