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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Importance of Setting

I grew up reading Daphne du Maurier's books and fell completely in love with the windswept moors and granite cliffs that wind their way through her suspenseful books. While reading Jamaica Inn, I could envision the main character trying to get away from the murderer, only to get bogged down in the swampy footholds of the moors in the dead of night. The setting for her books became antagonists in themselves, often hindering the good guys and helping the bad ones.

There was also something mystical about England in the days before electricity, gasoline-powered automobiles and technology. It was a world that was pure escapism, with all the good, the bad and the ugly.

I've had a few ah-ha moments in my life and one of the most vivid occurred when I was planning to move from Virginia (where I'd spent most my life, having been born in Washington, DC) to the southeastern corner of North Carolina. This region was immortalized in the movie, Cape Fear, which was originally released in 1962.

I was searching for an area in which I'd like to live after a driving rainstorm that caused the swamps to overflow their banks. The water was covered with thick green algae and the trees were sunk into the swamps with huge ballooning trunks surrounded by jagged "knees". It made me realize just how difficult it would be for a main character to try and escape a murderer through those swamps. It conjured up images of alligators, leeches, mosquitoes the size of a hummingbird... And those books I loved by Daphne du Maurier.

I had been writing Ricochet, a suspense/thriller that I'd intended to have occur in the Shenandoah Valley. But after that amazing day driving around Robeson County, NC, I decided the only place to have it set was the swampland. I changed the setting and then went back to Robeson County for the setting of Exit 22, which has been my most popular suspense/thriller to date.

Exit 22 has spawned a series, and I am finding as I've been writing books #13, 14 and 15, that I love the swamps as an antagonist - and sometimes also as an ally. In Vicki's Key, set for release in March 2012, the Lumber River serves as both a place in which two lovers fall in love--and a spot to dispose of a corpse later. Secrets of a Dangerous Woman, the third in the series (set for release in September 2012) returns to the swamps as both friend and foe. And Dylan's Song (set for release in March 2013) takes us across the ocean to Ireland.

As part of the research for Dylan's Song, I am planning a trip to Ireland. I am looking forward to visiting such a  mystical place, a place filled with moors and mist and fog... And I will no doubt feel a kinship with Daphne du Maurier while I am there.

Oddly enough (or perhaps not) my ancestors were from Ireland so I am feeling as if I am headed home. I still have distant cousins living there who never left Ireland when my branch of the family emigrated to the U.S. in search of a brighter future. And when I return to Robeson County, North Carolina after that trip, I will no doubt remember why the Scottish and the Irish fell in love with this area so many generations ago. Perhaps it has something to do with the swamps, the misty mornings, the fog that rolls in... And the perfect setting for suspense/thrillers.