By Alex Segura
If you’re reading this, you should know that I’m on vacation.
Not while writing this – that’d be silly - but right this moment, as you're reading.
I’m hopefully on a beach or sitting somewhere comfortable, reading a good book or taking a nap. I haven’t taken a vacation in what feels like years. My wife probably deserves it more than I do.
Anyway, traveling always gets me to thinking about how we, as writers, portray place and setting in our works. Some authors are indelibly tied to cities – Pelecanos and DC, Lehane and Boston, Block and New York, Lippman and Baltimore. The beat goes on. Others, not so much. They jump around. When I started the Pete Fernandez series of books (Silent City is out now!), I knew I wanted to set it in Miami. It’s my hometown, I felt comfortable writing about it and I thought – aside from a few essentials, like Vicki Hendricks’ noir classic Miami Purity – Miami as a setting for modern noir was not well represented. Just my gut feeling at the time. I wanted Miami to be as much of a character in the book as Pete or his supporting cast.
Whether I was successful or not is up to the reader, but these are some of the things I picked up while writing the book – and the lessons learned that I carried into the second.
Keep it real. Do your research. Don’t skimp on details because you don’t have them readily available. Even being a native Miamian didn’t give me a free pass when describing the city. I set scenes in restaurants and bars I’d visited, drove cars down streets I’d driven on and referenced places I knew. All the venues mentioned in Silent City are or were real places in Miami except one – I leave it to you to figure out which one is the poser. But I also wrote about places I wasn't familiar with off the top of my head - and that required research: live visits when possible, historical reading and Internet digging. You have to put in the work to make it feel real.
You gotta feel it. It’s one thing to be accurate about setting – it’s something else to show why a setting was chosen. If your novel is about Anchorage, Alaska, it shouldn’t read like a NY crime noir with the street names changed, and the difference shouldn’t boil down to weather, either. Give the reader a sense of the culture, language, smell, feel and sound of the city or town. Make the reader feel like they’re in the city. For Silent City, it couldn’t just be “Miami was hot.” It had to be about the food, the people, the vibe, the music – it’s a challenge, but one with plenty of reward if done right.
Don’t force it/be authentic. There are limits to my last point. The little cultural and location hat tips have to drive the story. Or, at the very least, add to the story as it moves forward thanks to the plot. Don’t have your main character sip a coffee at this cute coffee shop or browse vinyl at a record store you remember from college just because. Have that happen if the character is going to run into An Important Other Character, though. Then that’s fine. But don’t shoehorn stuff just to prove your location cred. You should be able to do that while telling a good story. Anything that seems like an in-joke, complicated hat tip or forced mention will turn off readers, and that’s the last thing you want.
Make it matter. This ties into nailing the feeling of a place/setting. Why is this book set here? Why here over New York or any other popular crime fiction spot? Why would this story only happen in Miami, for example? As much as your story is personal to you as the writer, make it personal to the place – use the details you’ve peppered the book/story with to show why the setting is irreversibly tied to the narrative you’ve created.
That’s all I’ve got! Chime in below and let me know if you have any tips of your own when it comes to setting.