Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Temptation Tuesday:: Location, Location, Location...

This Tuesday at The Pink Heart Society we are pleased to welcome Harlequin Romance author Barbara McMahon, who is here to talk to us about... Location, location, location

When I first started writing, ages ago actually, I tried to incorporate the setting of the novel as an integral part of the story--almost another character if you would. I did oodles of research, visited whenever I could, and really tried to get the feel of the place integrated into every aspect. It’s important to me that a reader can identify with a locale and feel part of it as she immerses herself into the story. I don’t want the flow to be interrupted while a reader struggles to imagine what the setting is.

Since Harlequin Romances are distributed in a world market, I try to keep in mind that not everyone is familiar with the same places I am. If a woman lives in a small town in Norway, can she easily envision and relate to the arid land of Arizona in summer? If a reader lives in Japan, can she relate to written words describing Key West in Florida? The world had grown smaller in many ways with the universality of television shows and the Internet. So the answer is--maybe.

To seamlessly integrate setting to me means painting pictures in people’s minds that clearly gives them the visual aspect as well as the feel of a locale. It’s harder to describe Manhattan, Kansas, to someone who has never been there, than it is to describe Manhattan, New York. There are large cities in almost every nation, so people have a concept of that and can easily relate. Small town America is different from a small village in Andulucia. Activities on a ranch in Wyoming are vastly different from working in a bakery in Tuscany.

In an attempt to make it easy for readers to picture the locale, I try to use places I think have a universal appeal. I love San Francisco, it’s my favorite city. And not just because I once lived there. I also love New York, but for different reasons. And London and Rome. Japan is a favorite country of mine. When writing a book set in what is to me a foreign location, I usually use places I have visited. No amount of study from books or the Internet can substitute for the vibrant feel of a place.

Over the years, I’ve gradually changed in how I approach a story. Now I focus more on the interaction between the hero and heroine, but location still plays a role. A captain of industry would be out of place in a small town in Wyoming. Is that the situation I want to create? Sometimes a “stranger in a strange land” is the exact situation I’m striving for. Other times, it just isn’t right. Most dynamic businessmen live in dynamic major cities--such as London or New York. The west coast sensibility is different from America’s east coast, and I try to play that up as an aspect of the book. So in the end, the people in the book reflect where they live. There may be a universal appeal, which I do hope is true, but the setting influences their lives.

One dream for many harried Americans is to move back to a small town, embrace a more tranquil life. Reality is quite different. It can be too quiet if a person is used to amenities a large city offers. But this dream is not necessarily that of everyone--even in America. A woman in London may fantasied more about traveling then moving to a bucolic prairie town. A woman in Paris may wish to move to the Riviera. Actually, some American women fantasize about moving to the Riviera. I try to keep all that in mind when writing. I want the book to have as much appeal to everyone as possible.

So as a reader, what do you think about location? Does it matter at all? Do you like to read about places you know, or about locales you have never explored? Do you want the setting to be integral to the story, or is it merely a place to have them live, but the real action is in the conflict, motivation and ultimate goal of the protagonists? I’d love to hear your ideas!

Barbara's latest release for the Romance line is The Pregnancy Promise and it's out RIGHT NOW in the USA, Canada, the UK and Ireland.

To find out more about Barbara and her books you can visit her Website


  1. Hi Barbara

    I really enjoyed your post.

    I live in London and have set some of my stories there, but as a reader I much prefer to read about places I've never been - and I have to admit that American small-town life fascinates me. I particularly love Nora Roberts category romances for that reason. The way she describes the little town of Antietam, Maryland in her MacKade Brothers stories for example. It's like another character, a rich vibrant and very distinctive backdrop to the action.

    What's interesting as a writer of category romance is trying to get the essence of a place across without too much description. A few crucial sentences is about all you can afford in a book of 50,000 words without slowing the pace. For that reason sometimes it's easier to describe big cities - which thanks to the internet and global travel are familiar to everyone - than smaller more intimate settings.

    Everyone has a basic idea of what Paris looks like (even if all they've seen is the Disney film Ratatouille!) so all you really have to do is give your character's impression of the setting. Capturing the essence of the little country village where my mum now lives in Wiltshire would be a bit more of a challenge. One that I have to admit I haven't yet risen to even though the place is idyllic (in small doses). Maybe I should.


  2. Yes, I like to have been to a place before I write about it. There is just a certain something about the quality of the air and light.
    And I do agree about SF. Perhaps because I grew up there, I love the fog shrouded hills.

  3. I do try to get a feel for a place from research, but I really like it when I can travel someplace and actually see it.

    Many years ago I set a story in Key West FLA. I had a friend who had been there and we sat and talked for a long while so I could get all the info I could. She even brought back maps and postcards, so I thought I was set.

    The same month the book came out in the US I was able to visit Key West. I loved it. And most of her comments were right on. But--during one driving afternoon we ended up in a very bad part of town--suddenly I wondered if that was where I had my heroine live. I called my 10-year-old daughter at home and tried to remember where in the book I had placed the heroine and have her look it up. After many attempts she found it. Thankfully I'd been vague enough it was not in the bad area. Whew. Taught me more about doing accurate research--or making the setting totally fiction.

    I also like stories in places I haven't visited for the novelty. But I like stories in places I am familiar with so I can feel like I'm revisiting. Okay, so I like all kinds of stories.