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Guest Blogger: Norma Huss

Location, Location, Location  by Norma Huss

You know what they say about buying or selling a home. The three most important attributes of a home are location, location, and, of course, location. How about a mystery? Maybe location isn’t  all three of the top choices, but it does play an important role.

When I wrote my first mystery, Yesterday’s Body, I began by placing it in Annapolis, Maryland. Then I added a museum to the plot, like the one at Solomons Island, MD. I could no longer use Annapolis, and Solomons Island didn’t have much of a city, the hills, the parks, in fact, every other site I wanted. So I invented Queensboro. It had everything that Anapolis had, the museum I needed, and sounded like it belonged on Chesapeake Bay, since there was already another town with a similar, but not the same name—Queenstown. And, I was free to add anything else I wanted to that imaginary city.

When I began writing Death of a Hot Chick, I thought I’d place it in that same Queensboro. Except—I wanted a small-town feel with a lot more boats and a watery ambiance.

I had to do it again! Invent my location.

Let’s see—I needed a rather run-down marina quite close to a top-of-the-line marina. And I knew exactly, sorta, what I wanted—the marina where our first boat was when we bought it. Definitely top-of-the-line with a deep water enclosure lined and crisscrossed with docks and boats—all kinds from go-fast cigarette boats to large yachts (including then Senator and former astronaut John Glenn’s). The marina was surrounded with condos selling for a million or two, plus a fine-dining restaurant where you definitely needed reservations. I did tone that opulence down slightly for my book.

Then I needed the main marina of the story. I selected the marina where we took our boat, in Galesville, Md. This yard was over one hundred years old. It was a working yard with all the well-organized clutter that any purist could hope for. But I couldn’t set my story in Galesville. There was not much of a town, and no fishery. So I moved that marina with the most decrepit of the boats along with the first marina into my newly created fishing village, Smith Harbor.

Smith Harbor you ask? Where did that name come from? Glad you asked. Smith is a name well known in Maryland history, and as a place name—Smith Island. And, like Queensboro, it sounds right, and even more important, there were no others listed by Google. Yes, I Google every name I use. And, although I’m thinking Maryland, I never name the state. For one thing, I don’t want to be pinned down to any particular laws on, for instance, insurance requirements for boats. I answer any such question the same way I choose my location—piecing my new whole together from several sources. I researched Chesapeake Bay bordering states’ requirements and went with a middle figure.

And, like I did for Yesterday’s Body, I kept track of street names and their relative locations, restaurants, schools, homes, all of it. How far could Cyd walk and how long would it take? If Kaye drove that way would she get lost? Where does Gregory keep his charter fishing fleet? Even though my village is imaginary, it has real boundaries, real distances, and an ambiance all its own.

Will I ever use a completely real location? I doubt it. After all, who wants to eat in a restaurant with a villainous cook? (Another one of my ideas.)

How about you?

Authors, do you think location, location, location when you plot? Do you use real cities, towns, and country estates or invented ones?

Readers (which definitely includes all authors), what do you prefer to read—real locations or invented ones. Does it make a difference to you?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

About this week’s guest blogger:

Norma Huss is a wife, mother, grandmother, loves cooking, doesn’t mind laundry, hates housecleaning, and is always, a writer. She’s a member of Sisters in Crime, the Guppies Chapter, and Pennwriters. She’s getting into Twitter and Facebook, and really likes Goodreads where she can talk about other writers’ books.

Norma calls herself The Grandma Moses of Mystery. Have you heard about her? She became famous for her primitive paintings at eighty and continued until she was 101. Since Norma’s mother is now 102, takes daily walks, and does word puzzles, the possibilities are great.

Find out all about Norma’s interests, her books, and read a couple of free short mysteries at: www.normahuss.com

Norma’s Note on Death of  a Hot Chick’s cover:  My daughter designed the cover to Death of a Hot Chick using two of my photos (a sunset and a boat) as well as other pictures she had permission to use. (The owner of Snapdragon gave me permission to use her boat in a mystery.)

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  1. June 20, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    Appreciate all the comments —all of us as writers truly have to understand location to connect with our readers; yet, so many of us take it for granted. Norma did a great job focusing us on the importance of location, location and location!

    • June 21, 2012 at 10:01 am

      Thank you Debra. It’s been delightful to visit your blog.

  2. June 19, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    For my series I invented a small town in the area I live in. I drew a map of the town with the commons and where small businesses are, etc. and as I add characters, I place them in houses in the village or the country side beyond. I make occasional references to places like Cleveland or Warren or Kent State University, etc. to give readers an idea this might actually be a real place.

    • June 20, 2012 at 9:47 am

      I sort of cheated by mentioning my fictional city of Queensboro as going to the city by a character in Death of a Hot Chick (that takes place in fictional Smith Harbor). Or is that cheating? In early drafts I’d mentioned Baltimore.

    • June 20, 2012 at 10:19 pm

      Gloria: so good to see a post from you! Enjoyed meeting you at Malice…..and I’m glad to read how you develop “location” in your writing.

  3. June 19, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    My series takes place in Philadelphia, where I live. I think that having a strong sense of place is important. Of course, the Philadelphia I write about is a mix of the way the city actually is and the way I’d like it to be. So far, the series consists of Murder on Camac, A Body on Pine, and Crimes on Latimer and all of them are streets in Philly.
    I can also see the fun in creating a totally fictional place and I may try that.

    Joe DeMarco
    Crimes on Latimer
    http://tinyurl.com/7vcfn2o

    • June 20, 2012 at 9:43 am

      That’s great, using the Philadelphia streets in titles. That reminds me of a couple of mystery series, one by Victoria Thompson.

  4. June 19, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    Norma, thanks for an interesting entry. I’ll draw maps too sometimes for an imaginary setting, plus work out the economics (where do people work? Local business or commute to the “city”? If there’s a tourist industry, is a certain business seasonal or year ’round?) as needed, even for short stories if it’s important. As for real locations, after finding out about a place, sometimes some of the things I’ve learned can suggest plot twists. But that’s part of the interest for the writer as well as the reader.

    • June 20, 2012 at 9:37 am

      Do you plot localities ahead of time? Sometimes I wing it as I go, but often I come to a halt without those plans, and then play catch-up.

  5. Jacqueline Seewald
    June 19, 2012 at 5:32 am

    Location does matter in all novels, but mystery especially. I too use a fictional town located in Central NJ for my Kim Reynolds mystery series but it’s strangely similar to the one I lived in for forty years.

    • June 19, 2012 at 11:13 am

      Definitely the way to go, Jacqueline (In my humble opinion). My husband and I boated on Chesapeake Bay and beyond, I loved it, and that’s why I place my mysteries there, I guess. Another good reason to go fictional is that I’d probably get it all wrong if I tried to be true to the exact location – or it would have all changed by now.

  6. June 18, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    Thankyou for this blog entry! Yes, I do map out the location in which my story happens, too. I even draw a map to see where my characters all live. Using an imaginary location works well. I also embed into it some of all the similar or even remotely similar places I’ve been :).

    I live in a small village. My story happens in a small village, but not in the same one I’m living. Henning Mankell’s character Kurt Wallander does live in a real city: Ystad, in Sweden. I’ve heard they do tourist rounds during summer along the streets of Ystad, where Wallander lived and worked. That thought makes it tempting to use my real village, though… 🙂

    • June 19, 2012 at 11:09 am

      Christine, I have borrowed real places, like Ego Alley in Annapolis – the nickname for a place where boats pull up to show off. I just name it Ego Alley – “like the one in Annapolis.”

  7. June 18, 2012 at 9:29 pm

    Delighted to have Norma at this location today — she really has a grasp on the importance of location to making a book work.

    • June 19, 2012 at 11:06 am

      And I’m delighted to be here!

  8. June 18, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    I tend to use Portland all the time for my mysteries. However, when I do crossover I move into the extreme. However, that can backfire. I set one of my first in the dead space between the spires of our galaxy, and now it turns out we are on a thinly populated ‘footpath’ between the two outer spires. Humph! It became, ‘yes’ know your locale, but you better know your science too.
    Patg

    • June 18, 2012 at 8:45 pm

      Patricia, one reason I don’t use where I live as my local is that I live in Amish country, and so many others do that much better than I do. Of course, others do the Chesapeake Bay area better than I do too, so, what can I say?

  9. June 18, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    I agree – it’s fun to invent your own locale. And a lot let stress over memory and others’ concerns about their home town.

  10. KB Inglee
    June 18, 2012 at 11:56 am

    Location is important to me, may be the hook that catches me first as a reader. The novel I am working on now is the first I have set in a fictional town, but everything around it is real. Mapping the town was fun, and I can stick in what ever I want or need.

    • June 18, 2012 at 8:41 pm

      KB, that comment above yours was my reply. (I’m still not great with technology.)

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