Monday, July 23, 2012

Mysterious Monday ~ Mysterious Settings

This post ran originally on Inkspot, a joing blog by authors of mysteries published by Midnight Ink, on May 22, 2012.

Setting is an essential part of many mysteries, as well as other types of fiction. Some settings are important enough to be regarded as "characters" of a sort – Tony Hillerman’s Southwest, John Connolly’s Maine, J.A. Jance’s Arizona and Seattle, Susan Conant’s Cambridge, Massachusetts - well, I could go on for pages!

My own forthcoming Animals in Focus series is set in Fort Wayne and other parts of northern Indiana. I chose the area partly because I grew up there and know it well, and partly because it is a beautiful part of the country that often gets short shrift from outsiders who think all of Indiana is the fairly flat stretch of farmland from just west of Toledo to just east of Chicago. To dispel the "nothing but corn, beans and steelmills" stereotype, I send my protagonist, photographer Janet MacPhail, to the lakes, rivers, forests, and ravines of the state as well as the cities, small towns, and occasional quirky attractions. (Seriously, have you ever been to a pickle festival?)

The Money Bird, the second book in the Animals in Focus series,
will be set partly in the beautiful lake country of northern Indiana.

I’m also working on a thriller, Rattlesnake Mountain, set in the high desert in and around Reno, Nevada. Most of the Nevada novels I’ve found focus on Las Vegas, a good day’s drive south of Reno, or Lake Tahoe, which sits in the Sierras west of Reno. Great locations, but not the Nevada I hiked and explored for fifteen months. When I think about future books, setting is often one of the first things that comes to mind – where would I like to "live" in my creative mind for the year or more it takes to write the book? And even better, where would I like an excuse to visit for research? Somewhere familiar but overlooked? Somewhere exotic?

Wild horses are my favorite part of the Reno area landscape! Bachelor stallions
in Hidden Valley east of Reno, May 2010.

Which makes me think of mysteries and thrillers with exotic settings. What are your favorites, and why? What makes the unfamiliar work? Here are four of my own favorites:
  • Eliot Pattison’s Inspector Shan series set in Tibet. Chinese Inspector Shan runs afoul of the authorities in Beijing and is sent to a gulag in Tibet, where his eyes (and the readers) were opened politically and spiritually. The books are rich with cultural, geographical, and political information, as well as fascinating characters.

  • Alexander McCall Smith’s three series, but especially the Botswana series featuring #1 lady Detective Precious Ramotswe and her friends. I’ve always been fascinated with Botswana as a country, and the characters take me back to my many African friends in graduate school. One of these days, I’m going on safari!

  • ZoĆ« Ferraris’s series set in Saudi Arabia, featuring Katya Hijazi, a lab worker at the coroner's office who is bold enough to step out of her expected role, and Nayir Sharqi, a pious desert guide whose beliefs are shaken as he works the first case with Katya in Finding Nouf. Ferraris opens a door most Westerners never approach except through misunderstanding and presents the complexities of female-male roles and relations in a very conservative society with knowledge and sensitivity.

  • Elizabeth Hand’s literary thrillers featuring washed-up, burned-out photographer Cass Neary, an oddly appealing unappealing anti-hero. The books are brilliant, literary, suspenseful, and unputdownable. And the settings! Generation Loss takes places on a creepy little island off the coast of Maine, and the sequel, Available Dark, is set mostly in Iceland. Great reads, fascinating landscapes!

Please add to my to-read list! What are your favorite mysteries and thrillers in which an unusual setting, or an unusual aspect of a more familiar setting, is essential?

Sheila's dog Jay at an obedience trial, which he finds
exotic enough.
Sheila's mystery Drop Dead on Recall (now available for pre-order), takes place in the exotic world of canine obedience trials and will be out in October! Sheila is also the author of award-winning books about pets, including Rescue Matters! How to Find, Foster, and Rehome Companion Animals (Alpine, 2009), The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting and Owning a Cat (Alpha, 2005), and fifteen others. Sheila's books are available from your local bookseller and on line. Learn more at or on Facebook at

Please come back for Writing on Wednesday - this week my guest Kaye George talks about writing on two genres.

Please Note - I will be taking a BBB (Brief Blogging Break) beginning next week until September 3 to finish the second Animals in Focus mystery and to work on a few other projects ~ and to enjoy the end of summer! I hope you do the same - go play!

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