A couple of weekends ago, I was on a panel at Malice Domestic, the mystery conference. Our moderator asked me and the other panelists about setting. How and why did we choose the places where we set our books? I said briefly that I had set my books in places that I know well – a fictional version of my hometown, Danville, Virginia, and a near-future version of Albany, New York, where I live and work. But it is more complicated than knowing these places well. The places I have set my books and short stories have been reshaped by my imagination.
In fact, the first book in my Lizzie Stuart series was set in London and Cornwall, England. Both I and my sleuth had been on vacation there. In the second book, Lizzie moved from her hometown in Kentucky to “Gallagher, Virginia”. She works at a fictional university and is now director of the fictional Institute for the Study of Southern Crime and Culture. She has left Gallagher several times in the five books in the series – going to Chicago, Wilmington, North Carolina and New Orleans in one book, and to the Eastern Shore of Virginia in another. In the next book, whenever I have a chance to finish it, she will be back in Gallagher after spending a few days in Santa Fe.
What is important about place in both the Lizzie Stuart novels and the novels featuring Police Detective Hannah McCabe is that my two protagonists have been shaped by the places where they grew up. Wherever she is in the world, Lizzie is a Southerner (as I am). Hannah McCabe is a New Yorker – upstate New York, not New York City, and that is an important distinction. Even though Lizzie is a graduate of the real-life School of Criminal Justice in Albany (the place where I now teach), she has no roots here. Even though McCabe may have cousins in the South, she would be out of place there.
In the Lizzie Stuart books, I began with Danville, the place where I grew up, wrote about in my dissertation, and in a local history about the Prohibition-era. I drew on Danville’s history and geography, and created “Gallagher”. Even though I have lived in Albany for almost three decades and done research on the city, I have needed to bring the Hannah McCabe novels to life in a world that I can never enter. In both series, setting is crucial to the stories I am telling. The geography, the pace of life, how the places are perceived by outsiders is what I try to capture in my books. Customs, culture, and ways of seeing the world shape the events.
I admire those authors who can write about a real place so truthfully that you can feel and smell and taste that place. That is want to do. But real places must be distilled and re-imagined as fictional worlds in which the events of stories happen. The longer I write, the more comfortable I am in my fictional worlds that overlap, draw from, and exist alongside the real world. The real world feeds my imagination, but doesn’t constrain it. I am telling stories that exist in the recent past or the near future. I am never in the here and now.
One of the pleasures of writing fiction – in contrast to my academic research and writing – is that I can make things up. But I love doing research. Therefore, I always begin with a set of facts and then twist them. The Red Queen Dies began with the story of the day that Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth were both in Albany and the stories behind Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. What the Fly Saw began with a famous blizzard, celebrations of life, megachurches, 19th century spiritualism, and virtual reality.
Recently, I wrote another short story set in an upstate village in 1948 featuring a new protagonist. Before writing this story, I had to learn what a “village” is as defined by New York State. This is not a concept that I grew up with in Virginia. I also spent some time in villages – visiting them with a friend who had grown up in New York and could help me to understand what they might have been like in the 1940s. At the same time, I needed to spend some time doing research on the historical era of post-World War II America. I needed to do all this so that the story I was telling would have the sense of place that I strive to achieve. Readers will let me know if I got it right.
Brief bio and links:
Criminologist Frankie Bailey has five books and two published short stories in a mystery series featuring crime historian Lizzie Stuart. The Red Queen Dies, the first book in a near-future police procedural series featuring Detective Hannah McCabe, came out in September, 2013. The second book in the series, What the Fly Saw came out in March 2015. Frankie is a former executive vice president of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of Sisters in Crime.
Website URL: www.frankieybailey.com
Amazon: What the Fly Saw
My Notes: Years ago, at the one and only Edgars Award dinner I ever attended, I sat next to Frankie Bailey. We had a nice conversation, bt I didn't really find out all this interesting information about her then.