|Tower Bridge, Sacramento|
Mystery author Chris Phipps writes the Wagner-Callender Mystery Series. Today she joins us to talk about the importance of setting in some of her favorite books and her own. Learn more about her and her books at her website.
My favorite books are those that are not only well written, but envelop me in their surroundings.
James Lee Burke’s New Orleans is so integral to his stories, it’s almost another character. Every book I read reveals a little more.
After years of following Ian Rankin’s Detective Rebus as he solves crimes, I imagine that I’m so familiar with Edinburgh, that I could find my way around the city. I know I can’t—not really. But he’s made me feel as though I can.
In William Kent Kreuger’s Cork O’Connor series, I see the blue of those deep lakes, feel the cool breeze on my cheeks as the ridges of the great northwest turn orange, gold and red with fall color. I feel the mystique of the Ojibwe and the slow vibe of a small town filled with familiar faces.
Michael Connelly shows me Los Angeles, not through my skeptical eyes, but through the lens of Harry Bosch, who loves the place where he lives and works.
I’m truly pulled into these stories, not just by the characters and the plot, not just in trying to solve the mystery, but by being immersed in the setting and the culture. And those stories wouldn’t work nearly as well in different settings. Cork O’Connor couldn’t function in Los Angeles, and Harry Bosch couldn’t find his away around all those lakes, rivers and streams.
Like most writers, I try to emulate work that I admire. But what can I say about Sacramento, the capitol of California? It’s not a large city, like Los Angeles. But it’s not small, either, like Cork O’Connor’s Aurora. People in larger California cities laughingly call Sacramento “Cowtown” because it has so many small farms, dairies, orchards and vineyards surrounding it. Another term is “Sacratomato, in honor of all the tomato-laden trucks that used to make their way to a local cannery.
So what could I pull into my books to make the setting unique and interesting?
After some thought, I realized those nicknames are hints. After all, how many people can drive just a few miles to go wine tasting? Find roadside vegetable and fruit stands, or a hot apple pie, directly from the adjacent orchard?
Sacramento is unique in other ways, too. It has two rivers–the Sacramento and the American–with the confluence in the old, historic section of town. And under those old buildings is another settlement, the first Sacramento, going back to Gold Rush days. Those rivers create unique configurations of land: “pockets” surrounded on three sides by river.
I thought about the diverse population, culture, and activity. Two hours west will take a driver to San Francisco or Big Sur or the Napa Valley. Two hours east, across the Sierra Nevada, will take him to Lake Tahoe or Reno or Squaw Valley. South will take him to Yosemite in about the same time.
The point is: I had to look at the area I know with new eyes–look at its history, the things that made it different.
What about you? As a reader, do you enjoy books that pull you into the setting? And if you’re a writer, do you look for the uniqueness of your setting and try to integrate it into your story?
Love, Murder and a Good Bottle of Wine
Sarah Wagner’s aunt has been murdered, and the close-minded detective working the case has honed in on Sarah and her cousin as the killers. Neither have alibis, and both have motive. But how do you prove you didn’t commit a murder? As Sarah digs deeper into the mystery, she puts herself at risk. Worse, every move she makes seems to increase the odds that one of the people she loves is the killer.