The Other Character: Setting
One of my favorite parts of writing a novel is creating a world. My debut novel, Ultimate Justice, A Trey Fontaine Mystery, is set in a small fictional town, Raven Bayou, in southwest Louisiana. I loved laying out a map of the town, naming the streets and shops, and placing it in just the right location in the South.
Setting can be considered a character if you give it character. Raven Bayou has a Courthouse Square, a city park, and two casinos on the river. It is mostly a quiet town. The casinos are there for those passing from New Orleans, west into Texas. Instead of a police force, it is serviced by the county sheriff’s department. There is a ritzy neighborhood, including a horse ranch owned by a villain, and a Cajun neighborhood where that thick pigeon French/English language spoken.
Choosing a location for placing the town was easy. I wanted it to be in the deep South where my one African-American homicide cop had to cope with prejudice on all fronts. And since the world seems to love New Orleans, I thought being within driving distance would give me options. But I didn’t want to use New Orleans itself. I’d rather create my own town.
This location also allowed me to bring up the way women are treated in the South. In truth a lot of the men place their women on pedestals. Unfortunately, many women, while worshiped and treated like ladies, are also considered unable to do what men do. They don’t belong on the streets as cops. So that was perfect for my female cop. Never mind that she has had major problems in her past. Now she has to deal with men who don’t appreciate her presence.
Writing a novel allows us to create whatever we want, as long as it’s believable. We can use the climate, the political and religious beliefs of the region, the land, water and animal life.
In chapter on of my book there is a crime scene just outside the city proper. A dirt road with houses a half mile apart on one side and a verdant jungle on the other. Pastures with horses, out buildings used for storage, for garden tools, for chicken coops. And of course, the ever present humidity of Louisiana. If it’s not raining, wait a minute. If your clothes aren’t sticking to you, you must be inside under the a/c.
Location can be a vital part of your story. It can be used to hide things, to make things more difficult for characters, to cause accidents, or create excuses. Every part of the location can be used. The local entertainment: rodeos, theaters, lake resorts, casinos, land and wildlife for hunting, rivers for fishing. The landmarks: Courthouse, sheriff’s department, casino, bayou. The language: French Cajun, pigeon English, Southern slang. Expectations: Blacks are ignorant, women are weak, men are supposed to fight and drink, and be protectors. It’s okay to go there. You can even create that one person who doesn’t fit in, who constantly fights the locals, trying to break the stereotypes and another who is so entrenched in local beliefs that he or she will never change. And just for fun, add a person or two who fakes the local prejudices just to avoid arguments. Make the place real. Make it breathe. Sprinkle in the local color. Think about where you live. Write it down. Practice bringing that to life, and then do the same with your setting.
The small town of Raven Bayou, Louisiana explodes as old money meets racial tension, and tortured children turn the table on abusive men. FBI Special Agent Trey Fontaine returns home to find the town turned upside down with mutilated bodies. Working with local homicide detectives, Trey is determined to get to the truth. A believer in empirical evidence, Trey ignores his instincts until he stares into the face of the impossible, and has to choose between what he wants to believe and the ugly truth.
A graduate of the University of California and former officer for a large sheriff’s department, RYDER ISLINGTON is now retired and doing what she loves: reading, writing, and gardening. She lives in Louisiana with her family, including a very large English Chocolate Lab, a very small Chinese pug, and a houseful of demanding cats. She can be contacted at RyderIslington@yahoo.com or visit her blog at http://ryderislington.wordpress.com