A group blog featuring an international array of killer mystery, suspense, and romantic suspense writers. With premises and story lines different from your run-of-the-mill whodunits, we tend to write outside the box. We blog several times a week on all topics relating to romantic suspense and mystery, our writing, and our readers. We welcome all comments and often have guest bloggers. All our authors can be contacted separately, too, using their own social media links.

We find our genre delightfully, dangerously, and deliciously exciting - join us here, if you do too!

Julie Moffet . Cathy Perkins . Jean Harrington . Daryl Anderson . Nico Rosso . Maureen A Miller . Sandy Parks . Lisa Q Mathews . Sharon Calvin . Lynne Connolly . Janis Patterson . Vanessa Keir . Tonya Kappes . Julie Rowe . Joni M Fisher . Leslie Langtry

Monday, October 15, 2012

I-Spy: Writing the Gay Mystery - Setting

 Join the authors and friends of Not Your Usual Suspects for an occasional series of posts about their world of reading, writing and publishing.

Short and sweet, hopefully both informative and entertaining - join us at I-Spy to find out the how's and why's of what we do.

 TODAY'S POST: I-Spy: Writing the Gay Mystery – Setting


Setting is one of those elements typically overlooked by inexperienced writers – particularly inexperienced writers of crime and m/m fiction. Setting is where your story takes place. Pretty basic, right? What’s to think about? But setting is one of those subtle components that can take a good story and turn it into something great.

Setting includes everything from the country where you’ve staged your story, to the sofa your characters tumble off the first time they make love, or the crate of china they cower behind as the bullets fly. Setting is the weather, the time of day, the temperature, the wallpaper, the terrain.

Setting often determines what type of mystery you’re writing – certainly readers are quick to make assumptions as to what sub-genre goes with what setting: isolated country house means traditional mystery, small New England town means cozy, multiple international metropolises mean thriller, grungy urban settings mean hardboiled. And setting also determines what life experiences and challenges your gay protagonist can expect to confront. The only son of a Baptist minister who grows up in a conservative Midwestern town is going to be a very different character than the youngest son of a famous Hollywood starlet.

This is not to say that you can’t shake things up, write against type, and set a spy thriller in a small New England town or make your son of a Baptist minister out and an open advocate for gay rights in his conservative community, but either way you’re working with or against reader expectation.

There are geographic trends in mystery writing – Scandinavian crime fiction is very hot right now, and part of the allure is that Sweden, Norway, Denmark all feel rather exotic to jaded readers who’ve burnt out on England, New York, Los Angeles, Florida and New Orleans. Ireland is trendy as is Scotland. Midwestern noir is way hotter than urban noir.   

Setting directly determines the mood and atmosphere of your story. To be effective, setting has to feel realistic, regardless of whether the story takes place in a Denny’s on Topanga Canyon Blvd., a goth club in New York, or an ice cavern on some distant planet in the year 3001.

But how do you achieve realism when there’s a very good chance you’re going to set your story in a place you’ve never been – or at best only visited?

It’s easier than you think. Of course first and foremost is research. Books, maps, realtor listings, travel brochures, guide books, tourist bureaus and websites. You know the drill.

But the other piece of the equation, the more important piece, really, is how you bring a particular setting to life--Because any place is more than a description of the buildings and the local economy—and you do that by looking at “writing what you know” from another angle.

No, you’ve never been on an ice cavern on a distant planet (and thank God for that because sure as hell, no matter how carefully you researched it you’d have some reader from outer space contacting you to tell you the cavern was torn down in ’66 to make way for a Bank of America), but chances are you have been in a cave or in the snow. And you can use what you know about the way caves smell and the way snow feels for your alien setting.

Too often setting consists of a catalog of meaningless detail. The moon was shining brightly, the lawn was a manicured square of green, the room was large and sunny with flowered wallpaper, the wind was gusting leaves, blah, blah, blah. Not that there’s anything wrong with all that, but your descriptions have to be more than a recitation of the facts as you see them. And that’s the key thing right there. Most setting revolves around visual cues of what the author is allowing the POV character to see.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Humans — male humans in particular — are visual creatures. But don’t describe everything, and limit what you do describe to a few telling details. Stay in character as you describe the scene. What would your character be most likely to notice? The description you give us is actually your POV character’s commentary on the scene. So what would be important or significant to the character?
Use all five senses to describe your scenes — but (as always) think quality not quantity. Stick with the essentials. Readers don’t need to know what the POV characters sees, smells, hears, tastes and touches in every scene. Decide what’s most important for a particular scene, and give us that. For contemporary fiction, usually a sentence or two will be sufficient.
Setting grounds your stories — quite literally. A vivid, well-drawn setting pulls your reader right into the moment with your characters.

 Questions? Thoughts? Opinions?


A distinct voice in gay fiction, multi-award-winning author JOSH LANYON has been writing gay mystery, adventure and romance for over a decade. In addition to numerous short stories, novellas, and novels, Josh is the author of the critically acclaimed Adrien English series, including The Hell You Say, winner of the 2006 USABookNews awards for GLBT Fiction. Josh is an Eppie Award winner and a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist


FUTURE POSTS will cover: 

Kindlegraph / the art of research / writing male/male romance / rejection and writer's block / building suspense / writing love scenes / anti-piracy strategies / audio books / interviews with editors and agents / using Calibre.

We welcome everyone's constructive comments and suggestions!


Rita said...

Great post. Interesting and plenty to think about. For me setting is a character. In my books the protagonists sometimes battle the settings. In thinking about it seems like I make the Y chroms in my stories more sensitive to smell and as you said the visual. The gals are into touch and sound. I also think how much you layer in depends on the location. Walking the corridors of a sterile office building will be quite different than the Everglades.

Josh Lanyon said...

Absolutely. A powerful setting can be another character.

Wynter Daniels said...

Good post. I've also used setting as a character, particularly when I set my books in places that the reader will know or know of, like Savannah or New Orleans.

Marcelle Dubé said...

Good post. For me, setting makes or breaks the story. Make me feel, smell, hear, see the place through which the character is travelling and you've likely hooked me for the rest of the story.

And you're absolutely right: setting is very personal. One character may have a great sense of smell and always notice the smell in a room, where another one will always notice the one thing that's out of place. Individuals notice different things.

Toni Anderson said...

I love setting :) I find some books you read could be set absolutely anywhere. This leaves me floating around in the air, totally not grounded. You are so right about people noticing different things. Like a mom walks into her kids room and sees a mess, the kids walk in and see toys.
And Midwestern noir? Really??
I absolutely love setting.

Josh Lanyon said...

Yes, Wynter! There's a challenge when you set a story in a place that's been used a lot in fiction, isn't there? There's a high bar.

Josh Lanyon said...

Marcelle, I agree. Setting is one of those elements that separate the okay writers from the really good writers.

Josh Lanyon said...

Hey there, Toni!

Yes on the Midwestern Noir. But think about it. It's actually ripe for the plucking because it's such a dramatic contrast. Very effective when it's done right. But of course doing it right demands treating the setting with understanding and respect, and that can be a challenge. Not everyone appreciates the Home Town Vibe.

More Popular Posts