When I was younger, there were a couple of books which classified your looks as seasons – if you had certainly hair color, skin color and so on you were a winter, a spring, a summer or a fall, and you should choose certain clothing colors to make you look your best. Lately I’ve been thinking about those constraints in terms of books, too.
One of the hardest choices I have to make is when a book is set, because I think the weather, temperature and surroundings add so much to a book. Think of Smilla’s Sense of Snow, or Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. Climate plays a huge part in those books.
For my series books, the choice of season is usually pretty clear. I recall speaking with Craig Johnson once about his first four Longmire books. He said that he’d patterned on Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” – the books cover a year in the life of Sheriff Walt Longmire, cycling through the four seasons.
That conversation inspired me to focus on the seasons as I write the golden retriever mysteries. To keep a certain sense of reality in the books, I needed Rochester, the canine hero, to age pretty slowly. But at the same time I didn’t want my small town location, Stewart’s Crossing, to become a Cabot Cover, where Jessica Fletcher lived, and where murders seemed to happen every week.
So each time I began a new book I think about when it’s happening in the lives of Rochester and his human dad, Steve Levitan. As the series begins, Steve is at the start of a two year parole after serving a year in the California penal system for computer hacking. So his progress plays a part in the timing of the books as well.
For example, DOG HAVE MERCY takes place around Christmas time, and I had to work around the constraints of that season. Eastern College, where Steve works, closes down for two weeks in December, leaving him at home and at loose ends – lots of time to investigate!
One of my series regulars, Gail Dukowksi, who owns the Chocolate Ear café in downtown Stewart’s Crossing and always has a home baked biscuit on hand for Rochester, doesn’t make much of an appearance in this book, because Rochester can’t go inside the café, and it’s too cold for Steve to sit outside with Rochester at his feet.
Seasons don’t matter quite as much in my Mahu Investigations—since my hero, openly gay Honolulu homicide detective Kimo Kanapa’aka, ages about a year between books, I can pick when I want to set one.
The same is true of my Have Body, Will Guard M/M romance adventure series. In both cases, the books take place in pretty warm climates – Hawaii, Tunisia, the south of France – so I can begin immediately layering in temperature and visual details, without worrying too much if it’s winter or summer.
My “Love on” M/M romance series began with the idea of a group of recent college graduates looking for love and careers on South Beach, so it was natural that they begin in May, graduation time. It’s pretty easy for me to add hot steamy days and humid nights, because that’s where I live.
The biggest challenge is when I start something completely new. It often takes me fifty or a hundred pages until something comes up that has to be rooted in time—a school vacation, a blizzard or a big holiday. Then I’ll go back to my schedule and figure out exactly when the story is taking place, so I can then figure out what the weather is like, if the trees are bare or in bloom, and so on.
A long book I've been working on for a while is like that. It takes place in numerous locations around the world, and I’m trying not to lock myself in to a time until I have to. But then, at one point two of the characters just went out for a drink and sat outdoors by the river in a Chinese border city… so I may be figuring out that timetable soon!
I think those details add so much to the realism and atmosphere of a book and I like to think that my experience growing up in Pennsylvania and living through winters there, and then the last thirty years in a hot climate, give me the flexibility to describe what I need.