Real Settings vs Fictional Settings

One of the important choices a novelist needs to make is whether to use a real or invented setting in a book. When this comes up, I envy science fiction or fantasy writers. Heck, just set the story on a made-up planet! Sure, you have to keep track of the rules you created to be sure your world stays consistent, but nobody is going to write to tell you that you didn’t describe the place accurately.

That can (and does) happen when you choose a real place as a setting. You may get readers commenting that there’s no way your character can drive from Main Street to Oak Boulevard in ten minutes, or that the turnoff to the waterfall is not at milepost 85. And if you mention a real business in your setting, you should check to make sure the owners don’t object to the corpse you’ve placed in their building, or they may complain that you damaged their reputation.

On the other hand, fictional locations can get you into trouble, too. My setting for Endangered was an invented park in Utah. One reviewer wrote “Fantastic descriptions! I can’t wait to visit Heritage National Monument.” Kind of embarrassing, when the setting doesn’t really exist.

So, I tend to compromise, using a real place for inspiration, then giving it a fictional name. (“No, I did not say the killer worked at Burger King, I said he worked at Burger Kingdom.” “Sure, in The Only Witness, the location of the gorilla compound may seem a lot like Ellensburg, Washington, but look again, those gorillas are in Evansburg.”)

Then, to make the issue more complex, setting includes not only place, but also time. And over time, things change. Now that I’ve been published for more than a decade, I’ve run into this time problem a lot. I recently read a good article (http://www.exactlywhatistime.com/other-aspects-of-time/time-in-literature/) that described four distinct time frames that will affect a book: author time (when the work was originally written or published), narrator time (when the narrator in a work of fiction supposedly narrates the story), plot time (when the action depicted takes place); and reader time (when a reader reads the work)

Ack! None of my books is historical, so each story is set in the “present,” and I’ve run into this time-tangle on multiple occasions. When I wrote Endangered , I did my best to incorporate state-of-the-art technology so my character could blog from the backcountry. Now all those gadgets are out of date. When I wrote my novel Backcountry, I was attending weekly country line dance lessons, and I set a pivotal scene in the dance club, convinced that this would help advertise the place. Around two weeks after that book was published, the club was sold and the name changed. Thanks to Covid, that club is now out of business. So much for using a real place for authenticity.

I also smack into this issue of author time vs reader time as a reader. I’ll be reading along and think, wow, this author is ignorant about recent events, then look at the copyright page to find that the book was published a decade ago. I hope my readers do that instead of choosing to believe that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

As a writer of suspense, I often run into problems with plot time in real settings. In my novel Undercurrents, those who are familiar with the Galapagos Islands may realize that there’s no way my character can get from this island to that one in only a few hours, but hey, I needed her to do that. It’s hard to maintain tension with a lot of travel time between islands, unless there’s a murderer on the boat.

My most recent Sam Westin mystery, Borderland, takes place along the Arizona-Mexico border wall. Sure, there’s a wall there now, but will there be a decade from now? This setting stuff is tricky.

My Conflicted Feelings about Bookstores

I am a voracious reader as well as a mystery author. Although of course I read many books in my genre, I also enjoy nonfiction adventures, science fiction, and the so-called “women’s fiction” categories. (In my opinion, nearly all books are “women’s fiction” for most of us.) But I digress, as I so frequently do. Back to bookstores.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I adore bookstores! What could be better for a reader than being able to sort through thousands of books? I find new authors and great reads in both new and used bookstores; they’re some of my favorite places. So, of course, as a reader, I am a big fan of bookstores.

As an indie author, I have very mixed feelings about bookstores. I am both the author and the publisher for my books. The thorny issue involves returns. If a bookstore orders books through a major distributor, as they all want to do, the publisher typically discounts the price by 40-55% so the bookstore can make some money. That’s painful enough for the publisher (and explains a lot about the cost of books), but if the bookstore doesn’t sell all the copies it orders, it can demand a refund to “return” the unsold books. (I put that word in quotes because due to the cost of shipping, “returned” books are typically destroyed instead of actually returned.) To make matters worse, many distributors/publishers have deadlines by which books must be returned, so if a book is approaching that date, bookstores may “return” them to get under the wire, knowing they can just order additional copies later, beginning the cycle again.

Self-published indie authors don’t have to make their books returnable, but if they don’t, the odds are that bookstores and libraries won’t put them on their shelves. As Publishers Weekly has written, “selling to the book trade is a gamble, and you need to decide your comfort level at playing the game. If you don’t play, you won’t sell.”

But when indie authors do decide to play the game (as I most often do), we can get burned big-time. My worst moment was when I was attending a Left Coast Crime Conference in Honolulu. A bookseller typically handles book sales at conferences, and when I walked into the book room in Hawaii, I saw piles of my books. While this might make some newbie authors celebrate, I cringed, knowing this would come back to haunt me. Number 1, I am not a well-known bestselling author. Number 2, most attendees for these conferences arrive via air, and they’re not going to lug back 100 pounds of printed books. Get a grip, bookstores! (But why should the bookseller care? They can simply “return” those books.)

Photo by Liza Summer on Pexels.com

Sure enough, I later got a bill from the printer/distributor for around $600 in returns (destroyed books) from that Hawaii conference. Having learned painful lessons like that over the years, I no longer sign up to have bookstores handle my books at conferences, unless that’s the only choice. Instead, I bring a few copies on consignment, and tons of bookmarks to remind interested readers later about my books. I sometimes supply books on consignment with local bookstores, too. Yes, I still have to discount those books and I have to pay for printing and shipping, and I have to deliver them, which reduces my profit to near zero, but I will get unsold copies back instead of having to pay for no-longer-existing books.

My understanding is that this whole “returns” business came about during the Great Depression of the 1930s to encourage stores to stock the non-necessity of books. And (of course) stores liked it so much that the policy has never gone away, to the detriment of publishers and authors. Traditional publishers consistently hold back a substantial portion of the royalties they owe authors in case there are future “returns.”

So now you can understand why indie authors have mixed feelings about bookstores. But please know that nearly any bookstore is willing to special order a book for you from your favorite indie author. If you’re willing to wait a bit for a book, you can support both the author and the bookstore that way.

ON CREATING THE ALEX CARTER THRILLER SERIES – A Guest Post by Alice Henderson

The year I started to take action for wildlife was the same year I started writing. I was six, and two things happened that year that changed the course of my life. The first was that my father gave me his old Underwood manual typewriter, and I started to write stories about detectives, ghosts, monsters, and sci-fi adventures.

And that same year, I also learned that extinction wasn’t just something that happened to the dinosaurs millions of years ago. It was happening now, to the wildlife we shared the planet with, and humans were the cause. I was devastated.

I’d been fascinated with wildlife for as long as I could remember. My father had a penchant for finding garter snakes and box turtles in our backyard. He’d point to a rock and say, “There should be a salamander under there,” and sure enough, there would be. My mother, an artist, encouraged me to keep a nature journal, which I dove into with gusto.

After I learned about extinction, I did everything my six-year-old self could think of to help wildlife. I mucked out cages at the local wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center. I made little art and craft pieces and sold them, donating the money to wildlife non-profits.

As I went on to college and grad school, I continued to pursue both writing and science. I studied creative writing, biogeography, field zoology, and screenwriting. I got trained in geographic information systems and bioacoustics, and brought those skills to my fight for wildlife.

But it wasn’t until one afternoon in Montana that the idea for my thriller series came into being. I was setting out bioacoustic recorders on a large tract of protected land in Montana. These devices are capable of recording both audible sounds, like birds, wolves, and amphibians, but also the ultrasonic echolocation calls of bats. I then examine these recordings to determine what species are using a particular piece of land. As I was setting up the microphones in this isolated, gorgeous mountain setting, I thought, “I’m a writer. And I’m passionate about wildlife causes. Why haven’t I combined the two?” It hit me then that I wanted to create a character who was a wildlife biologist, who would travel to different areas to study various endangered species. The isolated settings would provide wonderfully suspenseful locations, and each book could focus on a different species in peril.

And so Alex Carter came into being. I went back to camp that night and started hashing out the first book. I chose wolverines for the focus because so few people know about them, and there are only three hundred left in the lower 48. They have no federal protection and a number of factors including climate change and habitat fragmentation have led to their decline. They once roamed as far south as New Mexico and as far east as the Great Lakes, but now only inhabit isolated pockets in a handful of northwestern states.

I wanted the title of each book to feature the animal and its group name, like a “teapot of towhees” or a “murder of crows.” But when I looked into wolverines, I discovered that they are so solitary, they have no group name. So I created one myself: a solitude of wolverines.

I chose polar bears for the second book in the series because their situation, like that of the wolverine, is dire, again due mostly to climate change. It’s interesting that the second book in the series, A Blizzard of Polar Bears, should came out right now, while world leaders gather in Glasgow for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) and decide the world’s fate and what steps we’re willing to take to avert this disastrous path we’re on.

After all, every year for the last thirty-three years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released its annual report, warning us that we need to take steps to avert climate disasters. And yet nothing or very little happens as a result, and each year the IPCC’s warnings become more and more grave. And now we’ve waited too long. Sea level rise, drought, disastrous fires ,and hurricanes have taken their toll on our country and the world. I think of Jimmy Carter placing solar panels on the roof of the White House in 1979, and how those panels were removed by the Reagan administration. If we’d started climate change legislation in 1979, the polar bears, wolverines, pikas, and most definitely we would be faring a lot better.

But we can’t afford now to be moved to inaction by hopelessness or apathy. In the desire to drive things forward, in the back of each Alex Carter book, I include a section where readers can learn more about the species, and even undertake volunteer opportunities to help them.

What I hope readers take away from A Solitude of Wolverines and A Blizzard of Polar Bears is not only what I hope will be a suspenseful, entertaining read, but that they will fall in love with these species as I have and be inspired to act.

And to act does not have to be a huge life changing, insurmountable deed. If we all do our part, we can turn this around. Write to your representatives. Eat less meat. Engage in citizen science. If you’re feeling blue or hopeless, help count monarch butterflies. Plant milkweed. Log onto scistarter.org or zooniverse.org and pick out a project to help with, be it a simple beach cleanup or monitoring rhinoceros in Africa from your home computer.

Let’s all take action and demand the change we need to save not only these unique, dynamic species, but ourselves.

The Things that Haunt This Mystery Author

It’s nearly Halloween. My neighbors have pumpkins and ghosts and emerging skeleton hands in their front yards. And the minds of most authors turn to all things creepy. As usual, I’m busy killing off imaginary victims in my new manuscript, and feeling a bit conflicted about that. But I have found that real life can be even more creepy than the scenarios that plague my imagination. I am updating this old post to describe the events that still haunt me.

Yesterday as I was doing the weekly shopping for my cats at their favorite pet food store, I couldn’t help noticing the older man perched on a bench outside the door. His hand was clutched around a paper coffee cup and he rocked back and forth, muttering, “The witching hour is coming…the witching hour is coming!”

I examined him out of the corner of my eye, like we all do with many of the homeless. He didn’t look like he lived on the streets. His clothes were clean and appropriate for the cool, wet weather; his hair and beard were neatly trimmed. I wondered if he was inspired by the idea of Halloween approaching, or if he felt he needed to sound the warning about the witching hour on a daily basis. The idea clearly haunted him.

I think most adults are haunted by something. That something might very well be the ghost of a deceased or missing person, but it can also be an old grievance, a regret, or even a horrible event that happened to perfect strangers. And I believe writers are the most haunted of all. Some of us write to exorcise those demons; others write in an attempt to silence them.

Real-life tragedies caused by malevolent people haunt me the most. I’ve written about kidnapped children, public furor gone awry due to media coverage, racist militia groups, and the ways in which innocent animals are trapped by human schemes. Most of these things I’ve learned about from media coverage, and although they happened to people I never met, they still haunt me.

Many people use the word “inspiration” to mean motivation that comes from a positive influence, but much of the inspiration that writers use comes from negative sources.

My friends know that I am an avid hiker. I spend a lot of time on the trails in the mountains and forests of the North Cascades. These are normally the places where I am most happy. So it was especially haunting to me to learn about the murders of nature lovers Susanna Stodden and her mother Mary Cooper in 2006 on a hiking trail, and then, two years later, the killing of another hiker, Pamela Almli, by a negligent 14-year-old hunter.

Author Pamela Beason at Pinnacle Lake, where Susanna Stodden and Mary Cooper were murdered

Many years have passed, but I think about all three of these women whenever I am hiking my beloved trails. Years ago, I wrote a novel that includes a combination of these two horrific events, in addition to another subject that is close to my heart, taking teens into the wilderness to teach them how to live without electronic devices.  I fictionalized all this, of course, to produce my fourth Summer “Sam” Westin mystery, Backcountry, in which Sam steps in as a replacement for her murdered friend to lead a group of troubled teens in a wilderness therapy program.

Writing and publishing Backcountry did not truly exorcise the demons that haunt me, because nothing has changed since these two cases occurred. The killer of Susanna and Mary is still unidentified, and it’s still legal in Washington State for 14-year-olds to hunt with only other teens for companions.

But I like to think that Susanna and Mary and Pamela would be pleased that I’m trying to tell their stories and keep their memories alive. And if their ghosts come to visit me at “the witching hour” on Halloween, I’ll be happy to spend time with them, because I know we are all kindred spirits.

I Am a Serial Killer Who Grieves for Each Death

Yes, I kill people. But only fictional people, characters in my mystery novels. And I don’t kill any character lightly. I actually prefer to write mysteries that don’t involve murders, because with a murder, the crime is over, there’s no hope for a happy outcome, and all that’s left to do is to prosecute the killer. As a private investigator, I worked on a death case, and it was sad and painful to interview everyone left behind. I much prefer to write about kidnapping or disappearances, because the outcome could go either way. But, as a mystery writer, I have found that now and then I simply have to kill a character, or readers would stop believing that could happen in my books.

Most of the time, I would like to kill off a despised character, the one who abuses animals or humans or takes advantage of everyone to make money. But who would grieve over those deaths? If dozens of people have motive to bump off that despicable person, then frankly, as a reader I can’t get very invested in discovering the killer because it seems like a public service, and I’m not sure that I want to see the perpetrator identified and punished.

No, to create suspense and interest, most often a mystery novelist needs to kill someone who the reader cares about. And, call me crazy (and many of us authors are), but it’s hard to create a likeable character and then kill them. It hurts. The most painful one for me was Alex Kazaki, a scuba-diving wildlife biologist that I had to bump off in the Galápagos (Undercurrents novel), long considered a magical place for all wildlife biologists. I really liked his gentle humor and kind heart, and I remember the day I concluded that I needed to kill him. His death still haunts me, as it does my series protagonist, Sam Westin. Alex left behind a wife and baby who loved him dearly.

Latina wildlife photographer Jade Silva died near the Arizona-Mexico wall (Borderland). She was gutsy. She was talented. I still feel that her death left a hole in the world, but I’m grateful for her last photo of a rare jaguar imprisoned by the border wall.

Then there are the clueless, who die doing foolish things because they are naïve or misguided. I had to kill one of those people off in The Only Clue because he didn’t understand how dangerous a silverback could be. Even a gorilla who knows sign language is still a gorilla. And I had to bump off two women in Bear Bait for two completely different reasons; neither of them deserved that. My novel Backcountry was inspired by the real-life murders of two women hikers, and as a hiker, those still-unsolved deaths are especially close to my heart.

I killed two beloved parents in my Run for Your Life trilogy, leaving my then 14-year-old protagonist an orphan. And—oh dear God—I included a dead infant in The Only Witness. Although that wasn’t murder, it still hurt me to imagine that tiny corpse buried in the field.

And now it occurs to me that recently I’ve killed even more, in a horrific avalanche, in the novel I’m currently writing. I guess it’s a blessing that they were all strangers to me. But I feel sorry for their relatives, whom my protagonist may meet in the novel. Yikes, my death tally is growing.

Being a mystery novelist can be a weird, emotional roller coaster ride of grief, fear, and—hopefully—eventual triumph. Am I alone in experiencing all these emotions while crafting my novels? Am I crazy?