Often times, we as writers get so caught up in the details of our characters and scenarios that we may put our setting on the back-burners. The setting is the difference between being alone in a dark alley and being alone in an open meadow. This week’s Killer Nashville guest blogger, Lisa Harris, shares her insight on just how important the setting is.
Try to imagine Frodo’s journey in The Lord of the Ring set not among the rolling hills of the Shire and the eerie volcanic region of Mordor, but instead the flat plains of Kansas. Or imagine if Anne of Green had taken place in the bustling city of modern New York instead of a farm on Prince Edward Island. The novels simply wouldn’t be the same, because the settings in both are an integral part of those series.
When I first started writing nearly two decades ago, a story’s setting was simply a necessity. I thought all I needed was a generic town in Anywhere, USA with a few descriptions sprinkled throughout, because the location didn’t fit into my focus on the story line. What I didn’t understand was how a well-planned and well-developed setting can suck your reader even deeper into the story. Which is exactly what a writer wants.
But how does a writer take a setting beyond a few paragraphs of descriptions and create a location that becomes an essential part of the story?
When I started writing my Nikki Boyd Files series, I began thinking through different locations that would not only be interesting to the reader, but that would also help set the tone for the series. I soon decided to set the books in the beautiful state of Tennessee where I once lived, but that wasn’t enough. I needed to narrow down the setting even further and find the perfect backdrop for an intense missing person case.
I started looking at the area around the Smoky Mountains. I read stories by people who’d walked the Appalachian Trail and told how the mountains themselves could be deadly with unexpected storms popping up. They were a place where one could disappear if they wanted to, and where others—including small planes—had somehow managed to vanish unintentionally without a trace. Thick canopies in the mountains were described by those lost in them as laurel hells, a terrifying place to discover you were lost. So not only did I find the Smoky Mountains beautiful and mysterious, but they became the perfect backdrop for when Nikki finds her own life in danger.
With my setting chosen, I decided to open my first book in The Nikki Boyd Files series, Vendetta, with a tense scene in Northeast Tennessee near the Obed River. Nikki is repelling off a sandstone cliff into a ravine, when her rope catches and threatens to snap above her. It doesn’t take long, though, for the tension to shift from the narrow ledge of the sheer cliff to the Smoky Mountains when a call comes through from her boss about a missing teen. As she and her team investigate the disappearance of the young woman, Nikki finds herself forced to relive her past when clues from her sister’s kidnapping a decade ago emerge, and Nikki discovers that her sister’s abductor is back. As she follows the clues deeper into the vast, mountainous landscape, the danger Nikki faces simultaneously intensifies.
For book two, Missing, I decided to switch the setting to the Nashville area, which gave the book a completely different feel from the sometimes sinister woods of the Smoky Mountains. Setting the book in the city allowed me to write very different scenes, including a confrontation with a sniper, a frantic boat chase after a possible murderer, and a tense hostage scene on the roof of an apartment building.
Right around the time of the book’s release last fall, I had the opportunity to return to Tennessee and visit the Smoky Mountains, a part of the state I’d never seen before. After spending hours and hours of research online, it was uncanny how it felt as if I was stepping back into a familiar place. I became my family’s tour guide to a place I might have never visited in person, but I felt like I knew. The craziest part, though, was that I kept expecting to run into Nikki!
Lisa Harris is a Christy Award finalist for Blood Ransom (2010) and Vendetta (2016), Christy Award winner for Dangerous Passage, and the winner of the Best Inspirational Suspense Novel for Blood Covenant (2011) and Vendetta (2016) from Romantic Times. She has over thirty novels and novella collections in print. She and her family have spent over twelve years working as missionaries in Africa. When she’s not working she loves hanging out with her family, cooking different ethnic dishes, photography, and heading into the African bush on safari. For more information about her books and life in Africa visit her website at lisaharriswrites.com
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