Steeping Stories in Strong Settings… Guest Post by Christine Carbo
Today we are honored by a guest post from Christine Carbo, the author of the Glacier Mystery novels, an ensemble series set in and around Glacier National Park. Her books include The Wild Inside, Mortal Fall, The Weight of Night, and A Sharp Solitude (Atria Books/Simon and Schuster). She is a recipient of the Women’s National Book Association Pinckley Prize, the Silver Falchion Award, the High Plains Book Award, and was short-listed for the Barry Award.
When I think about mysteries I enjoy the most, ones where the intrigue pops into my mind years after reading them, most of them are immersed in a setting that rises out of the narrative like its own character. Many of literature’s most memorable crime-fiction novels are built around enigmatic country-sides, haunted ocean waters, stark wilderness areas, swampy bayous, moody cities, and dangerous rivers. It’s as if placing the story in a living, breathing environment allows the narrative to take on more life and begins to act as an expression for its characters, alluding to secrets and mysteries lurking below the surface. Think James Lee Burke’s Louisiana, William Kent Krueger’s Minnesota, Gillian Flynn’s Missouri, Tana French’s Dublin, Dennis Lehane’s Boston, Daniel Woodrell’s Ozarks, Henning Mankell’s Sweden, Ann Cleeve’s Shetland Islands….
But, what I really want to talk about is how to achieve the effect. We all know that reading is subjective, and some have a higher tolerance for others when it comes to descriptions. Often, lengthy ones can lose a reader’s attention and getting too bogged down in the details of place can sometimes bore a reader and not have the outcome intended. Readers often admit to skipping over drawn-out explanations to get to the action and dialogue – “the true meat of a story,” some say.
So, what is the trick to making setting just as enticing? I believe it lies not in the description alone, but in the connection between place and character. In other words, it’s the author’s job to find out what kind of emotional glue binds the characters to their settings, especially the protagonist. Descriptive segments, even very short ones, must often be tied at the hip to your characters’ feeling about the places they’re visiting or living in.
This means an author should consider many questions about their characters in relation to setting. Do they hate outsiders? Are they nostalgic? Does the locale bring up long-buried memories? Does it make their skin crawl? Does it haunt them and give them nightmares? Are they suddenly, unexpectedly at ease in a certain place? Digging into the characters’ relationship to place makes a story more multi-dimensional. For example, characters pitted against their surroundings so they are in conflict with them provides tension. Chaining characters’ emotions so closely to their environment that they viciously defend, identify with, or perhaps protect it can also create a tautness to the narrative while simultaneously exposing deeper aspects of the protagonist and the side characters.
Sometimes, landscapes, urban or rural, relay things that characters might not say out loud or even do. A mudslide blocking the protagonist’s car, or huge tree branches pressing down unto their path might symbolize the character’s feelings of being constrained by some situation in the plotline. Rather than the protagonist actually having to tell the obvious: I’m confined by my boss, or suffocated by my family, or plowed down by the city council…, you can simply symbolize it through the environment.
This way, the setting helps command the story, imbuing the reader with clues about the inhabitants’ full experience in their sometimes stark, sometimes glorious, sometimes daunting environments. The story-scape, whether it’s full blown wilderness, a bustling urban area, or something smaller, like a restaurant, a haunted house, or a trailer park, requires us to interact with it in our imagination while giving clues about the characters’ states of minds. This helps move us beyond skid-across-Teflon narratives to a real sense of the human experience. How people navigate and interact with the places they live and visit tells a lot about the human condition. Do people leave their cars or houses locked or unlocked? Do parents allow their young children to play unsupervised or to walk home from school? Do roads have potholes? Are cars in good condition or rusted and beaten? Are houses buckling under the weight of weeds, or snow, or wind?
Other writing techniques authors can utilize are good ‘ol common sense tools: personification, metaphors, similes, and ruthless editing so that descriptions are pared down to shiny, gold nuggets of expression. Using the full five sense helps too. Your characters should also taste, hear, smell, and touch along with their observations. Pam Beason’s Sept. 5th blog, The Importance of Being There, is a great read on how to bring such observations into your work and why it’s so important.
When I decided to set the first novel of my Glacier Mystery series in and around Glacier National Park – a place very special to me – I began to ponder what would happen if my main character felt the opposite of how I feel about it, if he was haunted by the very park he needed to conduct an investigation in. Hence, I wrote my first book, The Wild Inside, about a special agent from the Department of the Interior who is called in to investigate a serious crime that takes place on federal land; however, Glacier National Park is the last place he wants to be because when he was a teen, he witnessed his father get mauled and killed by a grizzly bear in Glacier. The park itself became an antagonist, and there were many spots in the story where I felt like I needed to personify it, to make it an active, intimidating participant. When my protagonist is on his way to the crime scene in the woods after just arriving in Glacier, he describes it like this:
We stayed left of the trail, trekking through vibrant red-and-yellow brush. A few stray spider filaments touched my face. The autumn light, although bright, felt oblique. Mostly, it seemed quiet, as if it were waiting for something to happen. Unlike direct summer sunshine that had something specific to say and shouted it, this light held mysteries and patiently whispered them. I was aware of our noisy, rustling movement, as if we were disturbing its secrets. The fist at the base of my sternum clenched tighter, and I thought, only for an instant – like a shutter opening and closing – of the raw, wild solitary desperation I felt at Oldman Lake after I got the fire going and sat in my own wet pants, waiting in shock for enough light to make it down the trail to get help.
In spite of it being a gorgeous fall day, he is already unnerved by the small things surrounding him rather than taking them in stride as he might at a different crime scene.
My other books, Mortal Fall, The Weight of Night, and A Sharp Solitude all try to plumb the main characters’ and side characters’ connections to their surroundings too. The wilderness – the mountains marching north, the rivers snaking through the Great Divide, the schizophrenic weather bearing down, the lions stashing fresh kill behind someone’s cabin, the elk sending their reedy cries into the pale morning – it all adds up to make a strong side-character in each of my novels. But, scenery is not enough... ultimately, we must strike the right balance between characters’ states of minds and the places they inhabit while entertaining the reader and allowing them to experience the wilderness through their imaginations. We want to transport the reader so thoroughly that when they put the book down, it takes them a moment to readjust to their own surroundings – to their homes or cafes or airplanes where they are reading.
In the powerful August 9th blog posted by author Mark Stevens, Shock Waves, Stevens brings up the very question of what it means to write crime fiction when our world is more perilous, and how we might address such issues and have our protagonists “tell the truth about what we’re seeing.” Undeniably, when a writer tackles the great outdoors, it’s nearly impossible not to address how humans have managed to foul their own nest for generations to come and how it will all play out. And yet, and yet…. it’s still important not to preach to our readers. Often, just connecting your characters to places in such a tuned-in, emotional way can help address this problem, usually indirectly, but sometimes straight on. If a reader hangs with your story long enough to vicariously experience a new world they might never consider otherwise– whether they’re simply escaping or getting a good dose of reality – well then, you’ve done something very special indeed. For me, when stories dealing with commanding settings fully capture our attention through the lens of the character is when the true heart of the narrative begins to beat on the page and in all of us, no matter where we live, no matter what the issues.
Christine Carbo is the award-winning, best-selling author of The Wild Inside, Mortal Fall, The Weight of Night, and A Sharp Solitude (Atria Books/Simon and Schuster). She lives with her family in Whitefish, Montana. Find out more at ChristineCarbo.com, or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.