In fiction, when does setting become a character? When does location move from background to foreground?
Readers from Pennsylvania to Florida have called out locales they recognize in both the CW McCoy and Brinker series of crime novels. Even with altered geography and names, those places seem to resonate like the voice of a friend.
As they did with me while doing research for Tourist in Paradise, Peak Season and Mr. Mayhem. Here, then, are some of the images that inspired the characters that inhabit those books. As well as the writer.
Sarasota marina, similar to the one where Walter Bishop berths his sailboat in CW McCoy novels
Sansara condos in Sarasota, one of the models for the massive DeSoto Park complex in Tourist in Paradise
Farmers Market in downtown Sarasota, where CW and Tony Delgado meet in Peak Season
The Sarasota skyline inspired creation of CW McCoy’s Spanish Point
Sarasota Police Dept. inspired Spanish Point’s PD where Cheryl, Oz and Delgado work
Drumming the sun down at Siesta Beach, where CW finds a second body in Peak Season
Key Breeze stands in for the galley of the Mary Beth, where CW finds an unconscious Walter Bishop in Tourist in Paradise
I heard CW McCoy before I saw her face.
The heroine of my first crime novel was listening to a fugitive con artist make the case for clearing his name. CW did what I bet most former police officers would do: she kicked the guy to the curb.
Feisty, I thought, from the low, smooth voice to the Spenser-like banter. Maybe I should take notes.
I did, and the result was Peak Season, a novel set in the tony Florida beach town of Spanish Point. The work came out this summer in ebook and paperback formats. And while that satisfied my itch for publication, I kept hearing the dialog and realized CW wanted her own voice.
She has finally gotten it. After months of preparation, Peak Season is now available as an audiobook through Amazon, Audible and iTunes. The recording sounds just as I envisioned it, thanks to the powerful narration by Pamela Almand, who captures CW’s grit as well as the nuanced voices of her mentor, friends and enemies.
At first I had some doubts. Everyone said that writing from a woman’s point of view would prove challenging. So it felt like a victory to hear Pam bring the fellow risk-taker to life. CW may surrender her gun and badge but she will never surrender her spirit, and Pam’s rich tone and nuanced reading make that spirit sound very real.
If you’re a fan of Lorelei King’s wonderful rendition of the Stephanie Plum books, you’ll enjoy Pam Almand. It’s a voice that will ring in your ears long after she turns the last page.
You can listen to a free excerpt of Peak Season at Audible or iTunes.
In “Dudley’s Sacrifice,” Eric Sheridan Wyatt tackles the absurdities of corporate life like Jane Goodall attacking fleas in a short piece by T.C. Boyle. One of five short stories in Wyatt’s first collection of published fiction, Five Stories, “Dudley’s Sacrifice” opens with a regional manager contemplating layoffs at a company whose owner has scraped the marrow from the bone.
One by one the narrator weeds a list of potential layoffs until the owner takes the decision out of his hands. Wyatt follows cost-cutting and downsizing to its logically absurd conclusion with an irony that characterizes much of his work here.
More rewards follow, from the snarky narrative voice of “Cop-Cop Cop,” a loopy love story set on a planet that has outlawed coffee, to the tender, wistful “Solomon’s Ditch,” a standout about a tobacco farmer, a runaway girl and a dog.
Wyatt excels at capturing character, setting and mood in a small space, using language that enhances without distraction, as in the final story, where a child discovers a dead robin with eyes that are “dimpled like tiny raisins.”
In Five Stories, Wyatt writes with a quick wit and a wry voice. It’s one that deserves a wider audience . . . and a bigger collection.
A novel is a little like a small prop plane. Fly too fast and the scenery blurs. Fly too slow and the plane stalls.
Take the pop fiction of the ‘70s and ‘80s by authors like Sidney Sheldon and Danielle Steele. Some of those books streaked through plot as if it were aerial combat. Then there are writers like Martha Grimes, who tie down the wings for the night to give the reader insight into the life of a dog and two cats on the village green.
Others, like Robert B. Parker, Margaret Coel and J.A. Jance, alternate between action and reflection in short bursts designed to add depth while holding course.
I got to thinking about pace in mystery and suspense fiction after reading novels by Julia Keller and Iris Johansen. Keller’s A Killing in the Hills crackles with excitement while providing detailed portraits of her characters and their small town in West Virginia. At the other end of the pop-fiction spectrum, Johansen’s On the Run races through character and description to focus on the physical aspects of criminal and romantic pursuit. (Johansen does slow the pace in the middle of the book to create backstory, motivation and a simmering feud between the two romantic leads.) Both novels soar, just at different rates.
I generally give a book 60 pages. If the story hasn’t taken off by then, I’ll pull the ripcord. But that benchmark varies by author, genre and style.
When it comes to reading and writing, what’s your speed?
Location, location, location. The mantra isn’t just for real estate agents. Writers have long known that a place works better as character than background. NPR does, too, which makes the radio program “Crime in the City” a delight for tourists of murder and mayhem.
The long-running summer series features well-known authors and their beats—George Pelecanos’ Washington, D.C., Walter Mosley’s L.A.—as well as writers exploring smaller cities and towns—Archer Mayor and Brattleboro, Vt., Julia Keller’s fictional town in West Virginia.
“Crime in the City” also gives armchair detectives a travelogue of international cities—Mary Lou Longworth in Aix-en-Provence, Ann Cleeves in the Shetland Islands, Richard Crompton in Nairobi, Paco Ignacio Taibo II in Mexico City.
Big or small, noisy or quiet, home or abroad, these locales illuminate both the authors and their characters in unexpected ways.
NPR’s correspondents intersperse the ambient sound of streets and cafes with the voices of police, shopkeepers and the writers themselves. As summer draws to an end in North America, the spots serve as a sweet treat for readers who like to investigate their favorite novelists. (In addition to the live broadcasts, the programs are available on the NPR website as downloadable MP3 files.)
As a reader or writer, what role do you think place can play in crime fiction?