So you can read my books

Thursday, February 17, 2011


Just how do you make the locale a character in your novel?

I visited a new blogger from New Zealand last night. She wanted to set her vampire novel in the United States. But she has never visited these faraway shores.

She asked her American friends for help. She needed to know how to write of a locale that she had never visited ...

its customs, its natives, its unique way of looking at life.

I wrote her name and her blog's name on a scrap of paper. I think Gypsy ate it. But I will try to help her ...

and all my cyber-friends at the same time.

Just take what seems reasonable to you and fling the rest to the cyber-winds :

Each city whispers in its own voice. Your city. My city.

You know streets that whisper to stay away at night.

You know what scandal has stained some avenue beyond repair. You know what person's name is spoken in hushed tones long after he or she has died and been buried in your city.

Each city has its own personality. Like a human's, it changes with trauma, years of abuse, and moments of historic impact.

Lifting the veil from the distinctive features of the setting of your novel makes your whole narrative come alive for your reader.

But how do you do that verbal sleight of hand?

Research. Tapping your own knowledge on what it means to be human in an inhumane world.

Using YouTube to catch the accents, manner of dress, and way of holding the body that each nation has.

Keep the following in your focus :

Some obvious to tourists. Some that you have to ferret out by research in the library, on the internet, or by listening to a local visitor to your setting.

How does your hero/heroine feel about those details? How have they affected the protagonist and those important to him or her?

Weave those details and emotions into a rich tapestry of irony and longing.

What shadowed corner of your setting is especially dangerous or emotion-laden to your central characters? Why?

Paint a passage where that tapestry flutters in the shadows, not quite completely seen but more evocative because of that.

What era is it in your setting? Has your protagonist lived through more than one era of time in it?

How has the passing seasons shaped his/her mind, opinions, and outlook for the present? For the future? How does your protagonist view his and the setting's past?


I worked on the streets of New Orleans for a time so the images, smells, and despair were fresh in my mind.

Which was a help and a hindrance. What one written detail brought into focus for me would not be in the memories of most of my readers.

I had to enter the blank slate of the reader's mind. Evoke in him/her an archetypal detail of touch, taste, and sight that would paint a landscape of the mind.

Every reading experience is a collaboration between reader and author in that way.

No two readers will take away the same mental images from the same author's words because each reader has his own distinct treasure-trove of memories and beliefs.

Still every author must bring his readers into the "now" of the novel's locale.

Not just by sight but by smell and by touch -- and even more important by the emotions evoked by each of those details.

Go from the universal to the specific with words. Meld detail with the characters' emotions.

In FRENCH QUARTER NOCTURNE I used actual quotes of politicians at the time of Katrina to ground the reader in the reality of the hurricane's aftermath, slowly melding the fantasy aspects so that the fantastic became more acceptable.

And at the same time, I used specific sensory details, blending them in with the main character's emotions to give the locale a personality of its own.

I like to think I succeeded. Only an accepting agent, publication, and the readers will tell. I hope this has been helpful in some small measure.
In honor of my use of Merde. Here is a little taste of Paris :


  1. Thanks, Ayuni. It means a lot that you like my attempts at trying to help fellow struggling writers. Do come back often, Roland

  2. awesoem post!!! like i tell "listen to the voices" i will become a writer being in your company .. beautiful presentation of how to go about creating reality in your subject matter...beautiful insight for readers ... now i will know how much authors work hard for that one para which we swiftly read and creat an imagination in mind... i hope you are doing well now.. prayed for you .. take care please ...

  3. Flying High In The Sky : Your prayers helped. My cold is better. So is my heart. The poison ivy on my hands and arms ... well that is another matter! LOL.

    I hope you are doing well yourself. Thank you so much for liking my little lesson in writing better. Your praise made my tired evening much better! Roland

  4. Gypsy...have you no shame!?

    Writing of faraway lands while interpreting them as places just a block from one's backyard is a hurdle all of us must face at one time or another. Admittedly, I base the majority of my settings in places I've lived, or visit regularly. Research is a must, but there's simply no substitute for walking the streets, smelling the air, and mingling with the common folk in places like Charleston or New Orleans, or those lands across the pond:)

    Great post, Roland...and feed that cat. Can't have her chewing up any rough drafts lying around;)


  5. Great advice! If you can't go to a city, research is the next best thing.

    Google is immensely helpful. I love your YouTube idea.

    I've been so AWOL in the blogosphere, but it's good for me. I hope you're doing well, Roland:)

  6. Always so helpful. You really do have a gift Roland. Maybe you should write a book on writing. Everyone would need a copy...

    Just a thought.


  7. Elliot : Thanks for visiting and the great comment. And you're so right -- there's nothing like actually walking down the streets of a city about which you're writing.

    Terry : I've missed. And it's the oddest thing : I was just wondering how you were doing this morning. May this time apart from the blogverse be productive and happy! Thanks for visiting and commenting again.

    Michael : Another fascinating coincidence : this morning I was just musing on publishing an eBook on my posts on how to write, including my ghost friends contributions to the subject. That and perhaps publishing GHOST OF A CHANCE as an eBook.

    Man, am I a glutton for punishment or what? Roland

  8. I think there is no real substitute for knowing a city intimately--the kind of knowing you get from walking streets and living life, but I also really get the desire to write someplace new and different. I've done both--by far, my trilogy, set in late 80's Portland, Oregon, has the most alive city elements. I lived there, then... I took public transportation... interacted with young, singles... I KNOW that Portland. (i LOVE that Portland).

    But my cozy mystery locale (determined by the editor parameters) is set in Roanoke, Virginia, a place I've never been. I did internet research, but I ALSO talked to several people--both Virginia natives, AND a good friend who moved there after being from the west (like I am)--her eyes were good for spotting things a native might take for granted. I think I succeeded, but suppose I won't know until a local reads it...

  9. These are some great tips on researching locations.


  10. This is such a great post, Roland! It's incredibly hard to make setting an integral, living part of your story, but when you do, it's magical - so these are great tips for achieving that!

  11. Hart : Yes, we write truer on things we know, don't we? I forgot to mention another method : Google maps.

    They have a function where you can go down to street level visually, actually doing a cyber walk along the avenues. You access different photographs of major landmarks from different angles. Neat.

    Jai : I'm glad you liked my little aid in writing locals well. Have a great end of week, Roland

  12. Sangu : Thanks for visiting and chatting. I'm happy you got something positive and helpful in my post. Don't be a stranger. Roland

  13. Google Earth is immensely helpful...especially the iPad application. I would suggest that all writers use this tool when writing of places they've never visited. Additionally, youtube videos posted by people that live there is great and reading online blogs like this one. It can take a lot of research to capture the authenticity of a place but with technology where it is can be done and a lot cheaper than in the past.

  14. Wonderful, and so true. Each city does have it's own personality.

    And I love Madeline Peyroux. Thanks for posing the song along with the sights of Paris.

  15. I agree with Hart -- there's no substitute for knowing a place. Research can help, but getting beyond a superficial portrait, that research has to include going to the place in question and getting to know it.

  16. All great things to think about. Excellent stuff!

  17. I lived a while in France and the word Merde brought back some fond memories. BTW, I'm here from Rach's Crusade, and I'm your newest follower. My blog is a


  18. A wonderful post, Roland and so important. In my newest WIP, the opening takes place in San Diego, where I've lived - however as a Brit, the POV is purely through a Brit's eyes, not a native of the city or another American. I wouldn't presume to know those colloquial nuances.

    I think the depth of research depends on the importance of the locale. Internet research is fantastic until one needs to get to the nitty gritty, almost where character and location merge.

    I'm with Michael, you have such a gift for this, do consider writing a book.

    Thanks for Paris :-)

  19. Lord I hope she doesn't think we're all like Roland!


    Just saw your e-book. I'm researching e-readers and yours, bro, will be the first book I download.

    And on the setting, there's such a thing as being too familiar with the setting. If you live it every day, you gloss over the details as boring and rote, whereas a visitor may notice just those little things.

    - Eric

  20. PS, where's a QUICK-LINK to your e-book purchase for Bear? Should be at the top of your blog, easily-noticed, one-click to Amazon or something.

    - Eric

  21. I enjoyed reading this post, Roland.Very enlightening. Thanks for the advice.

  22. Michael Offutt : Yes, I have found it immensely helpful. Going there, of course, is the best. But until I get rich enough to travel the world, Google is my ticket to adventure!

    E.C. : Isn't Madeline Peyroux a wonderful singer. Hearing her sing this tune in my mind today helped keep my sanity in a mad day at work.

    Travener : Of course, being there would be a great boon. But for my historical fantasy, RITES OF PASSAGE, there were no time machines available to take me to the New Orleans of 1853, so I had to use journals, diaries, newspaper accounts, and autobiographies to fill in the blanks.

    Lydia : Thanks for thinking there is something useful and good in this post of mine! Always makes me smile to see your name in my comment section.

    Lois : Welcome from Rach's Crusade! If I weren't so ill and still having to work, plus trying to write my wip, I would have joined the Crusade in more than spirit and good wishes. Thanks for following, and as soon as I've finished saying Hello to all my other visitors, I'll be at your blog.

    Margo : I'm sure you could pull it off writing from, say perhaps a returning Yank from Europe to San Diego.

    I'm seriously considering publishing an eBook on writing better in two sections :

    (My past posts written in the "Voice" of the ghosts of the great writers from the past -- William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, and H.P. Lovecraft to name a few.)


    (Those past blogs where I myself tried to point the way to perhaps finding a more firm footing on the path to becoming published.)

    Eric : No, I'm sure Margo what Ash said in ARMY OF DARKNESS to the question from Arthur, "Are all men from the future loud-mouthed braggarts?"
    Ash: "Nope. Just me baby... Just me."

    And I agree with you, Eric. I said in another post that my times on the streets of New Orleans after Katrina, besides helping, was also, as you said, a hindrance. The images I saw brought with them so much that unless I was careful, I wouldn't bring them over to a new reader without my memories.

    I took your hint, and if you come back, you will see proudly displayed my link to THE BEAR WITH 2 SHADOWS.

    Thanks for having my back. I'm a bit with the returning virus and a case of poison ivy straight out of RESIDENT EVIL!!

    Ellie : I'm glad you enjoyed reading my post and that you got something useful out of it. My posts are just guides, signposts, really -- not fixed rules or fixed stars in the firmament of how to write. Writing is an art form, and we just go with our instincts. Thanks for visiting and commenting, Roland

  23. I've lived in several major cities in Europe and ASia, so yes, I agree that each city has its unique voice. The trick is in listening for it.

  24. eeleenlee : You are so right. A Sioux elder was visiting a college professor who'd asked his help on a paper he was writing on Native Americans.

    He brought the Sioux elder downtown for lunch. The elder stiffened, turned to the florist shop to his right, and bent down, picking up a chirping cricket. He placed it safely out of harm's way from stomping feet.

    The professor said, "How could you hear that cricket in all this noise?"

    The Elder pulled a silver dollar from his pocket and threw it on the sidewalk. A dozen strangers spun around and dived for that coin.

    The Sioux elder sighed, "You hear what you listen for."

    Have a great weekend, Roland