Lately I’ve been talking a lot about characters. While they are pivotal to a good novel, there are other elements that can have a significant impact as well. When your story takes place can be important. If you’re telling a tale about the era surrounding the Civil War, sharp readers will know if you’ve done your research or not. So many little details can trip you up if you’re not careful.
For me, the location is also an important aspect. Most of my stories take place in the area around metropolitan Detroit, which encompasses three large counties, with everything from slums to multi-million dollar estates. With over 4 million people in this area, that’s a lot of potential conflicts, culture and stories to share.
One of the things I like to do with my writing is to include landmarks that people visiting the area or living there are likely to recognize. I’ve used Comerica Park, where the Detroit Tigers play, Belle Isle, where Indy cars and hydroplanes race, along with restaurants, bars and concert venues that really exist, like the Elwood Bar and Grille.
In some situations, I’ve changed the names of a place or two. While Sharkey’s doesn’t really exist, it is based on a couple of establishments on the edge of Lake St. Clair. Other authors do this as well. John Lescroart frequently refers to a bar called “Lou the Greek’s” near the courthouse in San Francisco. It sounds like a memorable place, but it’s just crafted from his imagination.
I’ve heard from more than a few readers who have identified places and cities where the stories take them. One fan was listening to the audio version “Why 319?” when the story takes Chene to a restaurant in Royal Oak to meet Simone for dinner. The fan happened to be driving right through the city at that moment.
Timing is everything.
Here’s an example of the location. In this excerpt from “Devious” Jamie takes Malone out for a meal at one of her favorite restaurants.
My taste buds were screaming for bagels and lox, or hot pastrami with crunchy dill pickles, so I took Malone to my favorite delicatessen. He eyed me suspiciously when we parked the car, but I refused to let him drive somewhere else.
“I’ve seen trucks bigger than this place,” Malone grumbled.
“No derogatory remarks until you’ve tasted the food. By keeping the exterior grungy, it keeps the prices down.”
“Great. You save money. I get food poisoning from Gertie’s discount house of botulism.”
I elbowed his ribs and marched inside. A heavyset woman with sparse white hair was behind the counter, beefy hands deftly wrapping a sandwich in thick waxed paper.
“Jamie! How come you stay away so long?”
“Hey, Toots. Meet Malone.”
She stepped out and gave me a fierce hug and pumped Malone’s hand vigorously. “Always glad to see friends of Jamie’s. I hope you’re hungry.”
“Starved.” I noticed Malone massaging his hand, trying to restore the circulation. “What’s fresh?”
I caught Malone’s eye. “Do you trust me?”
“Mostly.” There was a hint of uncertainty in his voice. The rat was using my own expression against me.
“Be that way.”
He shrugged and moved down the counter to one of the high backed wooden stools. Toots wiped her hands on a fresh towel and beamed at me expectantly.
“Pastramis on rye with Swiss cheese and hot mustard, a couple of old dills and two Cokes.”
Toots shook her head. “The pastrami’s gone. No more until Monday.”
My mind whirled as my stomach groaned in disappointment. “Onion bagels with cream cheese and lox, capers and tomatoes on the side, coffee, black.”
Another shake of the thin white hair. “No lox.”
“You said everything was fresh!”
Toots grinned, revealing her mail order dentures. “Fresh out of lox, fresh out of pastrami, fresh out of ham.”
I puffed a breath in desperation. “What do you have?”
“Lean corned beef on onion rolls with Munster. Roast beef with horseradish sauce on French. Smoked turkey with Monterey Jack and Bermuda onions on pumpernickel. Potato salad and new dills.” Toots spread her enormous hands and shrugged in a form of apology. “It’s been quite a week, and a very busy Friday. Who can predict these things?”
I sighed. “Roast beef, twice with Cokes.”
Toots smothered me briefly in another hug and disappeared beyond the counter. I wandered down to join Malone. He was giving the place a critical inspection. There are no tables at Toot’s, only twelve wooden stools beside the old Formica counter. Another counter runs along the window facing the street, but there’s no room for chairs or any more stools. During the week it’s not uncommon to see executives in designer suits standing beside deliverymen at the window while they scarf down Toot’s fare. She decides what goes on each sandwich. Substitutions are forbidden. If you don’t like turning over the controls to your meals, eat somewhere else.
“Where did you find this place?” Malone asked.
“I took a blood oath never to reveal the source.”
He was about to comment when Toots emerged from the kitchen and laid two heavy platters before us. I can barely hold half of one of her sandwiches in both hands, so I knew Malone would not go hungry. He offered Toots a thin smile and she scooted away to take care of someone else.
“What is this?” Malone tentatively prodded his sandwich with a finger.
“It’s food. Shut up and eat.”
He was trying hard not to laugh as he lifted a corner and took a big bite. That was all the encouragement he needed.
Here are some links where you can find "Devious"
Music this week comes from the great Al Green.