I've always been a fan of regional writing. I remember fantasizing about pirates and Caribbean islands when reading Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island as a kid. And I could feel the cloud of dust and hear the hooves pounding the desert floor when I paged through a Louie L’Amour western. Although I’d been to Fort Lauderdale, Florida before I read John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee series, I marveled at the master’s descriptions of the Sunshine State. Across the country the other “McDonald,” Ross (aka Kenneth Millar) provided an equally vivid portrait of southern California including the mythological city of Santa Teresa. Years later that town would be resurrected by Sue Grafton as Kinsey Milhone’s turf. On the east coast Robert B. Parker’s redoubtable sleuth, Spenser, roamed the means streets of Boston, Massachusetts while my friend, Sara Paretsky’s, tough lady sleuth, V.I. Warshawski, walked down the equally mean streets of my home town, Chicago, Illinois.
So, when I started my own Ron Shade private detective series, it seemed logical to set it here in Chi-town. Shade, an ex-cop, kickboxing, private eye, trains at the Beverly Gym, which is located on the South Side at 99th Street and Western. If you ride by that intersection today you'll see a bank on one side, and an old fast food place called Jansen's (sadly out of business now) across the street. Back in the days of my youth, I used to take the bus down to that intersection to get to the Judo Training Center. On Saturdays my sensi would send me over to Jansen's for a "cheese whopper." The dojo was where I cut my teeth (and a few other places) with my first experience in the martial arts. It was torn down many years ago and replaced by the impressive bank building, but in my mind's eye I still see the old judo/karate school every time I drive by. So it was logical that it would still exist in Shade's Chicago.
If I can, I make a point of trying to visit any location I’m going to write about. In my most recent Executioner novel, Sleeping Dragons, the protagonist, Mack Bolan, travels to Mexico, Hong Kong, and Libya. At a recent signing appearance one member of the audience asked how I'd researched the scene in Libya to assure its authenticity. I told him about my research methods (National Geographic magazines, Internet searches, conversations with people who have been there). "But how do you know you got it right?" the guy persisted.
"Well," I said, "given the current situation in that country, I don't think that too many people are going to go there to fact-check me."
When I was collaborating in the writing of the Richard Belzer books I had to do a lot of research for the first one, since it was set in New York. I’ve always been fascinated by that enormous city. I’d set one of my earlier novels, Melody of Vengeance, there as well, but that one was a historical and took place in 1947. Although I didn’t get to see everything I wanted on my research trip to the Big Apple, one of my favorite memories is meeting the Belz in the Algonquin Hotel. It had been the meeting place of so many famous writers before us, and I totally enjoyed a pleasant conversation with Richard while his two dogs playfully ran around inside the restaurant area.
While it isn’t absolutely essential to physically visit the region you’re writing about, you should make some effort to capture some unique features about it. Figuring out where to set your story is often intertwined with the reason for choosing that particular setting. Certainly, James Dickey could have set his fabulous novel, Deliverance, in another region, but he was intimately familiar with his native state of Georgia. I could cite other examples, from Faulkner’s mythological Yoknapatawpha County, to Mark Twain’s picturesque descriptions of the Mississippi River. Setting is as much a character in these works as Flem Snopes or Huckleberry Finn or Dickey's middleclass everyman, Ed Gentry.
My upcoming Executioner novel, Dragon Key, is set in China. Although I’ve never been to there, I did a tremendous amount of research about the region, including talking to people who had visited the country. They all mentioned the sad state of the air and water, and I incorporated those references into the story line. The book isn’t due out until next year, but I’ve already seen several news reports of people in Beijing and Shanghai wearing face masks due to the pervasive air pollution, and the water’s supposed to be too thin to walk on but too thick to pour.
Capturing the flavor of a region is something that a good writer should strive to do well. Studying the dialects of different regions is also an integral part of effective writing. While I’ve personally noted a slight decline in perceivable regional accents in the U.S. in the last ten years, there are certain infections and phrases that are synonymous with certain areas.
“What you want to messing with that river for?” Griner, the rural mechanic, asks the urban survivalist, Lewis Medlock, in Deliverance.
“Because it’s there,” Lewis replies.
“It’s there, all right,” Griner says, “You git in there, and can’t git out, you wish it wudn’t.”
Dickey expertly captured the unique flavor of the rural man’s speech. If he’d responded in the Queen’s proper English, the entire ambience of the scene would have been compromised. If something doesn't ring true, readers can be unforgiving. Take a look at Mark Twain's hilarious lambasting of The Deerslayer in "The Literary Offences of Fennimore Cooper." And this applies to other mediums as well. Years ago, lot of movie critics ridiculed Kevin Costner’s performance as Robin Hood due to the actor’s inability to affect a proper English accent. But in some cases it’s easier to suspend your disbelief. For instance, nobody mentions that Errol Flynn's accent was more Australian than English in the original Robin Hood, not to mention where did those green tights come from in medieval times.