Location is a character.

by Alexandra Sokoloff

One of the things that you hear ad nauseum in Hollywood story meetings is:  “And I think Seattle (Rome, San Francisco, New York, L.A., Akron) should be a character in this movie!”

Not that it’s a bad note (although it’s funny how you can predict who will say it, and how you, the writer, must always pretend that it’s the most brilliant and startling idea you’ve ever heard).   It’s just that to me this is so obvious I don’t know why anyone would ever have to bring it up.   It’s like saying your story needs a plot.

Of course the location is a character.

This is excruciatingly crucial when, like I do, you write on the supernatural side, and it must seem that the very land and/or city, and/or house (or in my current WIP, boat), and elements are conspiring against the human characters.   There are vast forces at work, and they have their own intelligence.

But it’s not just in my genre.  I think one of the key promises of a novel, any novel, any genre, is that it takes you, the reader, away from wherever you are.   That’s one of the main reasons we read, isn’t it?    And even when you, the writer, are writing the darkest of dark stories – set in a prison, or in the middle of war, or an impoverished country, or a supernatural dystopia, your reader, for whatever twisted reason, is picking up that book to BE THERE.    And it is one of your non-negotiable jobs as an author, or filmmaker, to take them there – completely out of their own body, their own house, their own city, their own reality, and into yours.

“Yours”  being the operative word, here, because it’s not enough to say that the story is set in Boston and leave it at that.   It has to be your Boston, or your character’s Boston.

“What is it about Boston for you?” a friend asked me recently, as I just finished another book set there.

It’s true, Boston is one of MY cities.   Along with London, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Death Valley.   Well, that’s not a city.   But you know.   

My friend really asked the key question, the question every writer should always ask her or himself about the location of his or her story:   “What is it about Boston (or whatever)  for you?”

Boston is one of those places that I fell in love with the instant I landed in it.    It is so twisted, Boston – literally and figuratively… the streets were built along meandering cow paths.    They make no sense at all.    You round a corner and you could be anywhere.   Or anytime.

And then all of that history – the cradle of the Revolution! – and intellect, and literature, and music, and art, and cathedrals, and witches.

Aha.   That’s a lot of my personal take about Boston, right there.

For someone like me, obsessed as I am with the devil, Boston is a gold mine.   I can write stories about the devil and witches walking around in that city, with the utmost confidence and realism, because they have, and they do.

Here’s another example.   Synchronistically, this post turns out to be a great follow up to J.T.’s delicious account of her trip to Napa.    Napa is (in spades!) a region with character.   It reminds me of the overwhelming influence of the vineyards and wine-tasting imagery  that Alexander Payne portrayed to perfection about Central California’s wine country, Sideways.    For native Californians, Payne hit every iconic location he could cram into that story; we have all done all of those things, repeatedly  (the only thing he left out was the Madonna Inn, which is a whole movie in itself.)   The themes of alcoholism and creative inspiration and California excess are pillars of the movie, and the wedding and road trip themes are also completely in line with the mythology of wine country (if I had a dollar for every vineyard wedding I’ve attended… every road trip I’ve taken through Central California… ).    And it’s no accident that the characters are a (failed) writer and a (failed) actor – that is mythically  Californian.    Payne captured the unmistakable character of that region, as well as making it his own.    If you want to know what it’s like to live in California, watch that movie.

My new thriller, The Unseen (out this month, for all of you who have been waiting with bated breath) has North Carolina as its character location, and oh, boy, is it a character.   Now, I could not have begun to do that story justice from the point of view of a native Southerner  – because in case you haven’t noticed, they’re all crazy.  πŸ˜‰

But I could tell it from the point of view of a fish out of water, a Californian transplanted to the South, and experiencing the whole state for the first time.   And that point of view I think achieves a quality of isolation and alienation that’s very useful in a supernatural thriller.

 Doing my research and being true to the reality of the place was, for me, key.    The story is based on real-life experiments done in the Rhine parapsychology lab on the Duke University campus,  and I could not have asked for a more Gothic and spooky and atmospheric college to play with.    I felt like I was tripping, walking around that school for the first time, it’s that perfect for the book.   

The overwhelming forests of North Carolina (I’ve never seen so many trees in my life) were another great atmospheric element.   You can hide virtually anything in those damn trees.   For a child of the Southern California desert it’s terrifying not to be able to see vistas, and those endless forests are the labyrinth (with all of its mystical implications) that is so much a part of my personal thematic imagery.

Since the story is about a poltergeist house, I had to create a poltergeist house that was absolutely a character in its own right.    One that I could know the shape of like I know the lines in my hand – every room and hall and stairway and imprint.

And because writing is magic, I found the absolute perfect haunted mansion:  the Weymouth Center, and was actually able to live there for a whole week.

It’s a  real haunted house with an awesome backstory; it was one of the “Yankee Playtime Plantations”, the Southern manors that were bought up after the war by newly moneyed Northerners and turned into hunting lodges and sex retreats.   I mean, vacation houses.    This one was also a hangout for literary lions such as F. Scott Fitzgerald,  Thomas Wolfe, Sherwood Anderson,  and “editor of genius” Max Perkins.

And oh, you bet that vibe permeates the manor and grounds.   The house is not just creatively inspiring in the day and completely terrifying at night… it’s  also a total turn-on.   My haunting turned much more erotic than I was expecting, because that’s what was actually there in the mansion.   Really.   It has nothing to do with me.

We are so lucky that as authors our job includes traveling to and
experiencing as many different places as we can get to.   Free research!   We are even more lucky that so many of the conferences and conventions we attend (Left Coast Crime, Bouchercon, ALA, PLA, World Horror Con, World Fantasy Con, Romantic Times, Romance Writers of America National)  “force” us to travel to different cities every year, thus providing whole universes of research with the price of admission.   If you’ll take a look, every single one of those cons goes all out to provide field trips specific to the city and area, as well as seminars and field trips by, for example: law enforcement officials who speak about the particular issues they deal with on their turf and famous criminals and crimes of the region;  ghost walks through the cities; and tours of the host city’s most interesting features (like the underground street in Seattle at a recent  LCC).   No matter how overbooked I am at a conference, I never miss the city tours and local law enforcement tracks.

It’s a beautiful system.   We can promote our books, meet with our agents and editors, and do all our location research in one weekend.

Because you never know when you’re going to need the character of  Denver.   Or Phoenix.   Or Napa.   Or Madison.   Or Indianapolis.   Or New Orleans.   Or the Big Island.   Or….

So tell me, ‘Rati writers and readers.   What are your favorite cities, or regions?   What books and authors portray location as character particularly well?   What do you authors do to create the character in your location?  Or what convention have you been to that’s given you the best character introduction to a city you’ve ever had?

– Alex

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors

26 thoughts on “Location is a character.

  1. R.J. Mangahas

    I agree that Boston really is a great city in so many ways.Although, those twisted streets that make no sense can be frustrating to drive if you have no idea what you’re doing. I stuck with public transportation for two main reasons: the xost was cheaper, and it was a great way to observe people for character research.

    There was a great line in one of Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie/Genaro books (for the life of me I can’t remember which one) where he was describing what it was like driving up Beacon Hill. It was something along the lines of being halfway up, and then Beacon Hill deciding it doesn’t like you (wrong turn or in wrong lane) . So it kicks you off (end up where you started).

    As far as a city giving a great introduction, I would have to say it was Baltimore. Just by the buildings alone, you could really see the history there. And of course the night time visit I took to Poe’s grave. I definitely felt something there. It does seem like however, that the city streets wanted to mess with us the night we walked to Red Emma’s. As soon as someone (I don’t remember if it was Gary, Chris or Ken) said "It’s only a couple of blocks, let’s walk," I have this distinct feeling that Baltimore kept throwing in an extra block when we were close to the end of one.

  2. Liz

    I freaking love Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole/Joe Pike series. He makes Los Angeles as much its own character as either of them. It wouldn’t be the same without the setting.

  3. Rae

    Completely agree with Liz about Robert Crais. I’m not a fan of LA, but when I read about it through Elvis Cole’s eyes, I want to live there.

    Another writer who gets place as character beautifully well is Lawrence Block. I can’t imagine Matt Scudder anywhere but New York – the books in my view are as much about New York as they are about Scudder; and Small Town is one of my top ten all-time favorite books.

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    That’s really funny about Beacon Hill, RJ. I’ve had that experience myself but I didn’t know it was a legend of the city! I love that.

    Yeah, I should know better than to ever trust a man who says "it’s only a few blocks." That’s about as true as when they say…

    Well, never mind that.

  5. Rae

    Alex, if you haven’t read Crais, you should. Start with The Monkey’s Raincoat and read the series in order – there are a couple of story arcs that play out over several books. I bet you’ll love it.

  6. Sylvia

    Different writers have brought different parts of the world to me that I’ve never been to: P.J. Tracy – Minnesota; Louise Ure – Tuscon & Phoenix + the border; Cornelia Read – Syracuse; GM Ford – Seattle… the list goes on. I think of those places and I immediately think of the characters who ‘live’ there. Funny though that anything in NYC simply feels "yeah, NYC".

  7. Debby J

    No one does southern Louisiana better than James Lee Burke. Makes me homesick every time I open one of his books. You can almost smell the rain falling and the gumbo cooking.

  8. Pammy D

    No one does Southern Louisiana better than Murderati’s own Toni McGee Causey! And, I agree that you must read Robert Crais.

  9. Pammy D

    No one does southern Louisiana better than Murderati’s own Toni McGee Causey! And, I agree that you must read Robert Crais.

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I agree with your list, Sylvia! I think most authors who write NYC don’t get across the absolute density of people in that city. Maybe if you’ve lived there for a long time you just don’t notice, but to me, beyond all the great things that are in that city, that density is the overwhelming quality of it.

  11. Pari

    The reason I wrote my first series was to celebrate NM. I use my character, Sasha, as an outsider so that she discovers each new town or area in the state with a fresh eye. However, she’s a New Mexican through and through and her love of the place (and mine) comes through in every book.

  12. L.C. McCabe

    Er – I have a correction to make.

    The movie Sideways was set in California Wine Country, but not in Napa County. It was set in the Santa Barbara area.

    Santa Barbara is only a few hours drive from Los Angeles and a bit farther from San Diego (which is where the lead character Miles was from.)

    That does not negate the central point of your post where you discuss the idea of Napa and/or any wine growing region as being considered worthy of being a character in and of itself.

    I know, because I live in the Sonoma County, which to me is *The* California Wine Country. There is an intense rivalry with our neighboring county to the east known as Napa and I am a proud Sonoma County partisan.

    In the words of winemaker Tommy Smothers:

    "Sonoma makes wine.

    Napa makes…auto parts."

  13. Allison Brennan

    What, you HAVEN’T read Robert Crais? Sheesh . . . πŸ˜‰

    Michael Connelly does LA extremely well. And JD Robb does future New York extremely well πŸ™‚ I’m not a big location writer. I wrote a couple books set in places I’ve never been and finally decided to set my books in Sacramento because, well, I don’t have to think about setting as hard. I’m a bit nervous about the Lucy Kincaid series. It’s set on the east coast–at least the first three books. After that, I guess I can move her anywhere . . .

    And THE UNSEEN is incredible. I couldn’t put it down. The location wasn’t AS important (IMO) as the setting–the haunted house. That house came to life. GREAT book.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    L.C., I didn’t say Sideways was set in Napa,., (I know it’s not!), I said Jt’s post was, but I can see from rereading my own post how you would have thought that.

    I get your ire, though. Hearing "Frisco" and "Cali" always sets my teeth on edge.

  15. Murderati

    An erotic haunted house. I can not WAIT for this book.

    Colorado is one of those mythic places for me – mountains and trees. Boston, definitely. New York. Nashville, obviously, because that’s where I chose to set my books. The beach where I spent my summers in Florida. Florence, Italy, without a doubt. There are so many… But it always comes back to the woods. I grew up in a forest, and though I hate to camp, I’m never happier than when I’m wandering through trees. I guess I prefer the labyrinth. Hmm… that’s interesting.

  16. L.C. McCabe


    Thanks for the clarification. I re-read it as well and realized I may have been a bit hasty and jumped to Conclusions. (My favorite pun from Norton Juster’s classic book The Phantom Tollbooth BTW.)

    I agree with your dislike of "Frisco" and "Cali." Same thing with "San Fran." Those who live around San Francisco all know that it is referred to as "The City."

    I remember a few years ago hearing about two out-of-town criminals being questioned by police in the East Bay. They made the mistake of saying they were from "Frisco." Their choice of bad lingo ruined what might have been a plausible alibi, and that was what made the story "newsworthy."

    Tee hee.


  17. Mittany

    "The overwhelming forests of North Carolina (I’ve never seen so many trees in my life) were another great atmospheric element. You can hide virtually anything in those damn trees. For a child of the Southern California desert it’s terrifying not to be able to see vistas, and those endless forests are the labyrinth (with all of its mystical implications)"

    Amen sister! As a Northern California Native – and long term Phoenician, you have caught the suffocating feeling of the trees, exactly.

    My favorite locations include San Francisco (so easy to stay incognito), Jerome Az (who can you tell the out-of-place from those who’ve taken themselves "off-line"?), New Orleans – ’cause it has fetid breath behind perfect teeth … and the ghost towns of the gold rush. Who’s going to argue with placement of buildings and streets that no longer exist?

  18. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Linda, I really should go in and rewrite the post to clarify further, so I don’t piss off any Sonomans. πŸ˜‰

    That’s funny about the NON-native Northern California criminals. Karma!

  19. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Mittany, we have very similar tastes in locations. I love anything to do with the Gold Rush, and New Orleans is one of my favorite cities on the planet. I’m actually afraid to write about it because of everything lurking there, though. Not sure I’m ready to open THAT particular door, yet.

  20. Allison Brennan

    Alex, I probably screwed up my adopted hometown. But I had fun doing it. But the Fox & Goose is honestly one of the best restaurants downtown and they do have Guinness on tap, so if you’re ever here, I’ll take you, my treat πŸ™‚


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