Fiction writers have a dilemma that most people probably don’t think about—where will the story take place? If you write romance, the right location can add to the ambience. If you’re into historical fiction or swashbuckling pirate sagas, you must decide which backdrop will best lend itself to your adventure. Even those of us who write series fiction with recurring characters face the same problem. How realistic do you need to be?
My best selling series of spy thrillers featuring former CIA spooks Nick Seven and Felicia Hagens is set primarily in The Florida Keys. This is familiar territory for me, thanks to regular vacations. Since I don’t live in The Keys, I’ve found that I still need to do extensive research to get the details right. I have an audience in southern Florida and the last thing I want is for someone to read one of my books and wonder if I’ve ever been there. Small details like a correct address or historical landmark can make or break your credibility.
I broke from my usual pattern with my newest thriller, “Catch and Release” (Nick Seven, Book 5). The characters are the same but I chose Virginia Beach instead of The Keys. I’ve been to Virginia Beach but not recently, so I had to do research to fill in the blanks. Getting location details correct is one thing, but I always add bits of local flavor to make it more realistic. Things like regional foods, beverages, customs, and naming the correct fish that are native to those waters made the story more authentic.
This is where the internet comes in handy. I routinely search websites for any place I’m using and note the little things. One of my stories took place in several locations around the world, some of which I had never visited. By the time my research was completed I had enough details to make it sound like I was a native. Google Earth comes in handy, too. When I write a Keys-based adventure and I’m stuck on how to describe a setting, out comes the photo album containing pics from my last trip. I also come home with a collection of brochures, maps, and local newspapers.
There are times when I’ve been surprised that my depiction of a location is vastly different from the real thing. I was working on a private eye mystery that I chose to set near Lake Erie. I grew up in that part of Ohio but when I took a trip back there, I was stunned that my youthful recollections weren’t the same as what I saw in person. Luckily it was still in the development stage, so it wasn’t too late to make corrections.
Atmosphere is all important to a good story, no matter what you write. One of the nicest compliments I routinely receive is when someone tells me that they felt like they were right there with the characters. It doesn’t get much better than that.
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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author whose books range from mystery/thrillers to contemporary erotic romance. His website is www.timsmithauthor.com.