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Beloved Settings: Considerations for Fictionalizing a Favorite Place

Laura Oles discusses her considerations for transforming her favorite weekend getaway, Port Aransas, Tex., into a setting for her mystery novel.
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Port Aransas, Tex. | Image from Getty by Leanna Morgan / EyeEm

by Laura Oles

For the last twenty years, Port Aransas, Tex., has served as my weekend retreat. When life gets hectic, my family leaves the hill country for the Gulf coast. I know where to find the best coffee, the freshest shrimp and chicken tortilla soup so flavorful that it has its own fan club.

Over the years, I began to imagine an alternate universe to Port Aransas. Stories surfaced in my mind like dolphins dancing between the ferry boats in the nearby ship channel. I took my beloved family-friendly beach retreat and created Port Alene, a fictional sister town with a darker side. As I watched my kids fishing in the ocean, my mind built a new world filled with characters making deals, sharing secrets and selling something extra at the local bait shop.

I realized that my coastal hideaway was the perfect setting for my new Jamie Rush mystery series. Jamie is a skip tracer—someone who tracks the missing and those who wish not to be found. DAUGHTERS OF BAD MEN found its story anchored in Port Alene’s dual personality, one that combined a tourist destination with a grittier underworld. While I didn’t have a master plan, I did establish a few guidelines.

NOT A TWIN, BUT A SIBLING

When creating Port Alene, I decided it would not be an exact replica of the locale I loved. It was important that Port Aransas not be merely plucked out of real life and dropped into my mystery with little more than a name change. Instead, I took key areas—the main road running through town, a neighborhood I know well, and the beach area by mile marker 77—and played with them until they fit into the story. I drew my own maps of Port Alene, fashioning roads and landmarks, bars and restaurants, bait shops and trinket traps. My protagonist needed these locations because they would prove important in her life. She just didn’t know it yet.

Online Course: Fearless Writing with Bill Kenower

SETTING AS CHARACTER

The sensation of beach life is something that lingers long after your toes leave the sand. I wanted to capture the town’s essence. The humidity follows you like a jealous boyfriend, even moments after you’ve walked into an air-conditioned room. There’s no such thing as a good hair day, and you couldn’t care less. And most everyone wears flip-flops and shorts, even in the winter. Port Alene is as important a character as any other in my book.

ISLAND TIME

The term "island time" is meant to remind guests to relax, to not be in a hurry unless there’s a fire or happy hour at Trout Street is about to end. The only people in a rush are the fishermen up long before sunrise to claim the best bait. It takes twice as long to drink a cup of coffee than it does on the mainland; locals get work done without racing the clock. The challenge was to honor the concept of island time while keeping the story moving at a quick pace. The action needed to escalate while the town took its own sweet time.

 A Writer's Guide to Active Setting

A Writer's Guide to Active Setting

PLAYING FAVORITES

Several of Jamie’s preferred places are inspired by my own, including the best Tex-Mex restaurant south of San Antonio. Hemingway’s Pier, Jamie’s favorite haunt and also her home—her apartment is located in the bar’s loft—is my way of giving the characters their own version of Cheers, but with lousy lighting and a beloved bulldog named Deuce. He loves the jalapeno poppers.

While Port Alene remains as I left her, Port Aransas, her inspiration, has not been so fortunate. On August 25, 2017, Hurricane Harvey tore through the heart of the town, the eye hitting with such force that little remains. Harvey scattered boats like leaves—in front a beloved coffee shop, in a nearby neighborhood, beached on a random patch of grass. Homes and businesses remain damaged or destroyed, and the community has been left to rebuild without the benefit of media attention. Those who claim Port Aransas as a second home know it will return stronger than ever, with the help and support of locals and volunteers from near and far. But it will take time.

For now, I’m keeping the coastal refuge I love alive through Jamie Rush and her dangerous calling. It’s my way of celebrating Port Aransas until it can once again welcome its residents and guests with open arms and open businesses.

Laura Oles is a photo industry journalist who spent twenty years covering tech and trends before turning to crime fiction. Her short stories have appeared in several anthologies, including MURDER ON WHEELS, which won the Silver Falchion Award in 2016. Laura’s debut mystery, DAUGHTERS OF BAD MEN, was named a Killer Nashville Claymore Award Finalist. DAUGHTERS OF BAD MEN introduces Jamie Rush, a skip tracer working in a Texas coastal town. Laura is also a Writers’ League of Texas Award Finalist. She is a member of Austin Mystery Writers, Sisters in Crime and Writers’ League of Texas. She lives on the edge of the Texas Hill Country with her husband, daughter and twin sons. You can find her at lauraoles.com.

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