Monday, April 11, 2011

On Writing, Part II —Setting: Time and Place

Before you write that first crime fiction novel consider a few things. What follows is the second in a series of short articles about what you might want to consider as you put pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard.

I am in awe of crime writers who set their books in say, ancient Egypt. Or making a mystery of who killed Polonius. However, I believe the writer who does this has an obligation to get history right. While plots may very well be timeless, setting the historically accurate scene means painstaking attention to detail. In the end it requires a serious scholarship that doesn’t necessarily accompany the ability to write. I am certainly not infatuated with the idea of going through page after page searching for information on Elizabethan underwear.

Recently, I found myself creating anachronisms merely trying to set a story at the end of the last century, which of course, sounds longer ago than it is. Did you know that cell phones in 1988 were gigantic and incredibly expensive? A down and out private eye wasn’t likely to have one. Did you know none of your characters could possibly have driven a Lexus in the U.S. before 1989? I didn’t. Now go back to the 16th Century or 1950 for that matter. It is easy to make mistakes. On the other hand, if you are comfortable in another era and enjoy the pursuit, by all means go ahead. Just be sure you know what you are getting into.

The same goes for location. Some smart writers set their stories in made-up places. Doing so no doubt requires a little forethought as well, but you have all the freedom in the world to create the environment you choose. And unless you contradict your own facts, you are not subject to correction. Much like getting history right, if you choose a specific location, I believe you owe it to the reader to get the cross streets right, to put the courthouse in the right part of town and to even get the color of the police cars correct. If you write about New York, you should be sure your murderer gets on the right subway.

I’ve heard writers, when caught with their factual pants down — and who hasn’t? — offer this excuse, “C’mon, it’s fiction.” I’m wrenched from the story, if only briefly, when I realize that a character in a book I’m reading gets from San Francisco’s North Beach to Potrero Hill in less than five minutes. Maybe readers in Biloxi won’t catch this one; but San Franciscans will and they will think less of you.

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