A Sense of Place

Use all your senses when you’re writing, we’re told—your sense of touch and sight, and hearing, and smell, and taste. That’s good advice and I’ve tried to take it to heart. One of the first writers who truly made an impact on me in terms of writing style was Tanith Lee whose gorgeous, sensual prose I admire greatly.

My mother was a painter and Lee’s way with words reminds me of the way my mother worked in oils—applying the pigment thickly, raking through it with palette knives or brushes, depending on the effect she wanted. And even if the overall picture she was creating didn’t quite work, there was all that gorgeous color.

I saw Tanith’s writing as a splash of Technicolor in a black and white world.

So using your descriptive powers and being in tune with your physical senses are necessary when you’re writing.

But I’d argue that there’s another sense that’s just as important when you’re creating fiction, something that is subtler, and a lot more difficult to capture—sense of place.

I write crime fiction, mostly, and one of the trends that’s emerged in the last decade is crime fiction that is specific to a place rather than just being set in some generic location the way television shows filmed in Toronto mostly take place in some vaguely Northeastern-ish city. The obvious example is the “Nordic Noir” sub-genre of crime fiction that has always existed, but really only gained attention after the publication of Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” trilogy that began with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. If you read novels by any author working in the niche—from Anne Holt to Karin Fossum, you will find certain similarities and one of them is a strong sense of place.

We tend to think of “Scandinavia” as one big block of countries where everyone is tall and blond, but that very homogeneity is under pressure these days and one of the undercurrents you’ll find in a lot of Nordic noir is a narrative thread dealing with immigrants, particularly immigrants of color, and how they are being assimilated, or not.

Nordic noir crime stories feature morally complex plots that tend to revolve around issues. The violence can be horrific, and noted English crime writer Ann Cleeves has called the whole genre out for sexual violence.

Maybe it’s just me, but one of the real pleasures of reading Nordic Noir, if you’re a woman, is that I’ve found they mostly lack that nasty streak of misogyny that still taints a lot of American crime fiction. As much as I enjoyed True Detective, I kept waiting for a strong female character to show up. In Nordic noir, gender equality is not just a concept, it’s a reality.

But we were discussing sense of place.

It’s cold in Scandinavia.

In the winter, it gets dark early and it stays that way.

These two circumstances percolate through the pages of Nordic noir like groundwater through limestone.

While the crime rate in most Scandinavian countries is low, Greenland—an autonomous country located within the kingdom of Denmark—has 20 times the crime that its neighbors does, and most of that extra crime is murder. (Or, as it’s called in the statistical reports, “intentional homicide.”)

Politics play an important role in Nordic noir as well—not so much the kind of politics we’re used to seeing in political thrillers where the plot is all about who tried to kill the president and why—but a more day-to-day integration of Socialist policies that detractors call “the nanny state.”

While American readers (and writers) often struggle with financial challenges, the kind of uneven wealth distribution that’s common in America is not a part of Scandinavian culture. And that factors into stories of crime and punishment as well.

And of course, none of the Scandinavian countries still practice capital punishment so perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes do not face execution. The average Scandinavian reader’s view of crime and punishment is very different from the average American’s, especially in this age of media circus criminal trials like the one surrounding Casey Anthony.

When I read a book that’s classified as “Nordic Noir,” I feel like I’m getting a crash course in culture, being given an opportunity to look through a window that overlooks a place that is at once familiar (a crime scene) and strange (a snowy street in Helsinki, a summer shack in Sweden, a quiet room in Reykjavik). I’ve never been to any of those places but because their writers have created such a splendid sense of place, I feel like my passport has been stamped and my visa validated.

That’s what I aspire to in my crime fiction, which mostly takes place in Los Angeles. I don’t want a reader to come away thinking that the story could have taken place in Anytown, USA. I want my fiction to have a sense of place and that place, for me, is Los Angeles.

How do you feel about mysteries that make the location another character? Would Janet Evanovich’s “Stephanie Plum” books be as great if they weren’t set in Trenton, New Jersey? Could Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone series take place anywhere but California?