If geography is destiny, the setting of your crime fiction is crucial.
I’ve never gone out and scouted locations. My novels are grounded in familiar territory. I’ve planted the four Midwestern noir novels I’ve written during the past several years securely in my hometown—Minneapolis, Minnesota, and its immediate environs. I want to write what I know.
To my mind, there are several considerations when deciding on your crime novel’s setting—and when you’re putting that setting into play. Here are five of them.
5 Points to Consider About Your Crime Fiction Setting
1. Just how thematically important is the setting to your story?
In my new novel, The Secret Lives of Dentists, Minneapolis circa 1955 is essential to its premise and development. As the largest city in the Upper Midwest, home to dozens of major employers, institutions, and entertainment venues, Minneapolis was a magnet for young people from around the region seeking fast times and fortune. Minneapolis in those days was predominantly Scandinavian and German, heavily Lutheran and Catholic, with a well-deserved reputation for systemic racism and anti-Semitism. One of my protagonists is a promiscuous 21-year-old woman from (fictitious) Dollar, North Dakota. Another is a middle-aged Jewish dentist who will be accused of her murder.
Minneapolis was not the only mid-century, mid-American city that drew kids to its seductive core, or, for that matter, the only city in America that baldly discriminated against Jews. But Minneapolis was the city where the events that inspired my novel took place. It is also the place that fueled my youthful curiosity and imagination and taught me much of what I know about life’s good and bad. My Secret Lives, in short, could not have been situated anywhere else.
2. Don’t get carried away with your location’s atmospherics.
The late, great Elmore Leonard cautioned writers against overusing the weather, especially at the beginning of their stories. “The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people,” he said with his usual wry understatement. When you mention Minnesota, people tend to think first of the local climate, in particular our (once-) fearsome winters. I like to play against expectations, so I set Secret Lives in the city’s typically tepid spring and sultry summer months. Also, mindful of Leonard’s warning, I kept the weather bulletins brief.
3. Limit the architectural detail; concentrate on your characters.
Much of Secret Lives unfolds in court, so one of my essential settings is Courtroom No. 1 in the county courthouse. The grand old building, with its iconic clocktower and marble staircase, may be the city’s best-known structure—or was until the construction of the Vikings’ spectacular football stadium in the last decade. Drawing on ’50s newspaper reports and photos, I was able to describe the high points and idiosyncrasies of the site, enough anyway so I could share the impressions of the defendant, key witnesses, and gallery rubberneckers who filled the chamber during the dentist’s long trial.
I spent less time on most of the other locations. The dentist’s home in the pleasant Linden Hills neighborhood and the dingy inner-city flat shared by the murder victim and her sister are described sparingly; so are the dour offices of the city’s homicide squad and the squalid local wire-service bureau. In each case, I kept in mind the master’s admonition and swiftly focused on the settings’ occupants.
4. Don’t be afraid to mix the real and the fictitious.
You’re writing a novel, not journalism. Having written both, I can assure you that messing around with the hard facts that an honorable journalist would deem sacrosanct is a large part of the pleasure of writing fiction. Thus, in Secret Lives, I have no compunction, for example, about changing Hennepin County to Hiawatha County, if only because Hiawatha is so much more fun to say, write, and read than Hennepin. (And thanks to Longfellow’s immortal “Song of Hiawatha,” it’s every bit as legitimate a local reference as the name of the 17th-century Belgian missionary.) I invented the names and salient details of several of the cafes, bars, and hotels mentioned in the narrative, though each contains the sights, smells, textures, and noises I needed to establish the verisimilitude that makes good fiction “real.”
One of my key characters drives a cab, so I relied on his responses to the streets, features, and denizens of the city’s sundry neighborhoods to help create a sense of mid-20th century Minneapolis. An oversized street map from the early ’50s helped me keep track his whereabouts.
5. Choose locations that give you the details that will make your story come alive.
While Minneapolis in the 1950s was not the “Murderapolis” it would become in the early ’90s and, sadly, is becoming again today, there was enough mayhem—the lethal beating of a skid row layabout, a domestic homicide in an overheated Southside tenement, gunshots erupting during a crap game in a black neighborhood—to keep the city’s small homicide squad busy. Those gritty locations, usually mentioned only in passing, add to the credibility that makes good crime fiction memorable.
Toward that end, I sought out actual place names—e.g., the Sourdough Bar, the Whoop-Tee-Doo Club, Farmers & Mechanics Bank—while making up others, such as the Starlight Motor Hotel and His Will Baptist Church, when necessary. A well-chosen or blessedly inspired name will often say all you need to say about a place.