Friday, April 22, 2016

Time and Place: The Agatha Award Finalists for Best First Novel

By Art Taylor

This week's question—"What prompted you to use the setting and time period for your latest book or series?"—seemed the perfect opportunity to showcase this year's Agatha Award finalists for Best First Novel, whose settings cover a wide range, in terms both of geography and of subject matter.

I'm proud to be a included in this group of fine writers and thrilled that we've all become such good friends in our chats online—chats which have led to a series of blog hops like this, with at least one more stop ahead, at Chicks on the Case on Monday, April 25. And then we'll all be together at Malice Domestic, of course—next week, yikes!

Our Malice panel is on Saturday morning, April 30, at 10 a.m., with Margaret Maron moderating. Plenty of questions to be answered there, but in the meantime, let's hear what everyone has to say on the question at hand here!

ELLEN BYRON, author of Plantation Shudders: When I was a student at Tulane University in New Orleans, my parents would look for any excuse to visit. We’d rent a car and go for day trips all over southern Louisiana, exploring as much of Cajun Country and Plantation Country as we could. I became fascinated by the history of the land and the people, and began incorporating both into plays that I wrote. I have such a passion for this part of the country that when I thought about writing a mystery series, setting it in Cajun Country was a no-brainer. The characters and village I’ve created—Pelican, Louisiana, town motto, “Yes, We Peli-CAN!”—feel so real to me that sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m writing fiction! My emotional connection to New Orleans and southern Louisiana is extraordinarily powerful. I cry tears of joy when I arrive and tears of sadness when I leave.

As to time period, I accidentally created the best of both worlds. My series is set in present-day, but revolves around two plantation homes that date back to the mid-1800s. My protagonist occasionally has dreams where her ancestors reach out to her, and who knows? Perhaps someday I’ll write an historical prequel series.

CINDY BROWN, author of Macdeath: You’ve probably heard writers say their characters just showed up one day in their heads: that was certainly the case with my protagonist Ivy Meadows. She was an actress when she arrived in my writer-brain, so the theater setting was natural. Also, I worked in theater for years and thought it’d be great fun to let Ivy explore different types of gigs. In Macdeath, she works in a Shakespearean theater; in The Sound of Murder, she’s onstage at a dinner theater; and in Oliver Twisted, she’s acting onboard a cruise ship. In this latest book (out June 21), I chose the cruise ship for a couple of reasons: I wanted Ivy to be away from her home in Phoenix and unable to get back if anything happened, and since I was using Dickens as a springboard, I wanted an environment that had two distinctly different socioeconomic classes (the vacationers and the ship’s crew). Plus cruise ships are just fun.

JULIANNE HOLMES, author of Just Killing Time: Setting the Clock Shop series in the Berkshires was my editor’s idea. But the town of Orchard was inspired by fate. I drove out to see a show at Double Edge Theatre while I was working on the proposal. The theater is located on a farm in Western MA, and I almost didn’t go, but decided that time alone in the car would be good for thinking. On my way home my GPS went a little wonky, and I took a route that I hadn’t taken on my way in. It is darker than the inside of a cow (a phrase my Maine friend Jo-Ann uses), so I trusted the GPS. After winding around a bit, I took a right at a fork and found myself in Orchard. Well, it was actually Willamsburg MA, but I decided with some rearranging it could be Orchard. A stone church, federal style house (that was now a bank), late 1800’s General Store, aluminum clad diner, one story grocery store—it was all there, but in the wrong places. I loved that the town had a main road, was very New England, but also had to be stumbled upon. I have gone back a few times for ideas, and I use the General Store as inspiration for the Cog & Sprocket—crowded, old, well worn, and wonderful. That said, I also explore the back alleys and dumpster locations—I need to figure out where to hide bodies and murder weapons. Fate was kind to me that day—I found the perfect setting for the series.

TESSA ARLEN, author of Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman: I write historical mysteries. And my characters populate the early 1900s.  I believe that writers who live in history do not choose their time period. It is often the other way around. I have always love the early 20th century. There was so much in flux, so much change and if we are talking about England… well historically we have always been slow to embrace change but somehow being an island race have always addressed those monumental issues with our own blend of offhand insouciance, which makes for great style. How could I not write about that fascinating time in a country on the cusp of change?

So far as setting is concerned, I am English so it is easy for me to write about my country’s history and a part of England that was at that time exquisitely pastoral. Iyntwood—the house in my novels—is an old Elizabethan house in a particularly beautiful part of England - the England I grew up in when I was not with my out-of-the-country parents.  Funnily enough I did not love England as a child, I often found it cold, reserved to the point of disinterest, and horribly alien after the tropics I was born in. I hated it as a teenager.  It is only now that I remember my life in England with love and the sort of yearning that only ex-patriats acquire after years of living in another country. They say you can never go back, and when I visit my sister and her family in the beautiful Weald of Kent I understand just how much my country has changed and that it is not the world I knew as a young woman. BUT I would love to live in the England of the early 20th century before WW1. The world of Kenneth Grahame and the simple, straight forward world of Wind In the Willows, where the countryside was still an idyllically beautiful place to live in. So I did the next best thing: I created it in my books.

ART TAYLOR, author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories: My book takes the title characters from Taos, New Mexico to Victorville, California, then up the coast to Napa Valley, across to Las Vegas, up to Williston, North Dakota, and finally eastward to North Carolina, Louise’s home state. Several stops on their journey were informed by some of our own travels; in fact, it was a visit to New Mexico that helped give birth to these characters in the first place, and the sticker-shock scene when Del and Louise see how much a Napa wine tasting is...well, that’s my wife and me right there, counting our pennies, so to speak. But elsewhere, other factors influenced setting. I chose Victorville by just picking a city from the map—and only later realized how appropriate it was to the adventures I’d been percolating on: Somehow I managed to set up Del in the real estate business in a town which became an unfortunate poster child for what happens when the real estate bubble bursts. And while I’d planned on taking them to South Dakota (which I myself have visited), North Dakota ended up being more appropriate—both because of certain very specific laws there and because of an actual crime that unfolded near Williston and that looms over their time there.

As for time itself: I began writing this during the thick of the Great Recession there in the late 2000s, and that economic turmoil added to the tensions that the characters were facing. I just stuck with it, even as the actual writing for the full book took me well beyond those years and into relatively more prosperous times. 

What prompted you to use the setting and time period for your latest book or series?


J.A. Hennrikus said...

Thank you for hosting us today! Isn't this fun? Can't wait to see you next week

Ellen Byron said...

This is great! Thanks, Art.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks for the comments here, Julie and Ellen--and for contributing in the first place! Can't wait to see y'all next week.

Unknown said...

Thanks to all - it's been great fun learning about everyone's books and writing processes.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks for chiming in, Cindy! See you soon!