Friday, February 11, 2022

My Secret on How to Write About Place




One of the magical things about creative writing—and no doubt other arts as well--is how often we do things instinctively, never quite focusing on why we do them the way we do, let alone questioning how we fell upon those methods in the first place.  Then, one day out of the blue, something happens that makes us sit up and say “WOW, that’s why I do it that way,” and what we’d once accepted as just part of the mysterious alchemy of the creative process suddenly makes vivid sense in real world terms. 


This isn’t some artsy-fartsy way of saying that my post-knee-surgery-anesthesia days gave me a vision of the mundane in all its splendor.  At least I don’t think so.  Rather, I now realize that techniques I use every day in writing are honed from skill sets I’d developed over the course of my life in endeavors far removed from authoring mystery-thrillers.


I’m not talking about unique life experiences that consciously and otherwise find their way into our work, giving it depth and drama. It’s how we use the nuts and bolts of writing, such as structure and frame of reference, that sparked my recent epiphany.


Cue the trumpets and cornets.


It all transpired in the context of my new Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis novel (#12), publishing on April 5th. It’s titled ONE LAST CHANCE and centers on the Greek Aegean Island of Ikaria a fascinating venue with a worldwide reputation for the longevity of its people. 


On Monday I learned that Publishers Weekly had given it a terrific review saying (among many nice things), “Once again the scenery steals the show.”


My biggest concern in writing that book during Covid times was that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to visit all the locations I wanted to include. I’d been to Ikaria several times, but not with an eye for the detail I demand of myself in selecting the setting for a book.  To me, place is as important as is my protagonist, and I dared not risk destroying my credibility with my readers by seeming less expert than they on locations they knew well. I struggled with how to overcome my limited access and spent many a long day reading, viewing, talking, and aggravating with anything and anyone I thought might help me gain better knowledge of Ikaria. 


According to Publishers Weekly, I’d met that burden. Whew.


Later in the week, my brother mentioned to me that a friend who’d read my last book (A DEADLY TWIST, set on Naxos Island), asked him whether I now lived on Naxos, because I knew it so well.  I told him to reply that I’d visited it many times, and truly love the island and its people, but no, I still live on Mykonos. 


That’s when Alan (also known as Bro), asked me how I came to know as well as I did the places I wrote about.  I laughed and told him about my reaction to the Publishers Weekly review and how concerned I’d been over my somewhat limited in-person grasp of Ikaria’s many facets when…


BOOM it hit me! 


In all my books I’d followed one simple directive: GO NARROW AND DEEP.  If you try to broadly describe everything about a locale, you risk turning the work into a travelogue, but if you stick to the superficial, you’ll likely end up offering the reader little more than a postcard.


Narrow and deep keeps the interest building, your credibility intact, and lessens the likelihood of providing a “gotcha moment” for those knowing the area far better than you.


I realized then that I’d been relying as an author upon litigation skills I’d practiced as a lawyer.  In this case, I was employing a seminal technique for cross examining an adversary’s expert witness. Back in the day, there was no way I could come close to matching the witness’s mastery of his or her field of expertise—no more than I could a local’s knowledge of his or her home island. But what I could do is drill down deep and narrow into specific areas of the expert’s knowledge base relevant to the trial, in a manner intended to make me (appear) at least as knowledgeable as the expert on the points I sought to make.


This might all seem obvious to you, but trust me when I say it wasn’t to me.  And yes, I’m off the pain pills.


Now, about that bit where Publishers Weekly writes that ONE LAST CHANCE “will appeal to fans of Donna Leon and Louise Penny”…nah, I’ll save that bit of BSP for another time.





  1. OMGosh, Jeffrey, your generosity in sharing this is so vital and makes total sense to "little old me." Just when I think I can't admire you more as a human being, lawyer and successful writer, you continue to increase it. Congrats and God Bless You and yours.

    1. That's beyond nice and kind of you to say, Mimi. Thank you, and God Bless you and yours as well!

  2. Thanks for this--I'd never thought much about place writing-wise but I know that your books (esp Deadly Twist & Aegean April) are among those I used to 'travel' during the Covid shutdown. Looking forward to One Last Chance almost as much as to traveling again!

    1. Thanks, Ovidia. I'm (desperately) looking forward to traveling again too... even if only on an in
      -person Stateside book tour. Remember those?

  3. For most of us, Jeff, it's less important how you do it than it is that you KEEP doing it! (But very interesting, nonetheless... :-)))

    1. Yes, sir. I shall follow your instructions to a T...or is it an E?

  4. Great advice, Jeff. And congrats on the great PW review!

    1. Thanks, Michael. I sure hope we get to see each other in person sometime soon. :(