Monday, March 30, 2009

Location, Location, Location

To promote his upcoming book Afraid, which hits shelves tomorrow, author Joe Konrath (aka JA Konrath and Jack Kilborn), has been guesting on various blogs talking about such things as landing an agent, self promotion, blogging and other random things. Today he stops by to discuss setting and its role in a story. So please join me in welcoming Joe Konrath to Out in WriteField. And make sure you check out Joe's entertaining and very informative blog A Newbie's Guide to Publishing.


My name is Joe Konrath. I write a thriller series set in Chicago under the name JA Konrath, and I recently wrote two horror novels under the name Jack Kilborn.

The first is called Afraid, and is being released on March 31. It is set in a small, Wisconsin town. The second is called Trapped, and it is set on a tiny island in Lake Huron.

So lets talk about setting.

My series character, a Homicide cop named Jack Daniels, works out of Chicago. You may have heard it said (possibly by me) that when choosing the setting for your novel, the setting should be integral to the plot. If you're writing a book set in Chicago that could easily be set in Sheboygan, you aren't paying enough attention to your location.

I chose Chicago for Jack Daniels for several reasons, including:

Chicago has the second largest police force in the country, and it's still very much an old boys network, sexist and chauvinistic. Since Jack is a woman, this setting speaks to her character. She has to be tougher, smarter, and more determined than the cops she works with.

Chicago has one of the highest murder rates in the country, making it perfect for a busy Homicide cop.

Chicago is a city made up of diverse, distinct neighborhoods, which means I never have to travel far for a change of scenery.

Setting is also a place to make your story come alive in the readers mind. Reading is a mental trip to a new place. This is your chance, as a writer, to take readers to a world you've created. If it's based in the real world, make sure you get your facts straight. Research shouldn't take the place of writing, but it is certainly required if you want to paint an accurate picture in your reader's mind.

Though I chose Chicago--a place that really exists--the personality I give the setting comes from me. Many writers use Chicago as a back drop for their stories. But my Chicago isn't Libby Fischer Hellman's Chicago, or Marcus Sakey's Chicago, or Robert W. Walker's Chicago.

The feeling, or tone, you bring to your setting should enhance your story. Chicago can be scary, desperate, fun, exciting, sexy, moody, romantic, or deadly, depending on your personal voice.

In Afraid, the Wisconsin town of Safe Haven, population 904, is a small, easy-going community where everyone knows each other. Normally, an idyllic place to live. It's so small and quiet it doesn't even need a full time sheriff.

Then something horrifying comes to town and begins to wipe out the population. Everything that made Safe Haven a perfect place to live now makes it a perfect target.

The hometown feel it normally has quickly turns threatening, and the local hubs of the community, like the diner and the Junior High School, are perverted into places of our darkest fears.

In Trapped, I take a normally pleasurable event--camping in the woods--and turn it into the ultimate nightmare. What should be a night of campfire songs and roasting marshmallows becomes a fight for survival.

Weather plays a part in setting. The temperature and humidity can effect the mood of both the character and the reader. It also effects a character's actions. I've set books during all four seasons, in varying weather extremes, to enhance the story.

If done properly, your setting is almost like an extra character in your story, providing additional conflict and incentive for your protagonist. The things that exist within the setting become obstacles to overcome.

Have you picked the right setting for your story? Here's a quick checklist:

* Why is this setting the only setting that works for your story? You should have several reasons why it is interesting, unique, and essential.

* What research is needed to make this setting come alive for the reader? Do you have to visit it? Live there? Or is the Internet enough?

* What mood and tone do you want your setting to express? The background enhances the foreground.

* What conflicts does your setting add to the story? Physical and environmental, emotional and psychological?

* What's the weather like? Why are you choosing to make the weather that way?

As I'm found of saying, I'm a storyteller. I'm not a characterteller, or a settingteller.

But even with the greatest plot in the world, if you have lame characters and an unmemorable setting, you're going to lose readers.

Choose your setting wisely, and be able to justify why you've chosen it.

Of course, if you really want to learn about setting, you should learn by example. As Salvador Dali said, "Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing." So go buy all of my books and study how I use setting. They're conveniently available in print, as ebook downloads, and on audio.

See you on the road...

There you have it. Setting and story, going hand in hand. Thanks to Joe Konrath (and/or Jack Kilborn) for stopping in and offering his valuable insight. And don't forget to pick up your copy of Afraid tomorrow.


davethemysteryguy said...

Great post. I guess I never really stopped to think about how huge a role that setting can play when used effectively.

By the way, love your Jack Daniels series. An I'm on my way to go pick up Afraid. I saw it at the local B&N yesterday. Unfortunately, the two indies in my area closed . I would have preferred to go there instead.

jane, candid said...

Since I am from a small town in Wisconsin, the setting makes the story even creepier for me...
Great blog, R.J. I'll be back.

R.J. Mangahas said...

Thanks for stopping in, Jane. Glad you like the blog.

Samantha said...

This is a lot of good info. Thanks. Looking forward to reading Afraid.

I'm working on my first novel and have found that between the free publishing e-book you have on your site, plus Alex Sokoloff's blog, I I feel I'm getting more than I would if I took an MFA course. Especially since the Newbie's Guide e-book has a lot of great stuff on the publishing end and self-promotion/effective marketing.

JA Konrath said...

Thanks for having me, Bobby.

Karen from Mentor said...

Hey RJ, I feel like I know you I follow you around so much. :)

Thanks for having Joe here.
I was hoping he'd let us ask questions. But no, he just did the post and vamoosed. LOL
I fully agree that setting and weather play a HUGE role in a story. People do AWFUL things when it's hot. And Dashiell Hammett liked to use the hot desert wind to make people itchy.
I've always wondered why Joe has Jack Daniels wear panty hose. LOL I don't know anyone under 60 who still wears panty hose; and ESPECIALLY not in the hot chicago summer. Might be a guy thing, he can research the hell out of how to beat a lie detector test, but not notice that a woman might overheat in the summer. Or maybe cops in Chicago still wear them. Or maybe I just know women with great naked legs... that's probably it.
Thanks for continuing the party!

R.J. Mangahas said...

Sorry if ?I'd been absent from my own blog, but thanks to Joe Konrath and whomever stopped in for a read.

jnantz said...

I love this point:

"Why is this setting the only setting that works for your story?"

We're working on description and making the setting its own character in the story (Alex Sokoloff does this brilliantly in THE HARROWING, as do you with Chicago, Joe. I'm stealing this one for class!

(hell, between you and Alex, I feel more like a parrot than a teacher some days. Great stuff!)