Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Location, location... Oh rats!

By Jude Mason

It's all in the location, or so many readers would have us believe. Personally, I tend to think location is fun to play with, but not necessarily a big deal. I rarely use a real place for my books. I like to keep my fantasies just that - Fantasies!

For years, when I wrote it was about the area around me. When I got published, that didn't change a lot, but I did tend to give more description of the surroundings. Not a lot, my characters were still more important than the color of the living room furniture or how many chairs sat around the dining table

I think the more I wrote, the more detail and information on local wormed its way into my books. I still didn't, and don't to this day, trouble myself with real locations unless I need them for some reason.

Whisker's Seaside Inn was an exception. Yes, it's a real location, but it's got nothing to do with our gayer than gay owner and
his lover. This is actually a pub not too far from where I live and it's gorgeous don't you think? The owners? I really have no idea, but they ain't Ethan or Cade.

In a book I wrote some time ago, Cat's Claw, I stuck to what I knew and used both fauna and flora I knew well. The story called for that and I adored sharing bits of my knowledge of the local wildlife and the seasons with readers who bought the book. When I needed my 'cats' to race through the underbrush, I knew what it would be like because I'd done it.

When Morgan was tramping through the forest to get to Joshua's cabin, I knew the smells and feel of the loam like it was right here. I could take my readers there and let them sink into the real meat of the book.

The location of the story has grown in importance, but there's always a balance and a right/wrong way to dish it out. Doing it the wrong way, well, it's what I call a laundry list of showing. Something like this:

Jenna walked through the door Garce held open for her and stepped onto the softest, wall-to-wall, gold plush carpeting she'd ever had the privilege of walking on. The pale tan walls with the four large windows all in a row across from her, delicately curtained in white lace tied with deep blue ribbons made her heart flutter. Taking another step, she blinked at the large, brown leather sofa and its two matching recliner, one on either side and all facing the enormous red brick fireplace.

Oh My!

Now, doesn't that make you dizzy?

Imagine if the book had started out that way and every time Jenna and Garce went somewhere, their car... a brilliant blue, four door Eldarado, with black leather interior... ad nauseum! They live in a duplex, in a town, in the state of... you could go nuts. Hell, the story would be all location and no fun - no hanky panky - just no fun at all. Yet, you want to know this stuff, just not all at once. A dabble of color, a hint of what size the room is, hot, cold, is there a smell? Is the street clean, the trees green? Those are tremendously important as you go along, but not as an info dump.

Here's the opening for Scorpio Tattoo, one of my all time fav books:

He sat bolt upright. His heart pounded. Sweat poured down his face. Eyes wide, he stared into the darkness, searching for what had wrenched him from a sound sleep. Then, he remembered the dream.

"Damn!" Jonathan Rorke cursed. Sitting cross-legged in his huge, king-sized bed, he dragged shaking fingers through the wavy, dark shoulder-length hair plastered to his forehead and neck. He shuddered as the cool night air brushed his naked chest.

Visions of the dream tumbled through his mind. An eerie night, a moonlit night, a park surrounded by a forest of evergreens. The woman, the same one he'd seen a dozen times before, lying nearly naked on the grass, her long black hair spread out around her head and shoulders like a halo. Her eyes were closed, her brow furrowed ever so slightly. She was on her side, one arm bent underneath her, the other stretched out before her.

Her ankles were crossed, and she lay partially on her stomach. She was naked to her lower back, breasts plump, tipped with dark nipples raised to sharp points by the chill night air.

You still get information on location, but you get so much more. Emotion, mystery, a sense of his adoration for her before he'd even really seen her. Oh yeah, and fear. When he sat up, his heart raced, sweat poured off him. But, we still know where he is. Not the town, not the street name or anything, because it's not needed, yet. If at all. Some stories you never need it, some you want to know it all. That's what edits are for and re-writes...LOL!

Hope that all made sense. What do you all think? Do you want to know THAT much about your characters? Where they live? Where they work? What color their cars are? Where they came from?


  1. I think your right. I want to know just enough to understand the characters and their situation. Unless the carpet colour is important, I'll pass on that sort of detail :)

    Kim Dare.

  2. Hi, Jude,

    I don't disagree with you at all.

    Your positive and negative examples highlight my point about over-description. Every phrase needs to be relevant to the story you're trying to tell. Nobody needs to know about the brown leather sofa unless someone is going to spill a drink on it!

    But - what about my comment, that locales mold characters? A woman in Chicago is not going to have the same habits, expectations, personality, as a woman living in rural Georgia. I'm very aware of how the places I've lived have shaped my values and my preferences. My characters tend to be the same way.


  3. I never thought any of that stuff was important but you've taught me that a few words here and there add a lot. If he went to his car, mention just a bit about it, color and make, perhaps. A few words about his living room when they walk in. Usually I mention the sofa because one or the other guy is liable to get thrown over the the back of it and get royally f-- well, you know. *G*

    I agree with Lisabet that a woman in Chicago might act differently that a woman in Georgia and I try to take that into account. The first thing I try to learn? Do they call it soda or pop? LOL We call it pop.

    Great post, Jude. The picture of the inn is too beautiful not to use in a post about locations!


  4. Hi Kim!

    Thanks lady for coming by. I think deciding how much we need is huge. Too much and your reader is yawning, too little and they're scratching their head wondering what the hell! LOL


  5. Lisabet,

    I totally agree with you on location can mold a character and for someone who has never been to say, the lower eastern states, I'd find it extremely difficult to write something situated there. The slang, types of dress and the outlook of the characters would be foreign to me, to a large extent.

    I know from personal experience that we have to be careful of inserting too much regionalism. The slang could confuse people and if I inject say a plant in the wrong place, it could be really confusing.

    As for my characters being shaped by myself, yes, but I fight that all the time. LOL I want my characters to be themselves.

    Thanks for your comments!


  6. Hi Jenna,

    We say pop too. LOL

    Yeah, that's a gorgeous picture. Hubby did good on that one.

    I think if I tried writing about characters in really foreign lands I'd be in major trouble. But, the internet has made information, as well as people pretty accessible. Years ago I was working on a story situated in a small town in England. I actually know a fella there, Mog. Yeah, the poor soul. I had him and his ever patient wife traipsing their butts to this little place and taking pictures of it for me. Counting stairs, visiting pubs... he thought it was great. Not sure about Mrs.Mog. The characters I was writing about weren't from the area, or I'd have had Mog for research, plus a forum full of people who seemed very willing to help.

    Uh, methinks I got sidetracked. LOL

    Thanks Jenna for commenting.


  7. I got called out on this by my beta readers, but can't seem to find a happy medium. I despise description, to the point that I often will not describe one of my characters even. It doesn't matter to me what they look like, their apartment looks like, they ate for breakfast, or whatnot, simply for the sake of setting. It's all "prop" to me.

    Though, if the prop foreshadows something meaningful to the story, then included it!

    As a reader, the scenes can be heightened by the smells and sounds, etc. But many time I find myself skipping pages at a time when the author goes on and on about the scene and sometimes even the characters. Can we say, Boring?

    I read for the genre. If romance-I want to see nothing but the relationship (or the sex if erotica). Suspense-keep me guessing. Horror-scare the bejesus outta me, make me want to lock all the windows and doors just to finish the book. Historical-teach me about the past and its ways. If your "props" can add to these motives, I will appreciate them. If not, I will skip them.

    Maybe it's just me?

  8. Setting the scene can make an event in the storyline interesting, but keep it short. I find myself glossing over descriptions when they is just too much. Location I find interesting when they are about my hometown or some where I've lived over the years. And while we on this subject, my pet peeve is meals. I don't care what the characters are eating, unless there's a food fight maybe. lol

  9. I think location and details just depend. Sometimes it doesn't matter at all--doesn't even matter if you know whether the characters are animal, vegetable, or mineral...okay, mineral is more noteworthy, I guess.

    It really depends on if the reader needs to be where the characters are. Sometimes time, date, space, and color have nothing to do with being in the hero's head (or heroine, or protagonist or whatever)

    Other times, the mood and attitude are determined by all that. Color says alot about personality, and it's cool to recognize surroundings if you've ever been to the place or a place like the one in a book. So...in short...my opinion is that it all depends on what you're trying to say.

    That and four dollars will get you a designer cup of coffee at Starbucks. :)

  10. Hey Jude,

    Too much detail of where they live, work, etc, pulls me out of the story or has me skipping until I get to the juicer parts. Just give me the basics! :)

  11. Bryl,

    I know what you mean. I tend to be the same way to some extent. I want the action to get moving, to hell with what color the couch is. I think this is the balance we have to find. Location, description of it can create the mood. That's important if you're writing a sexy suspense type thing, or if you've got your characters panting for each other, a short, sharp, fragmented description can help show how rushed they are.

    Thanks for stopping in and sharing your thoughts on this.


  12. I don't want to over describe, but my books are all set in real places and I like to get them right. And I think the surroundings tell a lot about the characters. I have spoiled, well off and self-indulgent Chris surrounding himself with the trappings of luxury. Other characters lead opposite lives and I show this through things like where they live, etc. I don't go in for long passages of description of anything, including characters, but a few lines mixed in with dialog or action does the trick I find.

  13. Hi Jean,

    Hmm what they're eating. At the moment, I like to know, I'm dieting... LOL A very valid observation though. Who cares if the steak is rare, we want to know if the guy's got a hard on. LOL

    Great comment, thanks so much


  14. Cosmo!!

    Hey fella, how's that lady been treating you? Good I hope. You're such a good dog!

    Hey J.J.,

    You're absolutely right. This is part of our craft, and what we have to learn. There's a time and place to show the reader what things look like, smell like etc. When the fellow is about to cream his jeans, aint the time to notice the roses smell sweet or they're color is striking. LOL


  15. Amber,

    Hey lady, thanks for coming by. Another one who wants the characters to get to the business at hand. LOL


  16. P.A.,

    You've found the balance then. Just enough info to show your readers more about the characters lives, but not enough to bore them. Appropriate timing, and it works famously.

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.


  17. Hey Jude,

    I agree. I find I only want to know what's really important. If you're trying to emphasize the location because it's critical, then sure, put in a few details. But you don't need a paragraph or two to do it. A few words... snow covered peaks in the distance, evergreens stretched across the horizon... can be enough to create the image without burying you in it. And frankly, I don't care what the wallpaper looks like. Tell me it's there if you'd like, but don't describe every last detail.
    I also find it somewhat distracting if the characters are described in too much detail. I like to picture them in my mind when I read, so give me enough to know the basics and I'll create my own image of Logan, or Roman or whoever.
    As for area. Sometimes just a tag at the start... Chicago... present day, late fall.. might be enough, or sometimes you'll have to give more information for the story to make sense. But I guess the the gift of the writer.
    I do agree too much detail draws me out and I'll also skip pages to get to a part where I really want the description, wink wink.

    Well, that's my take on it. We all have one, and in the end, it takes all kinds,


  18. Hey Kris!

    Excellent points. I'm going to add one that absolutely makes me crazy. Have you ever read a book where there's very little description of either characters or location until too late?

    You're deep into the story, the author, for whatever reason, has brought in several characters into the plot, doesn't describe them or much of where they are, apparently leaving those details to the reader to fill in. That can work and I've seen it work beautifully. Then you get to page 87 and find out the lead guy is dark skinned, has long blond hair and limps from an old war wound. He lives in a cabin in the north woods and is an electrician. HUH?

    That will kill any chance of me ever buying a book by that author again. Back to timing. You have to do it when it's right, or not do it at all.

    Thanks so much for stopping in!


  19. Great post, and I agree with you about finding that right balance in detail use. Most of my stories take place in or around a fictitious Northern California town called Southern County. I know that area well ... it's a lot like Sonoma. ;-)

    I also feel that it is important that we, as authors, know the details we are holding back. Background really does dictate how a character is going to react in a given situation.

  20. Hi Jude,

    Yes, that is exceedingly annoying. I would like to think something like being dark-skinned, colour of hair and eyes, cause I want to know, and whether they walk with a limp or have an enormous scar would be under my basic information. Have you really read a book like this? I just don't like getting lost in endless paragraphs.
    Great post. You've given us lots to think about...


  21. Hi Lisa,

    I totally agree. You can move, acquire a better job/career and become something completely different from what you were raised, but you still carry the baggage. A person from Boliva will have a different variety of baggage. Someone raised with money will be unable to comprehend what it's like to be really poor, unless they find themselves there, and even then, the attitude will be different.

    Thanks for dropping by and sharing your take on the topic.


  22. Hey, Jude-
    Great blog! I agree with the over descriptions. Goodness knows I always scan over it when reading...and when it goes on for pages **rolls eyes** irritating! I'll describe a room or furniture to give the reader an idea about the character and what they're like ( a neat freak, rich, poor, etc.) or I'll add in what someone ordered at a restaurant to add realism, but not go into detail. He got a burger, she got a chef salad. Done. On with the story. (well, not quite that blunt...you get the idea). Scenery is probably the last for me. :( I guess it's because I read so many books that had pages upon pages of it and it bored me to tears. I think I only add it in when it's pertinent to the story. A mountian...are they going there? Is there snow...add it in. Are they gonna get caught out in the snow? Okay, more detail. Make the snow a living creature of sorts. LOL Just my thoughts for what they're worth...um, a penny?

    LJ Garland

  23. I adore knowing about the location of a story. I think it adds to the world building and I like hearing what the author visualized when he or she wrote.
    One of the reasons Law & Order works for me is that the city is also a character. The people speak in New Yorkese even if not always accurate.
    I never could get into The PRactise cause Boston just never really was there for me.

  24. Jude,

    I love it when I get bits and pieces of information on setting and characters spread throughout the story. I don't want to know everything at once, and prefer to have details arise as needed in the story. The technique of "info-dump" is a quick sign to me that I don't want to go any further in a book.

    It's not just having the right amount of detail, but also the right delivery of said detail that makes a story sing.