Thursday, April 22, 2010

Sense of Place

Have you ever read a book where the setting is so--I was going to say well described, but that isn't even it. Made so completely real --that you feel like you are there?

The first time I really became aware of being aware of this was a number of years ago when I picked up a mystery--my genre of choice--at the library. The author was Corrine Holt Sawyer and the title may have been Murder in Black and White. As I read I had a sense of deja vu. The names may have been changed, but this story was taking place in my home town. The characters were residents of the retirement home there overlooking the Pacific. The trails that led down to the beach were there. I was walking into town with them. The commuter train that went through was there.

I took a copy to my mother the next time I visited. (I got the love of mysteries from her, so there was no problem persuading her to tackle a new author.) She still lived in that hometown, and as she read, she would break out laughing. Not only was the setting so real, she could identify the characters -- the REAL characters--that the book characters were based on. Now, the author lived on the opposite coast, and nowhere in her biography is there a hint that she had lived at any time in my home town. How did she get it so exactly--so real?

I began to be more aware of the settings of novels I read, and the more the setting drew me in, the better the reading experience. There are some Seattle authors whos sense of place is so inviting that I can't put them down. Best known is probably J. A. Jance, whose J. P. Beaumont mysteries really take you downtown to some of Seattle's well known and lesser known haunts. Beaumont, in his earlier days, liked to hang out at the Doghouse restaurant. A friend visiting her kids in Seattle, when asked where she would like to go requested a meal at the Doghouse. The kids were totally puzzled. But to her delight, she found it to be just as seedy as it was described.

Jance's other series features Joanna Brady, sheriff of Cochise County, Arizona. As it happens, my brother lived there for a couple of years when he was stationed at Fort Huachuca and I have a friend there. Though I don't know the area as well, I sometimes feel I could just drive straight to anywhere mentioned as easily as I could here at home. My brother sent me this picture from a recent trip through the area. He captioned it "Joanna Brady's Office".

Back to Seattle, another Seattle Mystery writer is Earl Emerson. My eyes widened once when the body in one of his murders was found by the river in the next town over from us. I was ready to go down and join the search. On another occasion we had gone camping in one of the state parks along Puget Sound. It was rather freaky a couple of weeks later when I read one of his mysteries and the perp was picked up in campsite #70. I remember that number specifically, because we weren't far from that campsite, and there had been some sort of event that had drawn the police to the campground when we were there.

That can sure creep you out.

G. M. Ford can also bring the Seattle setting alive. I'm currently rereading one of his books in which a lot of the action takes place in a historic upscale hotel. The name is changed, but we know where we are! His character knows the ins and outs of the city because his dad was once the mayor. But a lot of his friends, whom he usese for surveilence, come from the homeless population.

When we went to Alaska last fall, I took along one of Dana Stabenow's kate Shugak mysteries. Talk about really being in the place. I picked up others while there and have read nearly all of them since. Stabenow really brings you into the interior, and gives you the sense of outsideness that Kate feels when she is in the "big" city of Anchorage.  Reading her mysteries brings me back to our trip and our adventures .

The settings don't even have to be real places in order to take you there. or take you to a place you know. Reading or watching one of the Harry Potter stories takes my husband back to his boarding school--which he claims was just like Hogwarts minus the ghosts and wizarding.

And don't you just want to bike down Ittibittiwassee Road with Jim Qwilleran and discuss his latest column in the Moose County Something over a squnk water at Tipsy's? (Lillian Jackson Braun's The Cat Who...series)

As we get ready for a trip to Scotland,  England,  and Wales this summer, I am looking forward to some of the locations in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, wandering through James Herriot's Yorkshire, a visit to Shrewsbury Abbey where Brother Cadfael tended the gardens (I had read them all before they appeared on PBS.) and a sight of the moors where Sherlock Holmes tracked the Hound of the Baskervilles.

What books have brought places alive for you?


One Of The Kids said...

My husband has recently introduced me to an author who has a great grasp of local settings as well as local humor:

"I think they worked out of Tacoma, which as far as I was concerned might as well be annexed to Hell itself."

"This is insane, I'm the instrument of an all-powerful primordial deity's wave of chaos and destruction."
"That's kind of extreme, It's not like you work for Google or anything."

Now if characters from movies and TV shows supposedly set in the area would stop calling interstates and highways things like: "The 5" or "The 2." They really should be saying: "I-5" or "Highway 2." That really destroys the setting for me no matter how much they get the rest right.

Paulie said...

I love mysteries too. Awhile back, I found the culinary mysteries that Diana Mott Davidson writes and I love them, having read the library ones over and over and then bought my own copies and eagerly await her new book each time. I probably like them because she lives near Denver and always describes snow wonderfully!

I should look up the author you suggest. I like mysteries and always have.

BUT one book I read and also met the author in Port Orchard's library was "Breakfast at Sally's" by Richard LeMieux. I've read it three times and portions of it more.

He is going to write a children's book about his dog, Willow, and will return to the library there to share about it and sell books. I plan to be there as my DIL said she would let me know when it is happening.

Day Dreamer said...

James Lee Burke jumps immediately to mind. New Orleans...The Big Easy. The sultry, humid, suffocating heat of Southern La. He can make you smell the shrimp boiling, the garbage in the ally ways, and the ripe scent of the bayou. His prose pulls you in and holds you in a lover's embrace.
I know people who say they "skip over the discription parts" of a story or book...Why? That is the heart of it.
Books take you to places you would otherwise never experience. I may never see Italy, but my mind has gone on a trip to Tuscany.
Wonderful blog. Thanks. Ann

Liz said...

Are you coming to see me in Wales? Please do.