Please welcome Triss Stein, who’s talking today about the importance of setting, something Auntie M always starts with and the newest in her series, Brooklyn Secrets:
Choosing a Setting
A mystery series where the place is part of the story is great fun to read and to write. My fascination with Brooklyn, where the diverse neighborhoods often seem like a collection of small (well, small-ish), towns has lasted a long time. Since change is the only constant in any big city, I don’t think that fascination will go away before I run out of stories to tell.
Choosing the exact setting for each book takes some thought, or perhaps a flash of inspiration. The neighborhood, now, is where and when the story takes place, but my heroine, Erica Donato, is a graduate student in urban history and so there is always a mystery from the past, too. The neighborhood setting needs to have scope for both.
Brooklyn Bones, the first in the series, was easy. I just looked outside my front door. Park Slope, where I live, is a lively and beautiful corner of Brooklyn which has gone through a couple of decades of steady gentrification, (for good or ill). However, it was not always the center of chic it has become (Seriously! They think this in Paris!) and I was here just as it was changing. It was not hard to find a story from that darker time.
Brooklyn Graves was directly inspired by a place, beautiful and historic Green-Wood Cemetery, and a series of news stories about priceless stained glass windows being stolen from now neglected, but once affluent, churches and mausoleums. I think any mystery writer, especially one of with a taste for history, would clip those articles. And ponder.
The setting of the new book, Brooklyn Secrets, has raised more questions. It is Brownsville, a remote corner of Brooklyn that is now, and always was, unlovely, uninspiring, and poor. It was built as an extension of the overcrowded, immigrant Manhattan neighborhood the Lower East Side. The shoddy housing of years ago has been long replaced by projects, perhaps equally shoddy; the color of the skin and the accents of the immigrants is now different and guns have changed the nature of everyday crime, but in many ways it is not different at all. Crime, boxing and education remain the roads out and often, the best choice is not even clear.
I started with Erica writing a chapter of her dissertation about crime in Brownsville’s history. In mid-20th century America, it became famous as the home of Murder, Inc, enforcers for organized crime in its heyday. She sort of overlooked the point that in writing about how neighborhoods change, she would also have to deal with Brownsville now. I overlooked it, too, for a while. The challenge became finding a reason for Erica to continue to be involved in the present day mystery I was trying to create.
Did I solve it? Did I weave together the parallel stories of how young people, now and back then, try to find their way when there is no way? Did I write about a place as an outsider and get it right?
Readers, your thoughts will be most welcome.
Triss Stein is a small–town girl from New York farm country who has spent most of her adult life in New York the city. This gives her the useful double vision of a stranger and a resident for writing mysteries about Brooklyn neighborhoods in her ever-fascinating, ever-changing, ever-challenging adopted home. In the new book, Brooklyn Secrets,s Erica find herself immersed in the old and new stories of tough Brownsville, and the choices its young people make.