It’s All About The Place by Jeannette de Beauvoir

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.

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10 thoughts on “It’s All About The Place by Jeannette de Beauvoir

  1. marissoule says:

    The first 12 years of my life were spent in a rural area in California, then after I was married, my husband I moved to a very rural area in Michigan. I’m sure that’s why the majority of my books are set in rural areas/small towns, mostly in Michigan, but a few in California. My latest thriller, however, is set in Skagway, Alaska…a location I very much wanted to visit..

  2. The lake has been called a moody character in my stories, and not just by me. The place certainly inspires my writing. Good post!

  3. I like to read mysteries about places I know; then again, I like to read mysteries about places I don’t know.

  4. Ah, but it does seem that it’s often about the place, Corinne, either way, doesn’t it?

  5. Bob Allen says:

    I read mostly mystery-crime-detective novels. There are only so many plots, often an interesting location is the factor making the story special. I often pick a book because of the setting. And I’ve been known to look at Google Maps to see exactly where the characters are traveling — so if you’re using a real location, be accurate.

  6. I was never given much freedom in my life. Early illnesses and psychological tramas kept me either bed-bound or house-bound. I learned to travel within my mind and be content with hopping in and out of pictures on the wall or within books.

    My life has been spent in moving from one idea to another. There have been no places, plots, or characters to interfere with mental movements…

    only vast expanses of colorful flowers and butterflies that occupied the many fields of mathematics (My husband calls it “An evolving art form”) and spread in infinite array before me;

    only houses without walls, no boundaries to new ideas, consisting of an infinite amount of space and time.

    Consequently, I write about such things: truth, beauty, and other gentle things.

  7. Your free spirit is refreshing, Billie Lyn. And there is a lot to be thought about/written about “travelers of the interior.”

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