The Setting As Character
Location, location, location. Anyone who’s ever bought, sold, or rented a house or apartment knows that’s the mantra of the real estate agent. It’s the mantra of some romance readers and writers, too. Right now, one of the most popular genres of romance novels is one where the setting is so important, it IS the genre: the small town contemporary.
A few years ago, this genre didn’t even exist. Although authors had set hundreds of romance novels in small towns, it wasn’t until the entire series-set-around-a-town concept took off -- my guess is with the amazing popularity of Robyn Carr’s Virgin River and Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove books -- that the setting truly became a character.
Whether it’s waterfront or mountaintop, clustered around a harbor, tucked into a valley, deep in the south, along the edge of the sea, or nestled into the heartland, inventing geography has become as challenging and complex as characterization in this genre, and just as vital when creating the series concept.
In fact, for me -- and I suspect the same is true of other small town contemporary authors -- the stories came second; the setting came first. For my recently launched Barefoot Bay series, I chose Florida because I’ve lived in the state for over twenty years, and I’ve personally experienced many aspects of this diverse and picturesque peninsula.
I worked for years in the colorful, ethnic metropolis of Miami, then moved to raise my children in a sleepy beachside town with stunning views of space shuttle launches. My sister lives in the rolling hills of rural north Florida; my son’s a University of Florida Gator up in quaint but cosmopolitan Gainesville; I’ve got strong connections to the historic Tampa Bay and family living in vibrant Jacksonville. Best of all, we’ve taken multiple family vacations in the Conch Republic, the uniquely eccentric paradise also known as Florida’s Keys.
But when I first closed my eyes and tried to imagine the perfect location for a series of contemporary novels where the setting would play a key role, I went instantly to the beauty of southwest Florida and the white sands and emerald islands dotting the Gulf of Mexico coastline.
The magical “barrier islands” are accessible only by boat or causeway, and the thousands islands and keys that hug the entire coast of Florida all have different personalities. Some are overdeveloped with multi-million dollar mansions, some are laid back and home to artists and retirees, others are trendy, luring tourists with world class resorts and jaw-droppingly gorgeous sunsets, while a few are charmingly stuck in the 1950’s with trolleys for public transportation and mom-and-pop businesses that close when the fishing is good.
I took the best of all those characteristics to create the Barefoot Bay series, set on Mimosa Key, a fictional island off the coast of the Naples/Fort Myers area. Before I even outlined the first book, I drafted the history of the island, a few of the most influential (and colorful) townspeople, and got a sense of the politics, businesses, neighborhoods, and “personality” of the area.
Only then did I start the process of creating the characters and the stories, launching the series with a hurricane that wipes out the homes and changes the lives of the people who live on the island’s serene and pristine inlet of Barefoot Bay. One of them is Lacey Armstrong, a single mother, a granddaughter of one of the island’s founders, and a woman who -- much like the island where she lives -- survives and thrives no matter what mother nature throws at her. She has friends and family, dreams and desires, and a rich personal history. And on the pages of BAREFOOT IN THE SAND, Lacey learns to let go of the past and find a future with one extremely sexy, younger architect who helps her change the face of her island...and the state of her heart.
No question about it, having the setting as a character has definitely influenced how and what I’ve written in the series. I’d love to hear from the Writerspace community: which small town contemporary setting is your favorite and why?
Roxanne St. Claire is a New York Times bestselling author of nearly thirty romance, suspense, and young adult novels. Visit her website for excerpts and info on all of her books: www.roxannestclaire.com or stop by www.facebook.com/roxannestclaire for daily updates and the occasional picture of a hot guy or cute puppy.