Location, location, location

by Zoë Sharp


Well, I was intending to do another of those blogs about What I Did At Bouchercon, because there were a few stories there that deserve telling – getting mugged by a paramilitary evangelist in Baltimore Airport, for a start. And the museum exhibit designer we met on the plane on the way out, who turned out to be one of those people you instantly take to.

But then I read Dusty’s comments from yesterday about Not Another What I Did At Bouchercon Report, and realised I was going to have to come up with something new. And fast.


Aw, rats.


So, hello to everyone we met. It was a convention of delights for me. There are people I’ll never forget – mostly for the right reasons! And instead I’ll move to Monday night, New York City. We had dinner with Lee Child, SJ Rozan, and new Brit crime thriller author, Andrew Grant – who also happens to be Lee’s little brother. And the subject of location came up over goat biryani (don’t ask). “There have been very few series that have been truly successful in the States,” Lee said, “that haven’t been set here.”


Now, your first instinct is to deny this. But the more you think about it, the more it seems to hold true. There are the occasional exceptions, of course. Sherlock Holmes, for one. And Golden Age crime seems to demand an English country house setting, some time between the wars. But more recently …?


The only ones that immediately hit me are Jacqueline Winspear Maisie Dobbs books, although the time period puts it into a different, historical category. And Cara Black’s Aimée Leduc, not to mention our own Ken Bruen who has his Galway-set Jack Taylor series and the London-based Brant and Roberts books. But even Ken has experimented with US-set novels, like ONCE WERE COPS. There are one or two of the translated authors who are also making waves, such as Stig Larsson. But, others? It starts to get difficult to think of any. Although, I must admit that I’ve literally just got off an overnight redeye flight home, so it is possible that my brain is totally fried.

But, of all the really top authors in the US bestseller charts, I’m not sure I can think of any whose books are set elsewhere. And often, a writer will move his characters to the States partway through a series – I admit to doing this myself, at the behest of my US publisher. The first time it happened, for FIRST DROP, was coincidence. Charlie was working as a bodyguard and the idea for the plot hinged on the book being set during the Spring Break weekend at Daytona Beach. My current US editor read that book, liked it, and put in the request that Charlie might soon be working in America again soon. And when a publisher makes such a suggestion, an author generally takes it on board.

Fortunately, this conversation happened at a stage when I was changing publisher in the UK and my new house, Allison & Busby, were more than happy with the idea. Having Charlie living and working in America not only gives her the chance to carry – and often use – firearms that she would not otherwise get the opportunity to, but it also emphasises her status as an outsider, looking in.


So, the first part of this question is, do you think this is this is the case? Do you think a book has to be set in America to sell well in America. And, if not, why not? I need examples, people!

I have a trio of nice Words of the Week this week. The first is apricity, which is the warmth of the sun in winter. The second is balter, which is to dance clumsily. And the last – and I’m horrified to think this happens often enough to have its own word – is lant, which means to add urine to ale to make it stronger.

38 thoughts on “Location, location, location

  1. cait

    It may be true. I would like to think it is not, but it may be true.But I do know that it is not true in terms of what I like to read. A slightly exotic location, a different setting can be a lovely welcome addition to a story.

    Are we so attached to what is familiar?

  2. Jake Nantz

    Wow, you literally just got home? Okay, do not read comments, do not respond, do not pass go, but go directly to a comfy bed and REST.

    As to your question…yeah, I think you’re right, and I’m ashamed of the reasons I think so. I love Galway as Jack Taylor sees it, but I know what it looks like in my head and what it looks like in person are going to be WILDLY different. I’m okay with that, because my imagination and I are on good speaking terms.

    Sadly, considering what I see day-in and day-out in school tells me that that isn’t always the case. And I don’t just mean with my students, but also with many of my colleagues.

    I think people here are more than willing to imagine a fantastical world, because the author has to build that world and its rules and customs for the reader. But unfortunately I think many of my countrymen-and-women are less comfortable with a real culture outside their own. And I think the reason is that they don’t get much world-building in a real-world setting like that. A Russian author, for example, who is writing a mystery series set in Siberia but written in English, not translated to it (I know, but bear with me here) is not going to change the customs to fit American expectations, and shouldn’t. But that writer also isn’t going to stop and explain each one that comes up, because that’s what they grew up with and it probably wouldn’t occur that they’d NEED explaining. I would wager that many Europeans would be more familiar with some of those customs than those of us on this side of the pond. At least I would think so.

    And sadly, since Americans (in general, I know everyone is unique, but still) don’t tend to care as much about things outside their own little bubble, they don’t want to read about something they might get confused by or might just not care about.

    But again, I’m trying to look at it from the publishing standpoint, and I know maybe 1% of what you the authors know, so I could be way off base. I kinda hope so, to be honest.

  3. Karen Syed @ Echelon Press

    First, let me say that I am enjoying all the “What I did at Bouchercon” posts everywhere. I was there and I have stories of my own, but it is nice to hear what others did, how they reacted, and to know what is going on in the circles I don’t fall into.

    Second, and it it demands to be asked, paramilitary evangalist? Start talking!

    Karen Syedhttp://karensyed.blogspot.com

  4. B.G. Ritts

    Deborah Crombie’s Kincaid/James seriesElizabeth George’s Lynley/Havers series

    (And I enjoy all the B’con posts too. There’re all the happenings you don’t know about unless someone posts the story — it’s not possible to have been everywhere.)

  5. J.D. Rhoades

    Zoe, m’love, I didn’t mean I didn’t want anyone else to do a “what I did at Bouchercon” post. But I suck at them, because I always forget somebody or tell something someone didn’t want told.

    So, what’d you do at Bouchercon?

  6. Naomi

    Alexander McCall Smith’s Ramatswe/Dalhouise series

    Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series (although some take place in the U.S., correct?)

    Laurie King’s Mary Russell series


    Tana French’s Murder seriesLouise Penny’s Gamache series

  7. Marianne

    Okay, I’m standing by my novel set in England. I’m not gonna get depressed over it. 😀 But your thoughts on the subject have resonating depths on the state of social mores today. I’m an Aussie living in the USA writing about England. I’m widely traveled, and I’m constantly being surprised at how many of my experiences are making it into the text I’m writing. Fortunately, my protagonist has traveled as well, and her work as an artist can lead back to some of those places in future stories in the series.

    I think I can breath again now. 😀

    Great post, Zoe!

    And yes, I have perpetrated memories of Bouchercon to blog. A long con review and panel notes. Muse du Jour is the blogsite if anyone is interested.

    You guys have a great blog here. I think I’ll drop by a bit more often.cheers,Marianne

  8. Louise Ure

    I don’t want to know more about lant, but I adore apricity. I need that word.

    That foreign-setting question? I love reading books set in exotic (to me) locales, but am too often surprised by America’s ethnocentricity. We can be a small-minded group when we want to.

    I’m so pleased to see your Andrew Grant reference, too, Zoë. I met him at our Murderati party and asked if he’d like to do joint signing events next spring when both our books come out. Now, if I’d only remembered his connection to Lee! That would have been a bit more polite on my part. But he seems to be just as charming and just as good a writer.

  9. toni mcgee causey

    I love non-US settings; I suspect that the view of series-set-in-the-US being the more successful ones was true up until recently. But with the increase in blogs around the world, internet accessibility, globalization, I think we’re getting to a point where the foreign feels familiar and exciting at the same time, so I think that playing field is going to level over the next few years.

  10. Brett Battles

    Wow…never thought of it. Don’t know if it’s 100% true or not. Guess I’m hoping that it’s not since I love non-US settings, too! And in fact use them in each of my books (though my protag – Quinn – is based in California.)

    Hmmm, going to have to think about this one.

  11. j.t. ellison

    What a fun topic, Z. I love books set in places I’m unfamiliar with too — and try to stretch mine into unfamiliar territory. The last third of my new one takes place in Italy. But that’s not the same thing, really. I agree with Jake and Louise, we tend to be a bit self-involved, and that self-love tends to desire the familiar.

    But we love anything British. Post-colonialism at it’s worst. ; )

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Cait

    Personally, I like the mix. In both my last two books, the story has either started in the UK and then moved to America, or Charlie has made visits back there from the States.

    I hope, by including something familiar along with something strange, that people will pick up on the familiar, and trust my descriptions of the new place.

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jake

    Thanks for the suggestion! I’ve only just finally reached home and, trust me, the sleeping is not far away. If I can just stay awake another couple of hours, it will really help beat the jetlag.

    You raise some very interesting points. I invent locations within the framework of real places, because it makes any readers who have actually been to the places about which you’re writing, feel more involved and invested in the story. Often, the people who come up to me after signings, who’ve never read any of my books, make a decision on which one to read first based, not on chronological order, but on location. At least, if they don’t latch onto the story, the theory seems to be, they can enjoy the scenery.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, after the last eight years I’m still trying to figure out how the hell America votes for a President, so don’t ask me how anything else is decided here.

    I prefer British series set in Britain because you guys are just generally smarter and more purely wicked than we are. Sad, but true. And when I talk to other readers who are Anglophiles they’re just that. I don’t think it occurs to those of us with Brit fetishes to want to see British detectives in the U.S. I mean, why?

    I’m not even sure I can think of any book I’ve read with a British detective transplanted to the U.S.

    Wait a minute, Andrew is….?

    Oh, do I feel slow at this moment.

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Karen

    Yes, the story of the paramilitary evangelist may well have to be told. In fact, I could probably get a short story out of it …

    Honestly, I hate high-pressure selling of any description and just thinking about the monumental arrogance and hypocrisy of that woman makes my eyeballs start to boil. Everyone’s entitled to their own beliefs – with the emphasis on OWN.

    OK, deep breaths, I’m all calm again now … ;-]

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi BG

    Just shows how out of it I was this morning to have left out those two excellent suggestions. And, of course, the early John Rain books by Barry Eisler were largely set outside the States, although he hedged it by having Rain half Japanese and half American.

    How could I have left out Barry? Doh!

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison

    ‘I so didn’t need to know about “lant.” I may never drink keg beer again.’

    I’m sorry! Reminds me of the film ‘Broken Arrow’ with John Travolta stealing nuclear missiles. The name broken arrow is apparently how such missing armaments are codenamed. “I don’t know what’s scarier,” comments one character. “Losing nuclear weapons, or that it happens so often there’s actually a term for it.”

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dusty

    Well, one day I might just have to tell you the story of Tom Cain’s reaction to the Sweet ‘n’ Low joke, or how Stuart MacBride visits Hooters just for the food, or the explanation of the duct tape and Charles Benoit’s underpants, or Sophie Hannah’s experience with sushi, or the authors with ego.

    But it might not be in public … ;-]

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Naomi

    More excellent suggestions. Like the Maisie Dobbs books, though, Laurie R King’s Mary Russell series is historically set – does that make a difference, d’you think?

  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Marianne and welcome!

    Firstly, it was not my intention to depress anyone. It was a genuine enquiry to find out people’s opinions on the subject.

    And you have a unique perspective on several countries and cultures which you can use to inform your work.

    At the end of the day, I suppose it boils down to – write what you enjoy. Anything else is a bonus ;-]

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    ‘Apricity’ is a lovely one, isn’t it?

    And Andrew was a delight. I’m so glad you’ll be joining forces next spring. Best of luck to you both with the new books!

    I, too, love reading about exotic places, providing the book doesn’t turn into a travel guide thinly disguised as fiction ;-]

  22. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Brett

    Again, by having Quinn based somewhere familiar to a lot of your readers – California – you’re getting them to trust your descriptions of the unfamiliar locales you also use!

    Great to see you and Rob at B’con – and I promise to stop making those cracks about the pair of you … honest!

    It’s all out of my system now ;-]

  23. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    Hope you’re feeling somewhat better, now. We really missed you in Baltimore!

    I loved the section of your latest set in Italy. You clearly know the place well and have really captured the feel of it.

    I’m always fascinated to learn how visitors to the UK really see us, so books set in the UK, but with non-UK characters are always interesting to me!

  24. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    As Charlie is indeed a Brit transplanted to the US, it’s discouraging to know I may have misjudged my potential readership to such an extent … ;-]

    But thank you for expressing such an honest opinion. I thought US readers might find it interesting to have things they see every day and take for granted – and therefore don’t really ‘see’ any more – looked at from a slightly alien perspective.

    Definitely food for thought.

  25. cait

    See, I think the ‘familiar’ of a book to the reader should be the common human experience of the characters and the reader…then the physical location, something a little unusual to the reader, should just be icing on the cake.

    And I like icing on my cake!

  26. Cara

    Thanks for the mention, Zoë! Great seeing you too, albeit briefly at Bcon. I’m thinking Donna Leon if no one else mentioned her.PS JT how did I miss you?


  27. Eileen Kavanagh

    Maybe I misunderstod the comment. But British mysteries set in Great Britain have been popular here for a very long time. Just off the top of my head (besides those already mentioned): Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Reginald Hill, Denise Mina, Dorothy L. Sayers. From and in France, we had Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret. I realize that some of these aren’t exactly current. But some of us can’t wait for the new Dalziel and Pascoe (less than three weeks!) and I was excited to see that Denise Mina will be the international guest of honor at Bouchercon 2010.

  28. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Z, the point is –

    A – as Billy Joel would say, “Don’t go changin’, to try to please me… etc, etc, etc, – I love you just the way you are.”

    (And as long as you’re British, I don’t care where you are, which BJ didn’t say.)

    And B – I’m just not a representative sample.

  29. Catherine

    I’m not sure if I’m understanding this correctly…but is the argument in favour of American locations for American readers due to a supposed need for the familar?

    I’m looking at this from a fairly considerable distance so maybe there is a collective understanding of United States that I’m missing. It doesn’t make sense to me that American culture is homogenised to the point where an American location becomes more favoured by publishers. I think there is a broad range of regional differences that personally I enjoy.Isn’t it the nuances that make it interesting?

    For example wouldn’t New Orleans seem really alien to someone that has never left New York,NY? How does this become more favourable than a book set in another country?

    That said I think the existence of the word, ‘lant’ is a really good incentive to drink only wine.

  30. Zoë Sharp

    Thanks to all of you who posted after I’d crashed last night. By the time we finally called it a day, we’d been on our feet and/or travelling for 35 hours straight and anything I might have written in reply to further comments would likely have been gibberish anyway … ;-]


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