As one of the pillars of a good story, setting deserves as much attention as character and plot, but is often overlooked in favour of hurried references to generic or made-up locations. For me, it is like the setting of a precious gem; the perfect backdrop against which the story unfolds, allowing just the right light, colour, and reflection to make the story come alive. Each scene, as well as the overall story, should be anchored in place so that the reader feels a part of the drama.
I always choose a real place to set my books, and in the Amanda Doucette mysteries, that setting not only influences the story but it also becomes a character in itself. A well-described setting should immerse the reader in the adventure and allow them to see, hear, and even smell the scene. This requires concrete, vivid, evocative details of the sights, sounds, and even smells the characters encounter. Our imagination, no matter how good, can’t be as specific and vivid as reality. Even when I make up a town or location, I base it on a real place or combination of places.
That’s why, once I’ve decided on the setting, my first step is to visit the place in person, to walk the streets and trails that Amanda does and to do all the things she does. Each one of my Amanda Doucette books is set in a different location across Canada, and I have spent several weeks in every place during the early phases of writing the book. In THE ANCIENT DEAD, set in the Alberta badlands, I took a dinosaur prospecting tour, walked the streets of Calgary, climbed up hoodoos, and even rode horseback in the coulees. Because only by getting down into the dust and grit of the real place can you ever imagine all the sounds you hear, feel the wind in your hair, and see the vast infinity of the fields.
While there, I took hundreds of photos and videos, dictated audio recordings on my iPhone, and jotted down impressions every night. Often my observations told me what had to happen next in the story. That setting is an integral part of that story, which could not have taken plan anywhere else.
The pandemic has made travel a challenge, and I am not sure how I’ll write the next Amanda book, set on Vancouver Island. There are ways around it. As well as visiting each place, I read books about the history, culture, and people of the region, I comb the Internet for snippets of information, photos, and – my favourite – travel photos on YouTube. I buy detailed maps to trace my characters’ movements. And I rely on social media friends who live there to answer my random questions. Thank God for the Internet!
Another source of information is my own imagination of a similar place or experience. I probably won’t get to camp on a beach on the Pacific Rim, but I have camped elsewhere, including on a beach on Lake Superior and in the BC forest. Those memories are rich sources of detail.
In my books, I invite readers on a journey, not only into the characters’ lives but also into their homes. The trips and the detailed research have taken me all over Canada, and I hope that, even if people can’t travel there in person, my books can take them along for the ride.