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.


Pat R. said…
I am anxious to read the next Poke Rafferty book. The opening scene sounds like something that will haunt the reader -
Marja McGraw said…
I have to agree with Pat. The handprint scene is a great hook, and good writing. Interesting blog, and thank you for sharing.
Kevin R. Tipple said…
Good stuff. Years ago I got a direct lesson on how setting would be different for different people based on their life experiences. I became good friends with a guy who was a native Californian and, because of his wife's job, forced to move to Texas and this same complex. I'm a native Texan.

When we drove down the street, especially when we went into some places that weren't the best, what he saw and what I saw were two very different worlds. The same thing happened here at home or dealing with store folks or whatever. There was a race angle to everything but it went far beyond that.

What we were and are as people, deep inside, drove how we perceived the setting--often in some very opposite ways.
WS Gager said…
Tim: This post may have been about setting but you gave us a great lesson about hooking the reader. I can't wait to read your Poke books and explore Bangkok.
W.S. Gager on Writing
Earl Staggs said…
I greatly respect authors who can write setting as a character and not an info dump, and you're one of them, Tim. I hope you include the children's handprint scene. It's awesome.
Jean Henry Mead said…
THE QUEEN OF PATPONG is one of my favorite novels and I look forward to reading the Jumior Bender series.
john M. Daniel said…
Can't wait to start reading your work, Tim, once the dust settles. I plan to start with Little Elvises.
Everett Kaser said…
Everett's Grand-Unification Theory of Story Writing: EVERYTHING is Character. Characters, of course, but also setting, time period, events, they'd ALL better flesh-out, inform, shape and drive the characters of the stories, or they're dead weight.

A tree's a tree. But a tree in the desert is a very different thing from a tree in a rain forest or along a coastline or on a mountain top. Some are ravaged by sun, some are ravaged by wind, and some are gently nurtured in every way. Some are burnt in forest fires, while others are eaten by insects, and others are cut down and sawn into lumber. Some live thousands of years and witness the rise and fall of hundreds of civilizations, while others live far less than a century and barely manage to shed a handful of seedpods.

But if a tree lives and dies in a forest, and no one writes about it, do any readers care?
Hi, everybody, and thanks for being so nice. As it turns out, the scene did make the cut - so far, at least; the book is still with my editor -- and the handprints are explained at the end of the chapter. One of the peculiar things about writing with no outline whatsoever is that things like the handprints suddenly pop up, and often they turn out to be the most important detail. These weren't that important in turn of story, but they provided the emotional note the end of the scene needed.

I used to assign my students to write a description of a street we all knew -- the last block of Washington Boulevard before it ends at the Pacific Ocean -- from the point of view of someone who's going to meet someone she loves, someone who's just had a bad medical prognosis, and someone who thinks there may be a person between him and the beach who wants to kill him. It really animated their descriptions and also provided them with multiple points of entry into the story.
Cindy Sample said…
Very thoughtful post. I love the Poke Raffety series and always feel like I've been transported to Bangkok, experiencing all aspects of that city. The scene with the hand prints is absolutely (had to use an adverb) masterful. I can't wait to start the new series. Thanks for the great advice.
Heather Haven said…
I think I've just become a Poke fan! I'm on my way out to buy a Poke Rafferty book. Love trailing along on this mystery tour, too!
Neil Plakcy said…
Yet another example of great writing! Thanks, Tim.
M.M. Gornell said…
Poke and Junior, what interesting characters, Timothy. And the two settings--perfect. Great post, a lot to take from it.

Anonymous said…
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Anonymous said…
Great post, Tim. I'm with you all the way when it comes to setting, and your blog is helpful.

Also helpful is the comment from Kevin Tipple, a native Texan, about how he and a friend who moved to Texas from California, saw the same places in different way -- "What we were and are as people, deep inside, drove how we perceived the setting--often in some very opposite ways."

I never realized it before but as a re-planted Okie I see everything in terms of California. Good character material there -- we are not always happy where we are because of where we've been.

Best to both you and Marilyn --

Pat Browning
Anonymous said…
Oops! That "comment removed by author" was just me. I somehow managed to post the same thing twice.
Pat Browning
Alice Duncan said…
One of the things I loved best about LITTLE ELVISES and THE FOUR LAST THINGS was the setting. I grew up in So. CA, and reading those books was like taking a tour of places I miss (some of them more than others). Good job, Tim!
Anne K. Albert said…
You had me from 'The same setting is different to different people'. What a great lesson and writing tip all wrapped into one. Thank, Tim.

Those handprints scare me!
Patricia Gligor said…
I enjoyed reading this post on setting the scene. What Timothy said is so true; each of us experiences our setting in a different way. I loved the excerpt about the children's' grimy hand prints. Those few words were so intriguing that they made me want to read the novel.
Prentiss Garner said…
Tim, I love your Poke books!
Thank you one and all who have visited today and read and commented on Timothy's post.

Jackie King said…
Wonderful post, Tim. I'm looking forward to reading through your series very soon.
Wow, I go write for a few hours and come back to all this niceness. Marilyn, you draw a great crowd.

Pat and Marja, thanks for the praise. I never know what's going to show up on the page and it's always great to have these errant impulses (I hesitate to call them inspirations) validated.

Kevin, thanks for such a precise real-life example of what I was trying to say. One person's neighborhood can be another person's war zone, and the writer who fails to use the setting to illuminate characters wastes a resource that can be extremely valuable.

Wendy, thanks for the "hook" comment. Planting a hook at the beginning of a scene, as well as at the beginning of a book, can be a great technique as long as it remains honest and doesn't get all tricksy.

Earl, Jean, and John, my fellow blog tourists (tourers?) - you guys are all turning out such good quality, in books and blogs alike. I have to admit that I looked ahead to this with a twinge of dread, but it's turned out to be a great experience.

Everett, spot on, as usual. Everything is character. Plot is what characters do. Dialogue is what characters think. Setting is how characters experience place -- otherwise, it's scenery, not setting. We (I, anyway) read for character and pretty much only for character. Nice stuff about the trees, too.

Thanks to Cindy for being such an enthusiastic Poke fan and to Heather for thinking of becoming one and to Neil for ongoing support that always makes me feel better.

I'll be back in a bit to finish this up, but I just realized where a scene in the new Junior is going and I want to get it down before I forget it.

Y'all are great.
lil Gluckstern said…
I liked your assignment to your students about how character defines the story, Tim. I bet the waters off the Santa Monica pier affect the character, thought, differently from the waters in Thailand which I can still feel. I even have some nostalgia for the trees and rocks of Joshua Tree. You are a just a very fine writer.
I'm back, after a great day of writing and reading your comments.

Like yours, Madeline -- greatly appreciated. Don't we have the greatest job in the world, getting to think these people up and then live with them?

Thank you, Pat -- having read ABSINTHE OF MALICE, I'm not sure you need any help with setting, but I'll take praise where I can get it.

To Patricia, thanks to you, as well-- if I had any doubt about whether to keep the scene in, this would resolve it. (The explanation for the handprints is pretty good, although once again, I have no idea where it came from.)

Alice and Anne, you're really supportive, and don't think it's not appreciated. The most recent book tried to kill me for months, and my confidence is still in a full-body cast. (Thanks also for the nice words about LITTLE ELVISES and FOUR LAST THINGS, Alice.)

Prentiss, so glad you like Poke and his family. Hope you like the new one, which is the one with the little handprints in it.

Jackie and Lil, we all have to stop meeting like this, although I can't think of a reason not to continue.

And finally, thanks to you, Marilyn, for hosting me and for bringing so many nice people to the party. This has been phenomenal.

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