If you’ve ever watched Sex and the City, then you know that New York City is the series’ fifth lead character, so much so that in one episode Carrie calls it her “boyfriend.” Whether or not you’ve seen or even like the series, it’s an outstanding example of capturing the spirit of a place and making it integral to a story. Could Sex and the City have been as successful if it was set in Chicago? Paris? Hong Kong? I doubt it. Some story lines would not have been possible and others would have been dramatically different, as would the whole gestalt of the series. Just off the top of my head, I remember pivotal scenes set in Yankee Stadium, St. Mark’s Place, Columbus Circle, the New York Public Library, and on the Staten Island Ferry. There are even guided tours of the most iconic locations featured on the show.
I like the idea of the map above. But there’s a big problem with it that only someone who knows NYC would pick up on. As the song goes, “The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down.” That means “downtown” should be at the bottom of the map. Even putting it left would be better than right. I’m all turned around when I look at this map. It makes me think that whoever created it doesn’t know NYC all that well.
It’s a mistake I don’t want to make in my own stories.
I’m currently plotting the origin story of The Knitting Detective series, which reveals how Maxime Martin became an amateur sleuth, and I’m setting it in Brittany. A Scandal in Nice takes place in Nice (obviously) and each subsequent story will be set in a different city or region of France. My goal is to get to know each of those locations as well as I know NYC (where I grew up) and Nice (where I spent many months) in order to do it justice. If my stories inspire readers to travel to those places and discover their wonders, then I’ll have done my job well. There’s no other country I know of that has such a rich variety of history, customs, food, culture, etc. from one city to the next. And this phenomenon is made all the more wondrous when you consider that all of France could fit inside the state of Texas.
The challenge is to create a story that works because it’s set in Brittany. And not just the entire region of Brittany, but a specific departément that embodies its maritime past, rugged coastline, historic sites, plethora of offshore islands (some accessible on foot at low tide), megalithic monuments, and reputation as a land of mystery, myth, and superstition. Add to that the fact that it has its own language (Breton), and there’s a lot of material to leverage.
Just yesterday, I shared the plot I had sketched out with a friend and fellow writer who’s a critique partner. I knew it had many moving parts and was on the complex side. What I didn’t realize was that it had too many parts, too many complexities. So when she advised me to use Brittany as a character, I knew it was back to the drawing board for me! Time to simplify my plot and amp up the complexity of my characters– including the setting. And what a wonderful time of year to immerse myself in a setting as lush as it is spooky. What better place to hide and then reveal a dead body or two?
One way to tap into the spirit of a place is to study its legends. You could say that Brittany has its own share of origin stories. They’re fantastical and eerie, and at least one features the devil himself. When I stumbled upon it, I knew it was the story around which I would weave my own. So while many of you will be celebrating Halloween with parties and trick-or-treaters, I’ll be doing copious amounts of research that I love doing to create a convincing backdrop— and foreground— for an old-fashioned murder mystery.
Wish me luck! Maybe one day people will line up to follow a Knitting Detective itinerary through France.
Thanks this week go to two new friends and fellow writers: Megan my critique partner and Corinne my Bretonne language exchange partner, who introduced me to l’Ankou, the personification of death in Breton mythology. I can’t wait to hear what they think of my next plot outline— and to plan my visit to Brittany to make sure it’s authentic!