Sunday, May 5, 2024

Guest Post: I haven't been anywhere by G. Miki Hayden

Miki Hayden has a variety of novels ranging in setting and genre. She is also a prolific writer of short stories, one of which won the coveted Edgar Award. She is active in MWA, and teaches writing at Writer’s Digest’s Writers Online Workshops. She has worked in business journalism, and has studied a variety of martial arts. No doubt all of this is grist to the writing mill. On the other hand, although she cares about setting, she's willing to discover it from afar - especially if it's in the past. Or the future! It's a different approach to that of many writers who want to steep themselves in location, but it certainly works for Miki. And, of course, she has been to places... 

Well, I have. But I haven’t been most of the places I use as settings. This winter my characters have been in the mountains in Japan—just starting their annual summer retreat. This is my third novel (Respiration)—in this series—Rebirth—just writing it.

 For sure I haven’t ever been in Japan and certainly not in the mountains there, though I have noted some mountains north of Tokyo on a map. But I’ve seen a lot of Japanese movies and read a lot of Japanese novels, including a novel by Yukio Mishima who kindly (well, posthumously) provided me with a setting on an incredible estate in Spring Snow, Book One in his Sea of Fertility tetralogy. I also inserted an EXTREME weather event from Junichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters into my Rescued (Book One of my series)—an unbelievable flood, which fits very well (I think) into my characters’ mountain retreat where they have few of the comforts of civilization.

 Oh, but my trilogy isn’t crime fiction, though crimes are committed, including the opening, devastating crime of starving a child with the intent to kill. (Don’t worry—the novel is in the form of a memoir from the adult version of the victim, who has been - as the novel is titled - Rescued.)

 But I’ll move on. My subject here is really how I use settings that may be borrowed from literature, history, or maybe simply maps—or just my imagination—with no verifiable landmarks—or to put the idea in the impersonal, I’m writing about how writers can use settings they have no up-close and personal relationship with—and yet that they come to intimately know. (Oppositely, I have an editing client, Walter Sutton, who feels he must go to Kauai every few months to research settings for his Flash Finnegan crime series, which starts with Finders Keepers. Sure, right, the trips are all for research.) 

My next novel out on May 13th, this one from Down and Out Books, is a police procedural, Dry Bones.
Holder (Oklahoma) Senior Police Officer Aaron Clement is up to solving a cold case for which he has the bones in his office—while at the same time he is called to a gruesome murder that he discovers was committed by the (no doubt justified) wife. And then soon after, another case comes up in which he’s intimately involved. I’ll leave readers to find out about that one themselves.

 But Oklahoma? I had no idea about the state when I started writing the novel, but I had been told that too many novels were set in my hometown of New York City. Okay…how about…what the hell, Oklahoma. Sure, why not? First I found out that some officers hold the title of ‘senior police officer’ (an SPO). The son of a crooked cop, Clement admits he was, in childhood, a soft momma’s boy, though he contrarily affirms his suspect’s suspicion that he was a bully when young.

Rather, instead of being the hard-ass type, Clement tries to find good representation for the husband-killing battered wife—and as for the remaining crime, he cares for the victim in his own home. And, yes, Oklahoma is a drought-prone Dust Bowl state, and Clement fears the possibility of a summer fire reaching out for his greatly loved ranch house.

 Oklahoma is also a unique state in that after the Civil War groups of former black slaves migrated there and created their own communities, including all-black towns. And, of course, the state is heavily Native American, mostly due to the so-called Five Civilized Tribes, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), and Seminoles, who were all forcibly removed from their homelands in the 1830s though the 1840s—at which time blacks enslaved by the tribes also made the long journey to Indian Territory. (I have a story set in an Indian casino on a reservation in Oklahoma with Clement as the protagonist should anyone care to publish it—I’m waiting to hear.)

 Of course in discussing crime in Oklahoma, we can’t ignore the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. On April 19, 1995, at 9:02 a.m.,

Oklahoma City
Staff Sergeant Mark A. More - (DF-ST-96-00588)

Timothy McVeigh (executed in 2001) and Terry Nichols (serving multiple life sentences) —motivated by incidents such as the 1993 Waco siege—ignited a truck bomb that killed 168 people and injured 680 others. A third of the building collapsed seconds after the detonation. The building had held a child day care center—19 children were killed. McVeigh claimed he didn’t know children were in the building, but he had previously gone through the site and must have been aware of the day care center where the children of federal workers were cared for. Clement in Dry Bones stops by the replacement building to speak to a federal agent there. 

Frisking a man during the riots
Tulsa City County Library Collection 

I shouldn’t go into the Tulsa Black Wall Street massacre of 1921 now as I don’t refer to it in Dry Bones. (But I will include the two-day white terrorist event in my next police procedural set in Holder.) Yes, the killing of dozens of individuals [from 75 to 300 of both races, primarily blacks] and the destruction of 35 square blocks of the black neighborhood—one of the wealthiest black areas of the United States at the time—didn’t end at the light of day one when people had a chance to come to their senses. No. The white mob picked up on day two where they left off. Seriously? Yes, apparently so.

Now, in 2024, the Oklahoma State Supreme Court is hearing arguments related to the riots, the case brought by two 109-year-old litigants (and other litigants now deceased), suing for reparations. The case had been dismissed by a district judge in Tulsa and was brought up again on appeal. The lawsuit is, as one might imagine, hotly contested. Oklahoma's Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters said in July 2023 that race wasn’t the main factor in what occurred. Oh?

I’ve had a bunch of novels published and stories in print, most in locations where I’ve never set foot. I’ll just mention a few to tell writers not to be afraid of diverse settings.

In novels, my The Protector trilogy includes an executive protection specialist, ex-Army Ranger Eric Ryder working his way across the United States to find his kidnapped protectee. In Industrial Espionage, set mostly in Westchester (nope, I don’t know it), Eric, now employed as a corporate security director, wants to find who has stolen his company’s big money-making secret. And in Uncivil Aviation, Eric’s fiancé and ex-Air Force pilot Helen Robbins steals a job from Eric and winds up in the middle of a South American revolution, following the theft of some private jets and a bit of stolen plutonium.  

Pacific Empire, which the NYTimes put on its Summer Reading List, is an alternate history in which the Japanese win the war and take over Hawaii. The sequel, New Pacific, brings Moritomo Corporation security employee Takashi Tanizaki from Singapore to the Moon, and back to Florida to fight an alligator and the bad guys—his employers. (I have been in orange growing country in Florida and have stared at the Moon).

I’ve had a lot of short stories in print and won an Edgar for “The Maids,” set in Haiti, where the real-life brutally treated slaves on the French-owned estates rebelled by poisoning their masters. This historically verifiable period was inspired by the French Revolution, and though this series of poisoning episodes wasn’t the Haitian Revolution, it led in that direction.

A few of my stories of Miriam Obadah set in Ghana and then in Harlem appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I don’t know Ghana, but I do know Harlem. In fact, Miriam lives in sort of my apartment with her husband and Miriam’s young co-wife. I guess they speak Twi at home—or often English, the official language of their home country.

And alongside stories in some Mystery Writers of America anthologies, I’ve had a story in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine set in China and the U.S. Here, an American woman is in prison for a crime of revenge committed by a Chinese worker.

I have stories in the Adirondack Mysteries series of anthologies—with the latest just out. Sounds cold up there. I wouldn’t know.

This brings me to one other way I’ve set my stories in unknown (to me) places. That is, I will change a setting to fit any (new) location requirements. If I have a story set in NYC and the background needed is otherwise, no problem. I nip and tuck. I also moved a home invasion and killing of the invaders from the Midwest to the East to place my story. So with just a little research, there you are...

Read Dry Bones, and if I made any mistakes, let me know.


  1. From AA: I love this, Miki. My experience is the polar opposite! My stories come to me after visiting a place and becoming fascinated with it. I delve into its history. And I am off and running. Therefore, my stories cannot take place anywhere else. More grist for the Someret Maum mill:”There are only three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are!”

    1. Well, yes, I write based on place, among other elements. But everyplace is fascinating even if I don't know a particular setting yet. Oklahoma has a lot of unique issues in terms of climate as well as history , resources (oil), and ethnic populations. And the future is fascinating as is the past. I research, but I also discover. My novel set after the earth falls apart has my protagonists journeying in the Islands of California. I did read your recent blog, AA. Go read about her Paris setting, people.:)

    2. Speaking of Paris, we can apply “Le plus ca change… to you and me. And yes, folks should read last Sunday’s post by Ann Aptaker, our fellow member of MWA-NY, Ann Aptaker so vivid. I felt I was there!

  2. I'm reading Dry Bones at the moment. It's very good!