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I’ve Been Set Up!

A guest post by author Thomas Waite:

The setting of a novel is critical, particularly for a mystery or thriller. After all, in addition to providing details that enrich the story, the setting can actually assist, or impede, an investigation. Choosing a familiar setting is usually a good idea for a mystery or a thriller because it should directly influence the characters and the plot.

When I started writing Terminal Value, I deliberately chose Boston and New York City because I have lived in both locations and I know the cities well. Sure, you can do research, look at maps, and even read guidebooks, but there is no substitution for experience. If you have lived in a city, you know its character, the local customs, and the weather. For example, in my novel, I describe a “classic Nor’easter” and not only how these storms form, but also how they feel, and what the aftermath looks and smells like. I have also spent time with people in Boston and New York, and they talk, act, and think differently. If I were to have set my novel in Little Rock, Arkansas, it almost surely would have irritated people who live there and they would have quickly discerned that I really didn’t understand them or where they live.

At a more detailed level there are sub-settings – streets, parks, offices, police stations, restaurants – that have their own vibes and traditions beyond the place where they are situated. In the case of Terminal Value, I visited all of these sub-settings (except, of course, the offices of the fictional companies, but even those were based on other companies I was familiar with). In the opening of the novel, Dylan, the protagonist, leaves his condominium in the Back Bay section of Boston, drives by the Public Garden, down a street, across a bridge, to the office of his start-up, and takes an old elevator and enters the office. I drove this route myself, and describe various sights and sounds along the way that are both authentic and “educate” the reader about the environment.

Here’s an excerpt to illustrate my point:

“Rush-hour traffic seemed unusually heavy for a cold January morning. Dylan glanced out through the frosty window at the Public Garden Lagoon. In the summer, swan boats and tourists filled the park. Now it was empty of water and people—a sure sign of a prolonged winter. He and his friend Tony had discussed the mobile computing revolution during many strolls through the garden.”

The importance of setting doesn’t end there. A good writer will develop their characters by deliberately describing elements that build both an image and understanding of the characters in the reader’s mind. Why does one character drive a certain kind of car while another drives a different car? Why does one person have a messy office and another a pristinely organized office? What is it that upsets or stresses a character – heavy traffic, noisy office mates, certain smells – and what does it tell the reader about that character?

Setting is more than just place. It is also time. In Terminal Value, there is a certain rhythm in the novel that reflects the changing seasons in Boston.  Settings in my novel include a raging winter snowstorm and an abnormally warm, foggy spring night. These are important because they can lead to a sense of gloom, tension, joy, and so forth that is important to the storyline itself. Consider this excerpt:

“At nine-thirty, Dylan stepped out onto the damp cobbles of Beacon Hill. The unusually warm spring temperatures foretold a hot summer ahead, and after a brief shower, the resulting mist wrapped eerily around the lampposts. Dylan admired the old neighborhood, with its Federalist and Greek Revival brick row houses, most of which were built between 1800 and 1850. After the turn of the century, many of the wealthy residents moved to the suburbs, and the old houses were subdivided into small apartments and, later, condominiums. Tony had moved into one of the roomier apartments shortly after their initial MobiCelus success. True to his character, his eclectic furnishings barely filled the space.”

A great novel is one that takes place in a richly detailed world that gives the story authenticity. As Stephen King famously wrote in his classic, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

About Thomas Waite

Thomas Waite was born in Ipswich, Massachusetts. His debut novel, Terminal Value, was critically praised and reached #1 in Contemporary Books, #1 in Contemporary Fiction, #1 Paid in the Kindle Store, and #1 in Kindle Store Suspense at Amazon. Lethal Code is his first in a series of cyber-thrillers.

Waite is the board director of, and an advisor to, technology companies in the online security, media, data analytics, cloud computing, mobile, social intelligence, and information technology businesses. His non-fiction work has been published in a number of publications, including The New York Times and the Harvard Business Review.

Waite received his bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was selected by the English Department to participate in an international study program at the University of Oxford. He now lives in Boston.

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