Writing Powerful and Evocative Settings

Guest Blogger: Allison Brennan

Tonight, I’m touring famous Los Angeles crime scenes with none other than James Ellroy.

The talented and intriguing Ellroy has a new show with the Discovery Channel called L.A.: City of Demons that premieres January 19. I was thrilled to be invited on a bus tour hosted by Ellroy himself (author of THE BLACK DAHLIA), along with a few other writers and bloggers and press types. I am very excited!

I’m never truly at a loss for ideas—they are everywhere, but mostly in my head. Everywhere, because I’m pulling in information all around me, from who I meet to what I see to what I read in the news. I don’t consciously think when I see a news story that I want to write about it, but I absorb it and when a variety of different snippets of information merge together in my head, a story idea pops out—often without me consciously thinking about it.

I’ve always found setting the hardest part of writing. My descriptions tend to be simple and functional—I personally don’t like reading long narrative about what a room looks like or what a character is wearing. If my character is driving through a wealthy neighborhood, it seems sufficient to me to write, “She drove through an affluent neighborhood with established trees and long driveways.” If it’s important that she drove through the neighborhood in the first place.

At the same time, I know that atmosphere is crucial especially in suspense. To be able to drive through some of these crime scenes with Ellroy at the helm talking about what happened, the visual plus auditory stimulation will be awesome. I’ll still write brief descriptions—because that’s part of my writer’s voice—but I hope to make those descriptions more powerful and evocative by experiencing setting myself.

As a full-time writer, I do a lot of research. A few years ago, I participated in the FBI Citizens Academy in Sacramento. The 8-week course has been one of the highlights of my many research excursions. Every week we had new speakers, from our ninth district U.S. Attorney to FBI SWAT to experts across all FBI squads.

It’s easy to research Quantico—the FBI’s training academy on the Quantico Marine Base—there is a wealth of information on the FBI website. And the Media Relations agent distributed DVDs of their recruiting video, so we can visually see what new agents go through during their 21-week training.

But nothing was as helpful to me as going to Quantico myself, walking through the halls, walking through Hogan’s Alley, eating in the cafeteria, sitting in the auditorium where they hold the graduation ceremony—experiencing a day in the life of an FBI recruit was far more helpful to me, as a writer, than reading about Quantico, or even talking to those who’d gone through the program.

Lucy Kincaid, the main character of my new series, dreams of being an FBI agent. Everything she’s done in the last six years has led her to where she is today—waiting to hear from the FBI if her application has been accepted. Her sister-in-law Kate teaches at Quantico, and her “office”—essentially a room full of computers and equipment because Kate’s a cybercrimes instructor—is based on a room I glanced in while on my Quantico tour. I don’t know if the room was used in part as an office, but I could imagine that a computer guru might feel more comfortable there with all the machines than in a typical office.

Before Lucy ends up at Quantico herself, I hope to return. I have more questions and more places I want to see—like I didn’t get into a dorm room, and that’s a must next time.

Though I’m traveling today, I’ll have computer access on and off and I’ll pop in several times if anyone has any questions! (I love Q&A.) But I want to ask, what do you think of setting? How much or how little do you like in your romantic thrillers?

Two commenters will win a complete, signed FBI Trilogy: SUDDEN DEATH, FATAL SECRETS and CUTTING EDGE. So even if you don’t have a question, say Hi!  Thank you again, Janice, for letting me spend the day with you and your crew!

Allison Brennan is the NEW YORK TIMES and USA TODAY bestselling author of fifteen romantic thrillers. LOVE ME TO DEATH launches her Lucy Kincaid series. She lives in northern California with her husband and five children.

Be sure to check out Allison’s latest thriller LOVE ME TO DEATH, on sale now, and leave a comment to win her signed FBI Trilogy. Winners picked on 1/11/11.



  1. It’s funny that you should be rolling with Ellroy. Chris Rhatigan talks over on the Do Some Damage blog this morning about the way Ellroy gets away with breaking “the rules” in his writing as a device for evoking the dark images we’re accustomed to reading in his work.

    Like you, I shoot for the bare minimum when it comes to setting, often exposing the setting in dialogue, or the narrative mention of a detail that incites a domino effect of assumptions on the reader’s part.

    This is more doable in genre writing where setting often doubles as a character, and the reader’s assumptions take them to their personal version of the writer’s setting.

    Unless you’re an expert’s expert, writers who get too detailed when crafting setting can unwittingly eject a knowledgeable reader right out of the story.

  2. Unless the setting is a unique / unusual location (Your character is in the Himalayas? Tell me about it.), an integral part of the story (NYC post 9/11, NOLA post Katrina), or somehow defines the character (Crais’ Cole or Connelly’s Bosch, for example), less is usually more as far as I’m concerned.

  3. I write mainstream fiction and can still appreciate Allison’s comments on setting in another genre. I’ve been able to accurately describe a given setting without an actual visit, but it’s always better to physically check out the location. Allison is correct.

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  5. I think setting is important only because if it doesn’t fit the story it makes it hard to read. As far as being able to picture it or anything like that it doesn’t really matter to me. I get the general idea and like I said as long as it fits with the story, I am good with anything. This series looks amazing, I will need to add it to my TBR pile!!!

  6. I need this!

  7. I love setting-the more detailed the better!
    smchester at gmail dot com

  8. I haven’t read much of this genre but I agree – the more detailed settings and in-depth characters really help me get lost in a book!

  9. I love a good mystery – it keeps me turning the pages.

  10. I love Allison’s books! I had to tell her how much I loved her last book so I became a fan on facebook a while back. Keep up the good work Allison!

  11. I like a good full description of the setting so I can picture everything in my mind as I’m reading.

  12. I would love to read these books!! Sounds very fascinating.

  13. Love your books! I have read several series. Am now into sin series and can not wait! Thanks


  15. I realized setting was imperative while reading “Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil” many years ago.

  16. I love mysteries, but i don’t like looooooong chapters.

  17. Thank you for a great giveaway

  18. I am looking forward to reading your FBI trilogy after reading your thoughts about writing & reading the comments. I hope I am lucky enough to be selected as a random winner but if not, I’m rushing over after the contest is over to Amazon to order them all!

  19. I’m not all that big on setting descriptions, I’d rather get straight to the action.

  20. I like enough setting detail to make me understand the surroundings of any action, but sometimes authors can really get carried away with things that do not advance either the understanding or the action!

  21. Hi.

    Thank you

  22. I’m more interested in the characters and story.

  23. I think it’s important to know enough about setting to be able to take yourself there mentally – sights, smells, sounds, temperature – that sort of thing.

  24. I would have the best time reading this FBI trilogy and they would be a great addition to my book collection, especially since they’re signed! Great giveaway!!

  25. Ouch…I love it when the reader writes so you can create your own scene

  26. thank you!

  27. just stopping in to say hi I loe reading crime books

  28. Sounds like a great book! I always love losing myself in thrillers!

  29. The winners of Allison Brennan’s signed FBI trilogy are Elizabeth and Clynsg. Congrats and thanks to all who entered and commented.

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