Setting the Scene by Timothy Hallinan
Marilyn asked that we write about setting, which is lucky for me because it's something I think about incessantly. I want to open with a generalization: The same setting is different to different people. That's one of the most wonderful things about it
Specifically, I'm fortunate in that I write two series, both of which have rich settings.
The Poke Rafferty mysteries, the most recent of which is THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, center on an American “rough travel” writer who's settled in Bangkok and is trying to build a family with the former bar worker he married and the little girl he and his wife have adopted off the streets. Bangkok is one of God's gifts to a writer looking for a setting, one of the most energetic, contradictory, exotic (and sometimes surprisingly ordinary) places on earth.
My other hero, Junior Bender, on the other hand, lives in the San Fernando Valley, which, at first sight doesn't seem as promising as Bangkok; I doubt that few people would call the Valley, which is essentially one big, declining suburb, fascinating. But Junior is a crook—he's a top-of-the-line burglar who moonlights as a private eye for other crooks—and the Valley he experiences is not only fascinating, but also occasionally hair-raising. The little stucco house on the corner, the one with the dusty ivy surrounding it, looks quite different to someone when he's walking up to the door with no idea whether he'll be alive a moment after it opens. Quite a lot of the new Junior book, LITTLE ELVISES, happens in the richest, whitest, dullest part of the Valley, the expensive streets above Ventura Boulevard. But to Junior, this is where the crime lords live.
Let me go back to that opening generalization. The same setting is different to different people.
To Poke Rafferty, trying to create the first real home he's ever had, Bangkok is endlessly surprising, often threatening, and frequently bewildering. As a middle-class American, he's keenly aware that he doesn't really know the rules. To his wife, Rose, it's the city she ran to when she had to abandon her small village in the northeast to make money for her family, both bitter and sweet at the same time. To their daughter, Miaow (like the sound a cat makes), who was abandoned on a Bangkok sidewalk at the age of three, it's a city she learned at knee-level, and a city full of escape routes. Small, unprotected children need a lot of escape routes.
But the two continuing themes in the series are the main characters' effort to make their mismatched little family work, and Poke's attempt to really enter the world of Bangkok. He's written books on The Philippines and Indonesia, but he's aware that he saw those cultures as though they were on the other side of a department-store window; and now, to make his marriage work (and, at times, just to stay alive) he has to find a way through the glass.
Junior grew up in the San Fernando Valley, but he didn't begin to see the crook's map until he was about eighteen. Different kinds of people superimpose different maps on the same place, and Junior's map is a map of opportunity and risk. And also sadness; he has a failed marriage that's separated him from his 13-year-old daughter, Rina. The fact that he has Rina to worry about gives him yet another map of the Valley—the map of potential peril for a teenage girl.
So in my books, whether we're jostling through the crowds and smelling the street food on a hot Bangkok sidewalk or driving down Ventura Boulevard in the curious isolation imposed by the automobile, I'm trying not only to present the setting, but also to present it as my character—whichever character it is—experiences it. If I don't succeed at that, I'm wasting one of the most valuable assets a writer has, which is, of course, setting. It's not just where your characters are. It's a reflection of your characters.
One final thought, on a practical level for writers. My first editor, who is now my agent, used to send my manuscripts back to me all marked up, and one of his most frequent questions was (and still is),”What are we seeing?” It's a great question, and asking it frequently will often give me the entry point to a scene.
In the Poke book I'm writing right now, THE FEAR ARTIST, I've finally gotten to the scene in which the past will open up and Poke will begin to understand the threat of the present. We're in the one-room Bangkok apartment of two fugitive Vietnamese women who have good cause to fear that something ravenous is after them, because it is.
I decided to open the scene with a look at the room, and this is what came to me. (I wrote this only yesterday, so it may not actually wind up in the book, but for now it'll make a point.)
The room is a sickly green not found in nature, pale and spectral in the overhead fluorescents. All the way around the room, about three feet from the floor, as though left by an army of invisible children, are hundreds of tiny, grimy handprints. They seem to jump and twitch in the fluorescents' flicker.
Rafferty can't keep his eyes off the handprints. He keeps asking himself where the children are.
I have no idea yet where the handprints came from, but these women have lost their entire world, and it makes perfect sense for them to live surrounded by the marks of vanished children. It's just the setting for a conversation, but it will probably end up being part of the conversation.
Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar- and Macavity-nominated author of the Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers, published traditionally, and the Junior Bender mysteries, which are ebook originals. Earlier this year, he conceived and edited a volume of original short stories by twenty first-rate mystery writers, SHAKEN: STORIES FOR JAPAN, which is available for the Kindle at $3.99, with every penny of the price going to the 2011 Japan Relief Fund. (Please buy it.) He lives in Santa Monica and Southeast Asia, and he is lucky enough to be married to Munyin Choy.