05-26-18 – Blog Queen - Sarah Raplee

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Small Town Settings-Big Author Challenges

By Linda Lovely

I write romantic suspense and mysteries with romantic elements. My choice of setting—large city or small town—plays a large part in shaping each of my novels. Of the five books I’ve published to date, all but one feature small towns—well, actually small communities, which is slightly different.

My decision about setting is driven by two factors—familiarity and plot. Since I’ve lived in smaller communities most of my life, I have a good grasp of their social fabric and how things work, including who has power/clout and how it can be used for good or evil. This helps me construct credible plots that are intimate and personal.

In big-city thrillers, the villains (and heroines) tend to be individuals we’re unlikely to meet face-to-face. I find plots far more compelling if the villains could be signing my paycheck or passing the collection plate at church. I’m also more passionate about rooting for heroines and heroes who sound a lot like next-door neighbors who share my everyday joys and troubles.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems writing small-town fiction. Here are three biggies:
  • Accuracy & Research. If your fiction is set current day in a “real” small town, you’d better be committed to doing solid research. You also have to expect disconnects between your research and readers’ experiences. The trendy restaurant where your heroine hangs out may have gone belly up by the time your reader visits it on the written page. The woods where you have a crucial chase scene may be leveled to make way for a used car dealership. Streets may be renamed. Courthouses may be moved. The list is endless.
  • Permission If you plan to include real institutions and commercial entities in your book, seek written permission if there’s any chance someone might think the mentions put them in an unflattering light. An example? Saying your heroine is poisoned at her favorite restaurant—even if the villain (who has no association with the eatery) slips in the poison while your heroine visits the ladies’ room. Still most restauranteurs would not want “poison” and their business name coupled in the same paragraph. 
  • Unintended Slurs. Okay, we’re talking fiction, but that doesn’t mean “real” police officers, sheriff’s deputies, bankers, preachers, developers, university presidents, or entrepreneurs who reside in your real burg won’t see the depiction of any unsavory characters in their professions or institutions as being a potential slap in the face.  

So, how can an author solve these problems? Here’s what I’ve done on a book-by-book basis.

DEAR KILLER: I lived on a barrier island outside Beaufort, South Carolina, for a dozen years. I wanted to capture the special flavor of the Lowcountry and life in a small residential/resort community. However, I didn’t want to use any real island since the plot included less than admirable characters in the island’s power structure. My solution? Fictional Dear Island, a composite of several islands. I located it near Beaufort, but in a fictional adjacent county. This compromise allows my characters to visit many favorite tourist spots in Beaufort, Hilton Head, and Charleston without the risk of accidentally impugning anyone’s reputation.  

NO WAKE ZONE: My second Marley Clark mystery is set in Spirit Lake/Lake Okoboji, Iowa. I love this real community, having spent many wonderful summers there with my aunt, uncle and cousins. There’s a statue of my late cousin Steve Kennedy on the waterfront, honoring his contributions to the area. I collaborated on the history of the area with Steve. After he died, I asked for special permission to include the Queen II excursion boat, the Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum, and Arnolds Park, a century-plus old amusement park, in the plot. It’s worked out beautifully.
DEAD HUNT: This is the second romantic thriller in my “Smart Women, Dumb Luck” series. I now live in Upstate South Carolina, and wanted to incorporate real and very special Foothills wilderness locations and state parks in this plot. However, I once again decided on a fictional town and county. In this case, the heroine is head of security for a private university, and I didn’t want to associate threats with any real university so I created fictional Blue Ridge University.  

LIES:  Unlike my prior novels, this romantic suspense is not set current day. It takes place in 1938 in a real Mississippi River town, Keokuk, Iowa (my hometown). While I did considerable research to make things as accurate as possible, I also asked two librarian/historians to review the manuscript for accuracy. While I attempted to get most things “right,” I did create a fictional bank to avoid maligning the history of any current institutions. At the suggestion of one of the reviewers, I’ve also changed the names of a couple of my fictional characters to avoid any possibility of offense. For example, I had no idea that the name I picked for one of my characters was the owner of a bank in 1938 and his relatives still live in the town. LIES is set for release this summer.

If you’d like to know more about my settings or my writing process, please visit my website— —or add in any comment here that you’d like to receive my newsletter. Don’t worry, you won’t be inundated. I tend to send an average of one newsletter a year!  


Linda Lovely said...

I love small town settings and with this post I'm happy to share my enthusiasm with both readers and authors. However, please forgive me if I don't respond to any comments immediately. I have commitments today that will take me out of the office until mid afternoon.

QweySpiral said...

A very useful and interesting approach to a common problem -especially in suspense and mysteries where there are usually a wide selection of the usual suspects! Location is so vital and of course it's probably natural for residents to look for themselves in a book.
I've lived in two large cities, Boston and DC, what surprised me is they are really small communities smack-dab next to each other. Unlike being a tourist or student in a city, when you live there the same characters emerge, the dog park friends, the cute guy upstairs and the local drug dealers. Even the corner store and diners, all are usually run by people living in the area. Cities seem to be made for eavesdropping, which is nice. The rural community I live in now doesn't work well for snooping or listening -but then there are unique opportunities like aqua aerobics or the salon to learn the juice stuff.

Ellis Vidler said...

Research is always interesting, but you're right--things change, especially restaurants. In most cases, I describe the real place but give it a fictitious name.
Your descriptions are so vivid that it's easy to picture the places and imagine them, even if I've never been there. Good job, Ms. Lovely.

Polly Iyer said...

Nice job of subterfuge, Linda. I use real cities--New York, Boston, New Orleans, and Malibu. I did rename the city in which I live. I really hope someone will sue me. No publicity is bad publicity. (Just kidding, or maybe not.) Looking forward to Lies.

Judith Ashley said...

Very interesting post, Linda. I decided to set The Sacred Women's Circle series in fictional, Fremont, OR because I didn't want to deal with finding a building on a certain corner, etc. However, if you live in or near Portland, OR you'll note landmarks. I talk about "the river" but also mention by name Mt. Hood and the Columbia River Gorge. More than likely they'll still be there no matter when readers get to my books.

Linda Lovely said...

Nice to know everyone has the same struggles--the desire to capture the essence of a town/region while avoiding the pitfalls. Sounds as if we've all found ways to keep the balance.

Ashantay Peters said...

I also use fictional small towns as settings and that approach works best for me. Your towns are so well-described that even though I know they are fictional, I want to visit there! Best wishes with Lies. Looking forward to the read!

Paty Jager said...

I like to use made-up towns in my contemporary stories. Less headaches, but I love to use real towns, usually ghost towns now, in my historical western romance books. Great post!