Provincetown, Massachusetts. Cornwall, Great Britain. Montréal, Québec, Canada. Hastings, England. Cambridge, Massachusetts. Brittany, France. Paris, France, Angers, France. London, England. Oxford, England.
In no particular order and pretty much off the top of my head, those are some of the places where my novels take place.
Every author is different from all other authors in obvious and subtle ways, and so is their process for creating and writing stories. Some begin with an idea for a plot that they twist and fashion into something shining and beautiful. Others start with a character, letting that person make the decisions about what needs to happen in the novel.
And then there are those of us (I don’t know how many, but would be interested to find out) who start with place.
There’s a story I love—though it’s probably apocryphal—about Phyllis McGinley, who wrote romantic thrillers in the 1960s. The story goes that she’d decide where she wanted to go next on vacation, and that dictated where her next novel would be set. I think it’s an excellent plan.
Place is important. It shapes a narrative, gives it context and flavor. I can’t imagine a story in a void, in the abstract; I can’t even visualize characters without seeing where they are. And it shows: one of my weaknesses as a writer is leaving too much of my characters’ physical descriptions up to the reader’s imagination; conversely, one of my strengths is making the venue seem real and alive. I love hearing from readers that they feel they know a town or city after reading one of my books.
While I haven’t really adopted McGinley’s practice, I do love to write about places I know. So if you look at some of the places in my books, you’ll see where I’ve either lived or spent a significant amount of time. Murder Most Academic reflected my years living in Boston and Cambridge. Asylum and Deadly Jewels take place in one of my favorite cities in the world, Montréal, where I spend some time every year. I have a series starting this spring in which all books have the same subtitle: A Provincetown Mystery (that’s where I live now). My upcoming The Cambridge Effect takes place in Oxford, Cambridge, and London—and Oxford is another of my centers of the universe. You get the idea.
Think about it. Wherever you live, there are things that you can imagine could only take place there, right? Every place, every space has its own ethos. If I want to place my protagonist in danger, I first have to see where that’s going to happen. In real life, space shapes what takes place in it; and that’s the way it works with narrative, too.
I’ve occasionally heard readers remark on novels in which they felt that the place was as much a character as any of the people in the story. Most readers seem to like that. And I often concur: if that’s the sort of book you like, then run, do not walk, to your favorite bookseller and start reading Phil Rickman’s opus. He chooses places on and around the border between England and Wales, and captures the liminality of that space in breathtaking ways.
I’m not sure that the spaces I write about qualify as characters, but they’re real and they ground both the people and the stories. My people chat in real cafés, order meals in real restaurants, walk on real streets. You can visit these towns and cities and feel right at home, even if it’s your first time there, because my characters have already taken you there.
Is place important to you? Or do you not particularly care where your mystery reading lives? I’d love to hear from you… post your comments here and I’ll choose one at random for a free copy of Asylum!
Jeannette de Beauvoir wrote her first novel when she was eight years old (it wasn’t very good). In the hopes that practice would make palatable if not necessarily perfect, she has continued to write better novels over the last several decades. She helps other writers through workshops, critiques, and editing and can be seen online at www.jeannettedebeauvoir.com.