PD James and Setting

 

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Occasionally I browse through books on writing, not exactly looking for inspiration or rules but reminding myself that every writer faces similar struggles in the act of creation. Recently I reread parts of P.D. James’ Talking About Detective Fiction. It is an amazing book, mainly for her vast knowledge of the history of the genre; however, this time I focused mainly on the chapter titled Telling the Story: Setting, Viewpoint, People.

Setting is important in my books, mainly because they are set in a place perhaps not familiar to an English speaking (or reading) audience. Namely, Switzerland. James points out that most readers relate to the characters. It is true that today many mysteries are character driven, not plot driven. Where does this leave the setting? Of primary importance she says, noting that the setting is “where these people live, move and have their being.” She reminds the writer that they have a duty to breathe the character’s air, see with their eyes, walk the paths they tread and inhabit the rooms furnished for them.

Beyond the need of a setting to create a place for the character to spring to life, setting can inspire the story itself. This is true with my first Agnes Lüthi book, where an ice storm traps the characters in a château on the shore of Lac Léman. In Swiss Vendetta, the château returns to its medieval origin with the power out and modern conveniences made irrelevant. This informed the plot and the characters throughout the book. What does isolation and discomfort do to the psyche? It changes people. James’ uses Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles as an example. Would The Hound of Wimbledon Common have evoked the same sense of apprehension? Probably not.

Superficially Switzerland is perfect. Literally picture postcard perfect. Every view can evoke an exclamation of delight. Look at the château, the pastoral landscape, the milk cows on parade with their flowered headdresses, the historic cities, the rivers, the lakes, the mountain, the Glacier Express…. The list is endless. To me Switzerland is the St Mary’s Meade of Agatha Christie. St Mary’s Meade was charming, yet bad things happened there (really so many people died under the nose of Miss Marple that it should be quite disturbing, but it isn’t). For the setting of my next Agnes Lüthi book I’ve chosen a boarding school as the center piece of the story. A charming, rural, idyllic setting where, yes, bad things will happen. To my mind, the setting isn’t only a place but it is an active participant. Certain events take place because of the setting. It can inspire a plot and also determine the course of the action.

P.D. James called to mind the words of John Bunyan when she set one of her detective stories in a beautiful setting. He said: “Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the gates of Heaven.” I’ll keep this in mind as a cast my mind to the beauty of the landscape that is my chosen setting. Inspiration indeed.

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