Ernest Hemingway liked to spike his readers’ imaginations with the sparest of prose. Other authors (like me!) carry our readers into the worlds of our fiction with evocative language that writers and readers can savor together. Perhaps one of the most pleasurable and vital creations of deftly crafted language is your novel’s setting. The atmosphere of color, tone, feeling, imagery, and thought that you create for your readers raises a new world around them.
What inspires the mystery worlds I share with my readers? Does the plot shape the setting or the setting the plot? It could go either way. On the one hand, when writing Bait and Switch and the forthcoming Letter from a Dead Man, I was definitely inspired by the RKO, Paramount, Universal, or Warner Brothers studio-sets of forbidding alleys; looming shadows; rain-slicked streets; darkened and tomb-silent office buildings; and jagged skylines. Yet I needed more than purely surrealistic or expressionistic images to evoke my readers’ willing suspension of disbelief. Pictures of actual settings with noir lighting and composition enabled me to lend the fantastic or eerie a convincing reality. I found an especially helpful source in Dover Books New York in the Forties (by Andreas Feiniger and John van Hartz). Actual images of the city in glorious black and white provided me with a believable world through which my characters could move. So, real images in this book give believability to the moody reality of Bait and Switch: Jessica’s journey with her precious package through a fog-shrouded night past the Fulton Fish Market and under the ominous arch of a darkened Brooklyn Bridge; the environs of James Crawford’s hideout, a regiment of derelict, grey buildings pendant with a spiderwork of rickety fire escapes; the delicious moments of romance Jessica and James steal for themselves in the isolation of the Brooklyn Bridge’s promenade, deep in the night.
Artfully composed, static images from the past aren’t the only way setting shapes the reality I create for my readers. Sometimes, contemporary settings that intrigue me inspire plot twists and adventures in my writing, reshaping a present-day setting to its earlier incarnation. Letter from a Dead Man proves an excellent case in point. For years, I have been taken with the two recumbent lions guarding the plaza of the New York Public Library. Every time I’d pass them, my mind would rattle through possibilities of how to work them into one of my stories. Finally, I achieved that eureka moment when I considered that behind one of the lions would be the perfect hiding place for an endangered heroine like my Jessica Minton on a late, deserted New York night! My imagination was off and running. There was a subway stop around the corner and down the street that ran along Bryant Park and up to the front of Library and the statues: perfect for a dash to save one’s life, with a desperate, breathless plunge behind one of the stony lions as a last ditch shot to elude pursuers. Of course, I had to test this theory myself, so my husband and I went down into the subway where I turned and galloped up the stairs, then along the street, with a quick plunge behind the library’s closest lion. Not a single hard-bitten New Yorker even batted an eye.
So, who’s pursuing Jessica Minton? Why does she escape in, literally, a matter of life and death? I guess you’ll just have to pick up a copy of Letter from a Dead Man when it comes out this year to find out. And have some fun deciding how many of the locations in NYC; Lowell, MA; and Bridgeport, CT are real or studio-set-inspired!