We’re back with week six of our freestyle chat – no rules, no editing, and no net under us. Vancouver-based crime writer and author of Ride the Lightning, Dietrich Kalteis and I discuss what we’re working on, writing in general and just whatever comes to mind – real off the cuff.
A special thanks to Peter Rozovsky for use of his noir shot: At Maryland’s Eastern Shore. You can find out more about Peter’s work on Facebook, his Twitter account @DBeyondBorders and his sublime blog http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.co.uk
So here we go.
MF: I’d like to touch on how important settings are this week since it seems so closely connected to character, which we talked about over the past two weeks. I’ll start off by saying LA, NYC and London have been very well served in the canon. Writers these days need to look at different locales/settings which have specific cultural aspects that perhaps are not widely known in broader culture. This is why, to me, crime novels set in British Columbia by writers such as yourself, Robin Spano, Linda E Richards and ER Brown fascinated and entertained me. Owen Laukkenan’s books that feature the character Carla Windermere (a black female FBI agent) are set in Minnesota. Now, there’s a double whammy of originality, a black female protagonist and Minnesota.
DK: I like reading stories set in my hometown. It’s interesting to hear other writers describe settings which are familiar, and Robin, Linda and ER all do it very well. And I recently finished Owen’s Kill Fee and double whammy is right, a great job with both character and setting.
For me, Vancouver creates an interesting backdrop, partially because it hasn’t been overused. It’s also a busy seaport and tucked up against the US border, just begging for some crime fiction. Using where you live as a story’s setting makes it both easier for the writer and more convincing to the reader. When I wrote Ride the Lightning I also chose Vancouver because of the unusually high number of grow-ops here which served the story.
And I see your point about settings that we’ve read over and over, but to me when a story is well written the setting could be anywhere. Take James Ellroy and his LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, White Jazz) must-read crime fiction. Or Ed McBain and his 87th Precinct stories set in New York. Carl Hiaasen and Florida, James Lee Burke’s Louisiana, George Pelecanos’ Washington.
Having said that, there is a certain intrigue to stories that take place in a foreign locale that I’ve never been to. Take a classic like Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. Or even an imaginary setting like the town of Wallace in ER Brown’s Almost Criminal. In the end, I think it all boils down to the strength of the writing – whether the setting’s exotic, familiar or imaginary.
Striving for the original is always important, but sometimes your characters want to show up at overused locales like bars or cafes if they’re the kind that frequent such places, regardless of whether the setting is a bit cliché or not; that’s where they hang out. But I do agree with you, as a writer, it’s important to strive for originality in settings.
MF: Very true. We’ve all read bar scenes, but like a game of chess, there are an infinite number of possibilities of character, plot, dialogue and story that can take place in that setting, and this is where originality comes in; but if a writer feels he/she can make the setting work in a completely new land or one that’s unfamiliar within the genre, then go for it. Alexander McCall Smith, the Scottish crime writer has won much deserved success for his books set in Botswana. Brian McGilloway, the wonderful Irish crime writer from Derry, sets his work in the northern Irish borderlands between Derry and Donegal, again, a setting that is such a rich vein to mine, and one that has seldom been used in the past. The English crime writer, David Mark sets his work in the northern English city of Hull. No one has set crime literature there before, and why not? He does it very well, and people love his work. Hull may not be the most fashionable of places, but it certainly has its secrets and textural intrigues, and David evokes the atmosphere and nature of Hull supremely well.
DK: Elmore Leonard based many of his crime novels in and around Detroit, and he had every aspect of it down: the people, the settings, the dialects. One of his last was Djibouti, a city in the horn of Africa, and he pulled it off beautifully. A great example of dropping characters in settings that are unfamiliar to them, making them vulnerable by being out of their element. Ken Kesey’s Sailor Song, set in a fishing village in Kuinak, Alaska, is another fine example. Also, Hunter S Thompson’s The Rum Diary, taking place in Peurto Rico.
MF: You’ve just expanded my to-read list Dieter. Another example from my recent reading is Snow Candy by Terry Carroll, set in rural southern Ontario. People sometimes make the mistake of assuming that a small town or rural setting is more tranquil and peaceful than a city. That may be at first glance, but an awful lot of unsavoury things go on and are hidden in the countryside. People live there too, and where there are people, there’s intrigue just like anywhere else on the planet. It’s just not as obvious as it would be in a city. Books set in such locales are the more interesting for it. Confuse the bucolic with the moral at your peril.
Anya Lipska from London is another great example. Yes, her work is set in the familiar city of London, but its set amongst the Polish immigrant community. No one’s done that before, and even though the landscape of the setting may be familiar to many, the cultural landscape of her characters is not, and therein lies the originality that is such a wonderful hook and makes for a great read. Her novel Death Can’t Take a Joke (great title) involves investigations that take the story to Poland itself. Again, not just original but probably unique in English-language crime literature.
Ken Bruen, one of my favourite crime writers, lives in the west of Ireland where he sets his work. Granted, his main character, Jack Taylor is a middle-aged alcoholic male, but his humour and kitchen-sink everydayness is entwined so realistically within the crimes he investigates, and it works so well. Bruen shows how he lives and interacts with the modern world around him as opposed to holing him up in a dingy office where the real world of single mothers, curmudgeon neighbours and convenience store eccentricities don’t exist. Again, there’s an example of the familiar genre character being depicted in a fresh way and updated for our times.
This is why Scandinavian, Italian and German crime literature has been so successful in recent years; readers are crying out for fresh perspective and an insight into places and characters whose outlook, mannerisms and ethos are unfamiliar and fresh. However, it’s important for the writer to ignore the current fads and fashions of here today, gone tomorrow popularity and set their work wherever they feel it’s best.
more next week …