Let’s Talk with Terry Odell

Getting Setting

by Terry Odell

I’m a huge fan of reading books set familiar settings. I grew up in Los Angeles, and love following Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, and Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole as they cover my old haunting grounds. I recently read a book set in Albuquerque. I’ve visited the city on several occasions, and I enjoyed seeing landmarks I remember.

Bundle 350X400 But what about writing? When I started writing, I wanted to set my story someplace I considered more interesting than where I lived at the time. I chose the Salem, Oregon area, since we have relatives there, and I’d been there a number of times. I based my Pine Hills Police series on that setting, but created my own town of Pine Hills. This gave me a little more freedom to make stuff up, but I still wanted the details right, so I was hounding my sister-in-law with questions about what street trees were blooming in May, and she vetted the book, fixing mistakes of other misplaced flora. I decided it might be easier on both of us if I set a book where I lived, so I took Colleen, one of my Pine Hills Police characters and moved her to Orlando for Nowhere to Hide. This would be easy. All I had to do was look out the window.

NTH_200x300However, instead of making up a town, I had the hero of the book working for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. Now, I had to get all the details right, which became a lot harder. I talked to a friend who was a SWAT Commander for the Sheriff’s Office and asked what color the walls and the carpet were at their headquarters. He said, “I don’t know” (even though he’d worked there for years), but he invited me down for a tour, which was cool.

I did create some new places, such as a restaurant—and the one real restaurant I used closed before the book was published, so readers might think that one was made up as well.

I decided I much preferred the “based on” rather than the headaches of being totally true to the location, so my Colorado books are set in imaginary towns. Readers familiar with the area might recognize landmarks, but—let’s just say, “the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”

RID_200x300What’s your take on setting? Do you like books to take you to new places, or do you like to visit places you’re familiar with for that “coming home” feeling? What are some books you’ve read and enjoyed the setting?

Leave a comment, and you can win a download of Rooted in Danger, my third Blackthorne, Inc. romantic suspense which contains fictionalized versions of my neighborhood in Los Angeles, as well as some Oregon settings we visited on vacations.

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Comments

  1. I like both settings: real and made up. I don’t care about street signs in real or made up settings but I would like to know the general idea where a restaurant, library, other buildings set across from each other. If it is a real setting I really like a good description of local landmarks for example the Golden Gate Bridge and so on so I can visualize it in my head as I am reading the story.

    • And because readers like you pay attention, it’s important to make sure authors keep track of where they’re putting their made up buildings, etc. I know many who draw maps.

  2. I like to use somewhat made up places. I might mention a town and a general area (i.e. western edge of Denver), but avoid any specifics so I don’t offend anyone.

    • Using “generalized specifics” can give the flavor of a setting without worrying about how much things will change. Businesses come and go, but the overall geography remains. I know I had one reader tell me “there are no towns at 6000 feet that side of Denver,” but that didn’t stop me from putting Mapleton there.

  3. I think it is terribly difficult to write about real places because it is so easy to make a mistake, but I do want good descriptions of the story setting even if it is made up.

    • And even if you get things right about real locations, things change. Also, you don’t want your reader to stop and get out a map or travel guide if they think you’ve got something wrong. But there is that feeling of being an “insider” when you recognize a place mentioned in a book.

  4. I think it’s interesting to read about a different location. However my favorite reads either take place in 1800s England or on a starship exploring new worlds or fighting space battles. As for my own stories, they take place in the fictional Florida town of Palm Haven but it’s a thinly disguised version of my hometown.

    • I guess you’d have some trouble proving inaccuracies about your favorite locations, Nancy, although I’m sure there are history buffs who might be able to spot errors. I agree that the ‘thinly disguised’ setting is often the best, because readers familiar with the area will recognize landmarks, but you can still take liberties and add what you need for the story.

  5. I’ve lived in the PNW since I was nine years old, but I love to read stories about Kansas. I’ve set several books in Kansas–I think we always have an emotional tie to where we were born.

  6. maggietoussaint says

    I like to see how other people live. It doesn’t matter to me if the setting is a real place name or a place created in the spirit of the real place. I appreciate when authors get the flora and fauna right, but the names of real streets don’t do as much for me. When I was a teen I used to read romances set in Greece and the like and it was doubly magical because the place seemed so amazing and extraordinary. Later I learned that many people think where I grew up had those same attributes. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I love it when an author thinks the setting she’s/he’s writing about is beautiful. Then it becomes beautiful to all of us.

    • I agree that naming streets might be too much detail — and might invade the privacy of people who live there. There are readers who might try to retrace a character’s route.

  7. I enjoy both places that seem familiar and those that are new to me… entering these locales through the words of an author… picturing them in my head! 🙂

    • Thanks for chiming in, Colleen. Yes, it’s “easier” for an author to make everything up, but readers seem to enjoy visiting places they’ve been before, so basing setting on a real place helps build that connectivity.

  8. I don’t mind it a place is made up, but it has to be descriptive and well-written. The more I can visualize it in my mind, the better. (Think Tolkien and his Lord of the Rings Trilogy) On the other hand, if you’re using a real location this too, needs to be well descriptive and real. (Dell Shannon was great at doing this with her descriptions of LA.)

    • Since I grew up in LA, I always enjoyed books set there. Thanks for reminding me about Dell Shannon. I read all of her books, but they’d slipped my mind.

  9. I enjoy both. It’s fun traveling to new places in my reading, especially if they are exotic or some place I am not likely to ever visit, but I also like getting a thrill of recognition when a book is set in some place I’ve visited or lived. Libby Fischer Hellman’s series come to mind since I grew up in the Chicago area, as do Lucy Burdette’s Key West mysteries. I am not too particular about the details, though. It’s more the familiar feeling that draws me in.

  10. I read a book set in Scotland that intrigued me so much I took a trip to see the settings! (which were, of course, made up). I do enjoy reading books set in familiar locations – the Left Behind series was set close to home for me, and I enjoy seeing Chicago landmarks when I’m reading.

  11. As a reader and a writer, I prefer real places. But like Jim, I take certain liberties with my Atlanta setting (as I explain to readers, if I wrote the real Atlanta, Tai and Trey would do very little but sit in traffic). And if something nefarious is going to happen, I make up a locale for it. Still, I try to use as many real-world places as I can (I even mapped them on a Pinterest board, which I also share with readers).

    • Pinterest! What a great idea for sharing locations. And I hear you on the traffic. Although it could be a good thing if you need to create tension. “Will they get out of gridlock in time to save the day!”

  12. Trude Vandine says

    I love reading books set in areas I’m familiar with. I started reading John Sanford because I grew up in the Minneapolis area..now I’ve read them all. I had just visited the Lafayette, La. Area and then read James Lee Burke…it was like being back there. I live in the PNW now and it’s fun reading a book like yours set in an area that I know!

  13. jmjackson054 says

    I prefer reading books set in real places and love it when I have been to those places. The Seamus McCree novels are all in real towns and cities, however, I do take a few liberties, occasionally adding new stores and restaurants, especially if something bad is going to happen or the owner turns out to be a crook!