Monday, November 27, 2023

Choosing a Setting for Fiction

 Annamaria on Monday

As with the works of many of my stellar blogmates, the title Murder is Everywhere fits my books perfectly.  I want to talk about how I choose my fictional locations today.  But first, I cannot help but begin by revealing the cover of a new edition of my Vera & Tolliver #1: Strange Gods, which is about to launch.

A thing I love about this cover art is its portrayal of the splendor of the location.  For me, when thinking about a story, location comes first.  I attribute this to my early childhood infatuation with an atlas and the wanderlust bug whose bite still dominates at least a chamber and a half of my heart.  As soon as I had the wherewithal, I started traveling.

I also knew when I was nine years old that I wanted to write stories.  But my two major compulsions did not join up until I was closing in on retirement age and could afford the luxury of indulging my whims.  That's when fascinating places and their histories began to inspire my stories.

My first three novels are set in different times and places in South America, all stand-alones, because I was not savvy enough to think of writing a series.  When my agent and my publisher suggested a series, the idea intimidated me.  All my stories had arisen from the history of a place I had fallen in love with.  Would I be able to find a number of stories, all with the same people in many places or all in the same place always with the same people?

I knew if I was going send my imagination to only one place for a long time, it would have to be Africa.  No other place fed my soul like the places in South Africa and Botswana that I had only recently visited for the first time.  And I had read and reread Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa a few times, and had a glimpse of East Africa's history from her point of view.

I also worried about coming up with a series-worth of unique plots.  A few memoirs of people who had had boots on the ground in British East Africa convinced me that there would be no paucity of plot material. Colonialism sets up the perfect atmosphere for a series of murder mysteries. BEA in the second decade of the 20th Century offered plot fodder galore.

The scores of tribes in what is now Kenya had been fighting one another there for a millennium:

The Maasai VS the Kikuyu

The mssionaries had been on the scene for a few decades, working to convert the "natives" to Christianity, with the second passionate goal of stamping out the slave trade.  By the turn of the 20th Century, with the strategic importance of controlling Lake Victoria, the King's faithful empire builders wanted to employ the labor of the tribal people, whereas the missionaries were determined to protect their converts from being forced to work for puny rewards.

The Missionaries VS The Administrators

Then in came a flood of aristocrats who were finding it hard to acquire a cushy lifestyle in European countries that were undergoing the Industrial Revolution.

The settlers in the lap of luxury!

These latest arrivals looked down their toffee noses at the missionaries AND the administrators, who were - after all - nothing but a bunch of  shopkeepers children.

There they were waiting for me, an entire population that had many, many reasons to want to kill one another!

As long as it is fictionally, what fun!


  1. From AA: Thank you so much, Michael. It pleases me that someone who knows the place as well as you do sees truth in a fictionalized version.

  2. What fun, indeed. (LOVE the new cover, BTW...)

  3. From AA: Thank you EK! I am so happy that the series is getting a new lease on life. The 4th book has been waiting in the wings for more than six years. That bright light on the cover is symbolic to me!

  4. That cover is gorgeous, AA , truly. It does seem there are endless stories in the place and period you've chosen, so what a smart thing to do. Because I write a travel series where each book takes place in another country, I have to start with location too, but my problem is the opposite one: "Which one story, or perspective, among the many, do I tell here?" So I'm envious of your bounty, though the heartbreak of so much of your research must tear at you. Can't wait for more. xx

    1. Oh, Wendall, you are so right about the sadness (and all the anger, too) that comes from studying life among the oppressed in colonial times and places. But as you know oh so well, there is no such thing as an interesting story about people who are leading a safe and happy life. As Tolstoy said in Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
      It's our fate as story tellers to know where and how it hurts. You have that wonderful gift of making us laugh. Blessings on you for that!