Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Setting: Do We Really Need to Go There? By Gail Lukasik

Today I am very pleased to introduce Gail Lukasik, a mystery author I met online through the Five Star author group. Raised in the working class city of Parma, Ohio, Gail spun stories to entertain her friends and family but at the time did not seriously consider pursuing a career as a writer. Although she never stopped writing, keeping journals, writing poems and short stories, it wasn’t until she won a prize in a national poetry contest in 1974, that she thought she had what it took to be a professional writer.

Besides writing novels, Gail continues to teach creative writing as an occasional guest lecturer at Roosevelt University in Chicago and at various venues throughout the Chicago area.


Setting: Do We Really Need to Go There? By Gail Lukasik

At a recent Literary Festival an audience member asked the panel a question about setting. “Do you visit the places where your books are set?” All the mystery authors on the panel, myself included, agreed that it was important to physically experience the places you write about.

On the other hand, I once heard a New York Times best selling thriller author admit that he never visits the settings of his books. He did once and found it wasn’t necessary. As far as he was concerned it made no difference to the success of his books.

So what is gained by visiting a setting? And is it always necessary to visit a book’s setting?

Before writing The Lost Artist, I decided to set a major portion of the book in southern Illinois because of its connection to the Trail of Tears. In the winter of 1838 and 1839 about 9,000 Cherokee became trapped in southern Illinois between the Ohio and Mississippi River during their forced march to Oklahoma. After doing extensive research about the northern route through Illinois, I decided that I needed to see it, especially the Camp Ground Cemetery where it is reported the Cherokee where buried in unmarked graves.

The trip took me seven-hours and was well worth it. What I discovered by visiting the site of the northern route of the Trail of Tears not only helped me create the book’s moody, ominous atmosphere, but also surprisingly gave me plot elements I hadn’t anticipated.

Prior to visiting I knew that the unmarked Cherokee graves would be a part of the book’s plot. But not until I walked that cemetery on a blistering June day, snapping photographs, reading the tombstones, and scoping out the landscape did I figure out how the setting and plot would come together.

Near the edge of the cemetery was an ancient oak tree, which must have been there for hundreds of years even before the cemetery was officially founded in 1836. That immense shadowy tree went into the book’s prologue. I imagined it tumbling over, its roots revealing an empty grave. Thus was born the book’s opening sentence: “The empty grave changed everything.”

Reading the tombstones was like walking back through time. One tombstone in particular caught my eye. The engraving was worn, nearly unreadable. But when I looked closely I saw the letters were crudely carved as if grief had shaken the hand of the carver. That simile came from the sensory experience of being there that day.

Standing on the Illinois side of the Ohio River and seeing the watery distance the Cherokee had to cross in winter was another visual touchstone as was the road sign “Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers” posted a half mile from the Vienna Correctional Center, as was the turbulent landscape—rolling hills, dense woods, flat farmland, and the verdant smell of wet grass and unrelenting heat.

When I visited the Newberry Library in Chicago, a setting for a crucial scene, I discovered in the fellows’ carrel a black sweater hanging over one of the chairs, a calendar of Chinese poetry, and an unexpected bonus—that day the Newberry was preparing for an evening wedding. Tiny tea lights festooned the marble steps leading to the first floor. Hurricane lanterns adorned the ledges. I used the details in the fellows’ carrel to deepen my characterization of a major character. The evening wedding became a plot element solving a problem of how the murderer was able to by-pass security to enter the Newberry.

But I admit that I wasn’t able to visit every setting in The Lost Artist, which has multiple settings and two time periods—present day and the nineteenth century. Case in point, a scene set in the Great Smoky Mountains. Because the setting wasn’t pivotal to the book, I fudged a bit, studying photographs of the area. Then I used my writer’s imagination. I’ve been in the mountains, just not those particular mountains. But if the Great Smoky Mountains had been the main setting for The Lost Artist, I would have made a trip there.

So should a writer visit the settings of her books? If it’s the main setting of your book, I believe you owe it to your readers to go there, experience the place, and put that in your books. Not only does it enhance your audience’s reading experience, but it also makes your writing flow from a place of authority and authenticity.


Gail, thanks so much for being my guest blogger today. I like to write about places I've visited or lived, and when we do that, setting becomes one of the book's characters in a way. In spite of that, I've often included places I've never been and relied on my research and photos on the Internet to fill in the blanks.

To learn more about Gail Lukasik and her mysteries, visit her website.


lizy-expat-writer said...

Interesting blog, Patricia. I set one of my books in a town I know well, and another in an imaginary one. I think if you use a real place you should see it to get the full flavour into your writing, but not all places are that easily reached. I shall be flying to Canada this year for the first time and maybe that will go into my next book!

Cindy Keen Reynders said...

Great post! I enjoy visiting settings in my books when I can, but for imaginary settings I also rely on good research and imagination. Thanks for sharing!

Gail Lukasik said...

One of the perks of being an author is incorporating vacations site into your book. A trip to Canada sounds perfect.

I haven't used imaginary settings, but I have created imaginary restaurants, hotels, and houses.

Patricia Stoltey said...

One thing I learned from my book submissions is that even if you use a real city, it's better to create fictitious restaurants, hotels, shops, etc. Then you don't need to ask anyone's permission to use their establishment. Besides, fictitious is so much easier to work into a story. :D

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Fear of lawsuits has made me careful about using real names for certain places. However, big city locations are different. In Death Legacy, I used real locations in New York City and Washington D.C. that I know very well. As Gail says, it's necessary for the sake of authenticity.

Gail Lukasik said...

Jacqueline, you're right about the fear of lawsuits. That has made me super cautious about hotels and restaurants. And like you said, Pat, then you don't need to ask permission.

Jemi Fraser said...

Excellent post. I tend to set my stories in imaginary locations near larger centers because of this reason. I need to know the place to write about it. I did have my characters visit a real city in wip, but Google was very helpful for that scene :)

Alana said...

Hi, my forthcoming historical mystery titled The Sign of the Weeping Virgin is set in Renaissance Florence during the 15th century. I feel so fortunate to have been able to go to Florence several times now. I feel that helped me describe the atmosphere, take note of the time it takes to walk places, and so much more. (Not to mentioning trying the wonderful gelato!) "Being there" has inspired plot and settings, and so much more.