Yesterday, I was working on a scene where an important conversation took place for the story’s plot line. I wanted to really bring out the feel of the location and worked hard on the description. Later, as I drove past where that scene takes place, I realized that this time next year that place may no longer exist due to construction happening along that road. Does it matter? Probably not, since most readers would not have a reason to seek out the location. But in setting my book in Denver, I don’t just want the city to be an “Anywhere, U.S.A.” city. I want readers to say, “Yes, this is Denver. I know where that is.”
I know that in writing mysteries, the plot is the thing to focus on. I’m a plot driven reader myself. But my favorite books are the ones that can really evoke a sense of place without bogging down the story with too much description. Tana French is an excellent example of a writer whose settings are almost characters in her books. They set mood and add dread or nostalgia. They are real places that bring with them all of the history behind them, adding layers of subtext and symbol. Her books do read a bit slower than some of the larger bestsellars, but I never feel as though she’s wasting my time with her settings.
Some cities are just natural “characters” because of their histories and cultural significance. Dublin, New Orleans, San Francisco – these are all places that people respond to with feeling. Denver may not be that kind of place yet in the minds and hearts of the world, but I’d like to do my part to make that happen by adding new layers of understanding about places and landmarks around Denver, and what they mean to the local residents that are the characters in my story.