Friday, January 21, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Let's Talk About Places

Our guest today is Kaye George, an award-winning short story writer, and the author of several mystery novels, including CHOKE, the first book in Kaye’s Imogene Duckworthy series that will be released in May 2011 by Mainly Murder Press. Her latest short story, “Twelve Drummers Drumming,” is now available at Dark Valentine. In her other lives, Kaye has been a mainframe computer programmer, a nurse's aide, a bookkeeper, a mental health center secretary, and even a short order cook and a janitor in a tractor factory. She also plays the violin. Can you imagine all the stories this woman can write? Well, read her post below and find out for yourself. And don’t forget to visit Kaye at

Since this blog is run by world travelers, it seems a good place to discuss settings and a problem I have with them. I'd like to ask a question of the readers, too.

I'll discuss settings first. Some authors write stories that depend on a particular one, some write portable stories that just happen to take place somewhere. I've written both kinds, but I favor using a specific place, a place that can give a mood to my story.

If I heeded the oft-given advice, write what you know, I would stick to places I've been, and I usually do that, but not always. Using a real place, but changing the name so I can play with the details, gives me the most leeway. I feel more comfortable doing this with small towns. When setting a story in a big city like Chicago or Minneapolis, I prefer to use the real name and try to put the atmosphere of that city in the piece.

I wrote a story set in Chicago because part of the story involved the cold my cop protagonist was suffering from. Putting him in Chicago in the winter made his sneezing and sniffling so much worse! That icy wind off Lake Michigan whips through the streets, cutting through your snow coat, your scarf, your gloves, and chilling you to the bone. When I was attending Northwestern University in Evanston, just north of Chicago, I had a Russian teacher who was raised in Siberia. She said they would go skiing at forty below in her childhood in Russia, but Chicago, with its incessant wind, felt colder.

I wrote another story that couldn't have taken place anywhere but Lake Minnetonka, outside Minneapolis. The story centered around a contest that used to take place on the vast lake when we lived there. All winter long, the lake was used for recreation: skating, snowmobiling, ice fishing. But the ice grew thin and perilous as spring warmed the air and the geese returned. An old pickup truck would be left on the ice at the end of the ice-fishing season, the ice houses would be removed, and, as the fragile shelf thinned and melted in the strengthening sun, the truck would break through the creaking ice, getting a few inches lower every day. People would drive by, even stop and stand on the shore to watch, and they would bet on the day it would sink and disappear into the water.

One more example – my story, DEVIL'S NIGHT. The title event is something that happens in Detroit the night before Halloween (actually for several nights), and it's pretty horrific. The practice has subsided in recent years, but when we lived there in the 1980s, it was going strong, with more than 800 fires set some years. In the 1970s, a time of increasing civil unrest as the Viet Nam war ground on, a tradition arose, fueled by the poverty and frustrations of inner city minorities, of burning buildings, usually local businesses, on that night. Young thugs would roam the city starting fires, mostly in the blighted inner city, but sometimes in the more well-off suburbs as well. It got so dangerous that firefighters from across the country would volunteer to travel there and help combat the fires. Everyone living in the area would smell the smoke on the crisp, night air and shudder. Many places were destroyed every year.

None of those stories could be transported to another place. But I've written others that take place in generic places, with the emphasis on the character and relationships, although I usually have a region in mind.

But I have a problem and wonder if other writers experience the same thing. I can't set a piece of fiction, long or short, in the place I live at the moment. Luckily, I've lived in a lot of different places and can draw on all of them. But I seem to need the distance before I can start setting a place on paper (or into a computer).

I have a theory on that. While I'm living here, near Austin, at the moment, I see the music clubs, the university students, the eclectic mix of citizens; I'm in the middle of everything, the vibrant downtown, the plays and concerts and football games; all the details distract me and it's hard to choose what to use.

With distance and time, the essence of the place is distilled. I can actually see places I've lived more clearly now than when I lived there. Maybe because I only remember the details that have stuck with me, the important things, the characteristics that make a place what it is. The extra stuff, the white noise, is gone.

I know lots of authors write about the places they live, and do it well. But I have the same problem with my imagination that I have with my hearing (or so my ENT says). The background noise gets in the way.

So, the day I write about Austin, will be the day I'm living somewhere else.

Does anybody have any other theories about this? Different or similar experiences? Do readers like to see certain settings versus others?

P.S. If anyone is interested, my Chicago cop story, HANDBASKETS, DRAWERS, AND A KILLER COLD, the one that got me an Agatha nomination, is included in my recently published volume, A PATCHWORK OF STORIES, available on Smashwords and Amazon as an ebook, and as a paperback at Amazon and Createspace. DEVIL'S NIGHT is in the collection, too. The Lake Minnetonka story, TRUCK CONTEST, will be included in an upcoming anthology, called Fish Tales, not yet released. To read my stories in The Dark Valentine, click here:


  1. I too set my stories in places I've lived in the past. Writing about the place I now live mixes my reality with my fiction. There are parameters in mixing the two that I don't like. If I describe something too vividly, someone might notice, might even take issue with my slant on it. Since I don't see myself moving in the near future, best not to stir anyone's ire. It's suprising how easily people take issue.

    Besides, I'm a beach writer and I don't live at the beach full-time, much to my sorrow. Wonder what I'll do if I ever do get to live at the beach? Guess I find another beach to write about!

    I've always enjoyed your stories Kaye. Can't wait until your novel is released.

  2. Thanks for the additional insight, E.B. I've not been sure why I can't write where I live.

    And thanks for liking my stories! You're doing well with yours, too.

  3. I enjoy your short stories and look forward to reading your novel. I write about where I live but I rename the small towns and create hospitals and businesses to suit the story. I'm trying for the essence or the aura of the place and I can see how that might be more crystallized in my mind after I leave the place. Despite new names and created landmarks, neighbors recognize some of my settings.

  4. Kaye, I've enjoyed your work and think your stories reflect a strong sense of place. You're the perfect guest for this blog, which is great.

    Like you, I have trouble writing about my current location. After I moved away from Louisiana, I found the distance gave me perspective, and many stories bubbled up. When I try to write about Delaware, where I live now...nothing. So I share your problem--I wish I had a solution to it, for both of us!

  5. Thanks, Pauline! You're smart to change the names, I think.

    When you find the solution, Ramona, I can quit moving around so much. :)

  6. Kaye, I hadn't realized it but I guess I avoid writing about the place I live in too. Not sure why. Brings out more creativity, I think. Although I'm planning a book in my vicinity (D.C. area) soon so we'll soon find out how that works!

    Thanks so much for stopping by today! Your Agatha-nominated story is one of my all-time favorites (although I get the sniffles every time I think of it)! ;)

  7. Sorry to give you the sniffles, but glad that the cop's cold comes through. :)

    I'll be in DC next month! Please warm it up a bit before I get there.

  8. I can set a story anywhere, but I need a spark of something that will connect the plot to the setting - history, special issue, cultural detail or the people themselves who inhabit the place. Otherwise I'm never satisfied. I think you did the same thing with Devil's Night, Kaye. So thanks for sharing that!

  9. You're welcome, Heidi. I often have a place in mind in the beginning, but I'm not sure I could set a story anywhere, like you. Well, I'm sure there are places I couldn't. That's a talent!