On the importance of setting. Can’t remember who I wrote this for.
The US Coast Guard invited me to do a ridealong on cutter Alex Haley in the Bering Sea in February of 2004. I was invited to write a daily blog from the ship so the shorebound families of the crew could eyewitness as much as possible the lives their loved ones were living at sea. In that capacity I poked my nose into every nook and cranny and interrogated most of the crew as to the particulars of their jobs. The USCG is the single most hospitable community in the world and nearly every door—in this case, hatch—was flung wide open for me.
After which I came home and wrote Blindfold Game, a thriller set on a USCG cutter (it goes without saying very similar to Alex Haley). One of the things I found out during my tour of duty on Alex Haley was that the USCG was the first American service to promote women to command at sea, so in my novel a woman was the first officer, who assumes command when the captain is killed. My ship, USCGC Sojourner Truth, was patrolling the north Pacific Ocean, which waters abut both North Korea and Alaska, so a terrorist attack by North Koreans was a natural for the plot. (And more natural with each passing day. Accidental prescience is no fun.)
All my novels begin with setting. When I know where I’m writing, I find out who lives (and works) there, and after that what shenanigans they are getting up to. The Star Svensdotter series is set, serially, in lunar orbit, in the Asteroid Belt and on Mars. The Liam Campbell series was inspired by a trip to Dillingham, Alaska (Newenham in the novels) where I did a ridealong with a cop and found out where the local drug dealers lived, all three of them. I did a second ridealong with the USCG on board USCGC Munro in 2007 and wrote a second Coastie thriller, Prepared for Rage, wherein I tried to blow up a space shuttle. That was fun in a horrific sort of way.
Silk and Song is a road trip. The road in question is the Silk Road. The Silk Road is thousands of miles long and runs through vastly different geographical areas and hundreds of different cultures. If I was writing about the Silk Road of course my hero was going to be a trader, and why not one related to the most renowned merchant trader of them all, Marco Polo? Which helped set the time frame, which after way too much research I wanted to include at least the end of Marco’s life, the fall of the Templars and the ascension of Edward III to the throne of England, around all of which swirl plenty of controversies among legitimate historians tailor made for the aspring historical novelist. Westward travels Johanna, as with the trending arc of history. To coin a phrase.
In contrast, the Kate Shugak series is set in a single, clearly defined place, present-day Alaska, in a generic national Park loosely based on the Wrangell-St. Elias Park because I had visited it just before I wrote A Cold Day for Murder. When I knew I was writing a series (which fact was not obvious until I sold the first book and the publisher wanted two more), I knew Kate had to leave the Park as keeping her in a single location would inevitably make the series static and, well, dull. Fortunately, Alaska is a big state and her job as a PI takes her everywhere, the oil fields of the North Slope, the Yukon-Kuskokwin Delta, Bristol Bay, the streets of Anchorage. One day she’ll investigate a case in Juneau and then god help the Alaska state legislature. She’s mean enough to them already.
And while you’re waiting, please do give the Eye of Isis novels a try:
Chatter Kate Shugak Writing blindfold game Prepared for Rage second star Silk and Song star svensdotter
Dana View All →
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.
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