Setting Dilemma (plus a New Release)

by Vinnie Hansen

Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller were my gateway drugs into mystery addiction. I had a slight preference for Grafton’s series except for one aspect. Sue Grafton set her stories in Santa Teresa, a thinly disguised Santa Barbara, while Marcia Muller, at least initially, set her tales of murder and mayhem in a real San Francisco.

When I started the two series, I lived in San Francisco, and Muller’s PI, Sharon McCone, resided on the street parallel to the house I rented with friends. I loved to imagine her backyard abutted mine. When I looked out my upstairs bedroom window, I viewed Bernal Heights and adored the idea that McCone worked in a law office right over there.

Bernal Heights (photo by Timothy Vollmer, CC-BY 2.0, Wikimedia Coomons)

Bernal Heights in San Francisco (photo by Timothy Vollmer, CC-BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

I couldn’t understand why Grafton had relinquished this charm. Everyone figured out Santa Teresa was Santa Barbara anyway.

So when I began my own mystery series, I decided to place it in a real Santa Cruz, which had definite appeal to my local fans. People have purchased my books simply because particular haunts were mentioned.

However, I created a fictional restaurant for my protagonist Carol Sabala’s work place, and site of the first murder in the series. I also made Carol different from myself, taller, younger, half Mexican-American, and a California native with a small family. Carol was a baker with PI ambitions, while I was a teacher.

In One Tough Cookie, my second mystery, I didn’t want another person to die at the restaurant, so I transported Carol to Watsonville High School, my actual place of employment. Since this was a public institution rather than a private business, I decided not to give it a fictitious name. With twenty-twenty hindsight, I would never recommend this choice to anyone!

Vinnie posing on the Watsonville High School sign

A younger me at Watsonville High

Even though the characters were fictional, at minimum amalgams of many people, my colleagues identified them as this person or that. This tendency of theirs filled me with anxiety since many of the characters behaved badly.

Of course, local readers probably would have formed these opinions even if I’d given the high school a different name. Since I worked at Watsonville High, they would have ID’d any school as Watsonville High just as everyone knows Santa Teresa is Santa Barbara. And they would have speculated on which characters represented which colleagues, just as readers who know me imagine Carol Sabala as me, even with her long hair and questionable actions.

That’s why, with the rewrite and re-release of One Tough Cookie, I decided not to give Watsonville High School a fictitious name. Also, I’ve been retired for five years now, and a fresh team of educators occupies the school. I don’t think readers will make the same associations they did before. (At least I hope they don’t.)

And the real location may work some magic, the way Muller’s San Francisco captivated me.

Readers, do you enjoy stories set in real places you’re familiar with, in which you can recognize streets and favorite haunts? Writers, how do you feel about using real vs. fictitious settings in your stories?

Drum roll, please!! Here is the new release (under the misterio press imprint) of…

One Tough Cookie, A Carol Sabala Mystery

Carol Sabala’s boss sends the baker and amateur sleuth on a mission: find out who tampered with a teacher’s cookie dough and sickened the faculty. While Carol hones her investigative skills by gathering clues on the campus, a student is found dead on the high school’s stage. Did she fall? Commit suicide? Or did a killer hurl her from the catwalk?

When Carol seeks answers, a ruthless stalker comes after her!

Now Available on AMAZON and SMASHWORDS


Posted by Vinnie Hansen. Vinnie fled the South Dakota prairie for the California coast the day after graduating high school. She is the author of the Carol Sabala mysteries and was a Claymore Award finalist for Black Beans & Venom, the seventh and latest installment in that series. She’s also written many published short stories. Retired after 27 years of teaching English at Watsonville High School, Vinnie lives in Santa Cruz with her husband, abstract artist Daniel S. Friedman.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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  • Reply
    shannon esposito
    June 23, 2015 at 12:49 pm

    Great question. My Pet Psychic series is set in real life St. Pete just because I completely fell in love with the area and wanted to share it with readers that haven’t been there. The one thing that made me nervous was not being from there, I was afraid I’d get the spirit of the place wrong. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened and when people from there have reviewed the series, they’ve only had good things to say. Also, you worry about getting sued if you use a real place. I just don’t have any murders happen in real restaurants, stores, etc. My new series, I made it easier on myself and made up an island. 🙂

  • Reply
    Vinnie Hansen
    June 23, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    Shannon, you’ve voiced the pros and cons precisely!

  • Reply
    Marilyn Hiliau
    June 23, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    Vinnie and Shannon, I personally prefer real settings. I enjoy reading about places I know and trying to “place” the fictional ones in the stories. I originated in the Pittsburgh, PA area and I love CJ Lyons FBI stories that are set there and am looking forward to her character setting up shop on her own. I now live in Arizona and got hooked on JA Jance and her sheriff Joanna Brady series. I have actually driven on High Lonesome road in Cochise County. Then there is the late Tony Hillerman who set his Leaphorn, Chee series on the Navajo reservation. I have quite a few Native American friends and have traveled to many of the places he wrote about.
    Shannon, I also lived in Florida and know a little about the St. Pete area and a lot about dogs. (I used to own and operate a breeding kennel.) I began Kass Lambs books with her vacation on the Caribbean and I knew some of the ports of call and have now gone back and read all of the Kate Huntington series even though I know very little about the Baltimore area. Anyway ladies, that is my nickel version of my two cents.

  • Reply
    Vinnie Hansen
    June 23, 2015 at 2:37 pm

    It’s good to hear what readers prefer. Thanks, Marilyn!

  • Reply
    shannon esposito
    June 23, 2015 at 5:21 pm

    That is a good point, Marilyn… being able to walk in the footsteps of the characters. Makes them seem more real. Thanks for the input. PS: I bet you have a lot of story of your own about operating a breeding kennel 🙂

  • Reply
    Marilyn Hiliau
    June 23, 2015 at 7:06 pm

    Shannon, I am just about ready (have had some ongoing health issues) to begin a (hopefully) series about a woman with diabetes and the training of a service dog to help her cope with some of the health issues she has and the complications from diabetes. My planned initial focus will be on the lack of acceptance of service dogs outside the realm of sight and hearing dogs. I have already done some research on the ADA aspect, I know something about the basic training needed and I am learning as I go. If the series continues I expect them to travel to various parts of the country picking up other discrimination causes while continuing to educate people about service dogs and their uses.

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    June 23, 2015 at 7:17 pm

    I agree with Marilyn. I love to read stories set in places that I have been before. When I recognize a street name or other location it feels good and makes the story more real. I also like stories that take me to real places I haven’t yet been to. I love the Joanna Brady series, mostly because of the main character but also partly because it has given me a glimpse of small town life in Arizona.

    Great idea for a series, Marilyn! Can’t wait to read it!!

  • Reply
    Marilyn Hiliau
    June 23, 2015 at 7:34 pm

    Thanks Kass!

  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    June 23, 2015 at 10:18 pm

    Great post, Vinnie, and congrats on your re-release! I decided to center my series in real-life Hartford, CT, in the 1890s, but I created a fictitious women’s college, modeled after the 7 Sisters Colleges of the time (Smith, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, etc). I had the best of both worlds – an actual locale that people may enjoy recognizing (despite the 100+ years’ difference), and a micro-world of my own creation.

    Still, there are times I wish I had created the entire world fictitiously, since it is a pain to try to find out every little detail of streets and shops and be accurate. The historical research in general can be formidable, and then add locale to that…it’s a labor of love!

  • Reply
    Vinnie Hansen
    June 23, 2015 at 11:03 pm

    Kathy, do you think historical fiction is held to a higher standard of fact-finding than fiction set in modern times? In authors’ notes, I sometimes encounter disclaimers that this street or that business has been changed for the purposes of the story, which is, after all, fiction. Do you think historical fiction can’t do that b/c readers are looking to it for historical information?

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