Setting can be a tricky component to your story. People only seem to notice it if it’s done incorrectly or otherwise breaks the emersion. That’s why a common piece of advice is to keep your setting close to home, a place where you know every crack in the sidewalk and can create a truly relatable scenario. This week’s guest blogger, Kevin O’Brien, discusses just that.
In my new thriller, Hide Your Fear, my heroine makes an appointment with a male prostitute to question him about a stalker. I wasn’t sure what Seattle neighborhood to use for the prostitute’s apartment building. A famous author friend lives in a high rise in Seattle’s Belltown — not far from the outdoor Sculpture Park. It seemed ideal. So — I set the scene there, with my heroine arriving early and having an introspective moment in the park before her appointment. Just as she crosses the street to go into the building, the prostitute plunges nine stories from his balcony and crashes on top of someone’s Prius parked on the street.
I hope my writer friend never finds out.
They say when coming up with locales for a book, beginning authors shouldn’t stray far from their own backyards. After eighteen novels, I still set my thrillers in my own backyard — scenic, soggy Seattle.
Thanks to the rain, it’s a perfect city for chills and thrills. And with all the surrounding forests and bodies of water, my fictional murderers always have a perfect spot to dump a body.
Of course, I work some of Seattle’s landmarks into my thrillers. The Space Needle and Volunteer Park (24 acres of lawn, trees, gardens and trails) have figured prominently in several of my books. The Experience Music Project was in Unspeakable. In Terrified, there was a kidnapping by the Freemont Troll statue (a “monster” sculpture — grasping a life-size VW bug — under a major bridge). And in No One Needs to Know, a woman was hurled down the Howe Street Stairs — 388 steps connecting one Seattle neighborhood to another.
People love seeing a city’s landmarks in novels. If they’ve visited there, they feel like they’re seeing the place again. If they’ve never visited, they feel like they’re taking a trip there.
But not everyone has been happy that I’ve cast their neighborhood haunts in a sinister light.
In Final Breath, I killed a character in the women’s room at an old “art house” movie theater, the Harvard Exit. The victim was a young woman who kept checking her phone messages during the movie. She finally ducked into a stall in the restroom to make a call. The killer reached under the partition, grabbed her by the ankles, dragged her out of the stall and slit her throat. I received several emails from women who said they were afraid to use the restroom in the Harvard Exit, because of Final Breath. I was really kind of hoping it would make people more afraid to use their phones in movie theaters during the film.
A neighbor was doubly upset with me, not only because she was scared to use the bathroom at the Harvard Exit after Final Breath, but because I made her favorite jogging path through Volunteer Park the site of a woman’s fatal abduction in Vicious.
Because these locales are real and familiar to me, it’s easier for me to make the scary fictional events in these spots seem realistic. And I never have to go far to find the right location for a crime scene.
“I can’t pass that duplex at the end of our block without imagining a woman getting hacked to death in the upstairs unit,” another neighbor complained to me. I modeled my heroine’s apartment in Killing Spree after a grey two-story duplex on my street. My neighbor used to walk his dog past it twice a day.
Now he’s changed his dog-walking route.
A writer friend, David Massengill, lived in that upstairs unit when I was writing the book. So — it was his kitchen ceiling that in Killing Spree had drops of blood which would later be a clue to the killing. Dave, Garth Stein (The Art of Racing in the Rain) and I are in the same writers group. Dave has lived in several different apartments over the years. He recently pointed out during a writers group session that I’ve used nearly all of his apartments for scenes of murder or terror in my books. “No wonder you keep moving,” Garth said.
I’ve found there are perks to using local businesses for locales in my thrillers. I always make sure to let these establishments know they were mentioned in my books — and it’s been good for free publicity and more sales. After a character ordered pizza from a Seattle staple, Pagliacci, in Killing Spree, I got certificates for two free pizzas in the mail. I was also treated to a free dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, That’s Amore, after a couple had a date there in Vicious.
Of course, I’ve gotten in good with local book merchants by setting scenes of intrigue in their stores.
But sometimes, it can backfire. I live in the city, and gave up my car ages ago. For long trips, I rent a car at a local Enterprise dealer. Not long ago, I was there, filling out paperwork for a trip to Portland while the representative checked my reservation. “Wait a minute, Kevin O’Brien? I know you,” the man said. “You wrote One Last Scream…”
I was really flattered he knew me and my books. “Did you like it?” I asked.
“You got me in trouble with my boss!” the man replied. “In that book, you had a woman rent a car here. Then she went into our restroom, and you described it as ‘grimy!’”
I told the man the same thing I tell everyone when they’re not too happy to find I’ve brought murder and mayhem into their neighborhood, their work place or their home.
“Well, it’s only fiction,” I said.
Before his thrillers landed him on the New York Times Bestseller list, Kevin O’Brien was a railroad inspector. The author of 18 internationally published thrillers, he won the Spotted Owl Award for Best Pacific Northwest Mystery, was Guest of Honor at Killer Nashville, and is a core member of Seattle 7 Writers. Press & Guide said: “If Alfred Hitchcock were alive today and writing novels, his name would be Kevin O’Brien.” Kevin’s latest nail-biter, Hide Your Fear, will be in bookstores this summer. He’s hard at work on his 19th novel. Contact him at kevinobrienbooks.com
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