Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Location, location, location

By Tim Smith

Like many authors, I tend to write about what I know. That’s especially true when it comes to deciding on a setting for one of my stories. Here’s where it gets tricky for me, though. I live in southwestern Ohio (Dayton), but the majority of my fiction takes place elsewhere. Out of the 20 books I’ve released, only 3 were set in my adopted hometown. It isn’t that there’s anything wrong or unromantic about Dayton, but when I’m writing a mystery/thriller that’s heavy on steamy romance, I can think of better places to use as a backdrop.

I have two continuing series. One involves two former CIA spooks who live in Key Largo, Florida. The other centers around a footloose former cop turned private eye who lives in Sandusky, Ohio on the Lake Erie shore. Why this fascination with water-bound locations? I don’t have an answer, other than enjoying vacations there. I first visited the Florida Keys a few years before I wrote my first novel, and when I had to choose where this former spy with a checkered past would hang out, The Keys instantly came to mind. As to the private eye, I grew up near Sandusky, and had Lake Erie practically in my backyard.

When I write locations, they become a character in the story. I research carefully, usually when I visit these spots. While most people return from vacation with kitschy souvenirs and coffee mugs they don’t need, my bounty consists of area maps, brochures, and a local newspaper or two. I strive for accuracy because I don’t want someone who lives there to read one of my books and wonder if I’ve ever set foot in Key Largo or wherever.

Apparently, this diligent fact-gathering has paid off. I’ve had more than a few readers tell me they felt like they were in the scene with the characters. It doesn’t get much better than that. Here’s an example from “Memories Die Last” (Nick Seven Book One):

The early evening sun descended over Key Largo Bay, reflecting off the water’s smooth surface. The bright blue of the Gulf of Mexico mixed with the orange tint of sunset. A gentle breeze wafted in as seagulls lazily flapped their wings in symmetrical patterns, swooping lower with each pass, hoping to catch dinner. Yachts slowly cruised into the marina, their masters having finished another day of rest and recreation, ready to put away their expensive toys for the night.

Nick Seven took in this routine ritual from his usual vantage point at Cricket’s Bayside—corner glass-topped table on the outside deck, always set for two but usually occupied by one, where he could observe with amused curiosity the comings and goings of the rich and not-so-famous. He had a glass of scotch and soda in front of him, a smoldering cigarette in the plastic ashtray. All around him he could hear the clinking of glasses and the low-key chatter of drinkers and diners, all mixing with the sound of soft jazz emanating from the sound system.


For contrast, I submit this one from “The Bundle” (Vic Fallon Number One):

Vic eased the Jeep onto the ferry on Marblehead Peninsula and set the parking brake. When the boat was underway he and Kimberly got out and walked to the railing. Kimberly zipped up her jacket and inhaled deeply.

“There’s something different about the smell of the water coming off the lake,” she observed. “Not like the ocean. Have you ever noticed that?”

Vic smiled and recalled trips to the beaches in Florida. “You’re right, it is different.”

Kimberly looked at the fading shoreline as the boat made the twenty-minute trip to Kelleys Island. She pointed at the roller coasters of Cedar Point silhouetted against the sky several miles away. “Too bad the park’s closed for the season. I haven’t been to The Point in years.”

Vic moved a bit closer and wrapped his arm around her waist. “Next time you come to town, do it earlier in the year and I’ll take you.”

She looked up into his eyes. “Promise?”

He gave her a brief kiss. “Promise.”

Kimberly shivered and held him tighter. “Guess my blood’s too thin for these fall Ohio days. Should’ve packed for the weather.”

“You’ve been away from home too long, Callie.”

She smiled at him. “I like it when you call me Callie.”

Vic returned her gaze. “I’ll make a note.”


  1. Both of these excerpts vividly evoke their settings. And you're right, the contrast comes through strongly.

    I've never been to the Keys, and would really like to do so. From reading fiction set there, I have the feeling that the region is quite special.

  2. Lisabet, I think there are 2 places in Florida everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime. One is South Beach in Miami, because you have to see the goings on there to believe all those things you see on TV. The other is The Keys. When I took my sig other there for the first time a few years ago, she looked at the tropical setting and said she never realized such a place was actually a part of the U.S.

    1. I've only been to the Tampa area and Daytona Beach.

      One of these days, before I kick the bucket...! Though Florida is a long way from Southeast Asia.

  3. Time, you've done a great job of integrating a sense of place into a plot.


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