Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Case Files from Our Detectives: Setting as Character

Photo by T. Roger Thomas
Over the past several weeks our detectives have been discussing Case Files on Crime Scenes a.k.a. Settings. My Case File today is about using setting as a character.

While I never intended to set all my stories in Alaska, so far, I have. It isn't just because I grew up and lived there for over thirty years -- as a military wife, I have lived and visited many, many places that would make for great settings. And it isn't just because Alaska offers such a pristine setting -- although it does, with its forests, lakes, rivers, mountains, glaciers, etc.

No, I think it is the character appeal of Alaska; the unique challenges and differences that the land offers which can disrupt and aggravate, twist and exacerbate, a crime or mystery that make setting my stories in Alaska so appealing. The endless darkness in the winter, the endless daylight in the summer, the harshness of the winters, the deadly forest fires of the summer, the absolute isolation that one can be engulfed in if you stray only moments off the path -- mystery, intrigue, simplicity, rugidness, peace, severity, safety, danger -- Alaska can offer up anything you want it to and create conflict and complexity in your story just as any character would.

In my novel BLIND SPOT Alaska is less character, more setting, but its harsh winter does hide the truth about a classmate's death from my main character, Roz, for nearly six months, which adds to the immediacy of the thriller when Roz learns the truth. In my current work-in-progress (which for now is titled MURDER POINT) however, Alaska is a definite character. My main character, Kat, heads to an Alaskan campground to meet the father she's never known and discovers murder instead. I use the isolation of the campground, the contrast between Kat's lifestyle in D.C. and this new rustic lifestyle, as well as the all-day sunlight to amp up the threats, conflicts, and suspense in this story, giving Anchor Point, Alaska just as big a part in the story as any other character.

While yes, Alaska lends itself to this type of writing, any setting can be used as a character in a mystery or thriller, by simply finding ways that the setting, like any antogonist,  can disrupt and deepen the danger. Creating limitations to a setting is a quick way to do this -- maybe there is a high cliff on one side of your setting that can't be passed or floorboards that have rotted that are too dangerous to walk on -- anything that restricts what your character can do. Then you can create a situation in which your main character's only option is to head towards those limitations you have set. This immediately amps up the suspense and deepens the danger, and as your character heads there, you can use that setting you have created to hinder her every move, just as an atogonist would. Some of the most intriguing stories I've read are those where the setting takes part in the plot just as much as the characters do. But truth be told -- I do it because it can be great fun using the setting to put charcaters in as much peril as their antagonists do!

What if a classmate went missing right after you fought with her at a party and she was later found dead? What if you couldn't remember anything after that fight? Not even how you got home? Would you tell the police the truth? Or would you lie about what you remember until you could find out what really happened that night?

16-year-old Roswell Hart finds herself in this very predicament in Laura Ellen's YA thriller, BLIND SPOT (October 2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

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