At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Friday, March 15, 2013

Building a Home for One's Story

Six years ago, when our son Joshua spent a considerable amount of post-surgical time at Miami Children's Hospital, I read to pass much of the time. Notably, I read a lot of P.D. James' mysteries. I had worked through The Children of Men and loved it, but her murder mysteries really took me away. In fact, my Litany of Secrets was inspired in part by James' work in Death in Holy Orders, which remains my all-time favorite from her cornucopia of novels.

James, who turns 93 this year, strikes the perfect balance of plot, character, and setting--a balance which I will never be able to imitate. In fact, I've discovered that although a writer should concern himself with all three categories, eventually they pick one area as a starter point for working on their novel. When I began pre-writing for Litany of Secrets, I decided to begin with building the setting. I had the protagonist in mind in Cameron Ballack, but not the rest of the cast. I was playing with several storylines when the idea of murder at a seminary came into view. And once that hit, I thought Well, given all that, I probably want to construct the home for my story. It's not as if there wasn't precedence for my type of story (the seminary I attended suffered through an on-campus murder before I arrived and that case is still unsolved). But more than anything, I wanted my readers to be able to feel like they were walking on the seminary grounds, to be able to take in the bucolic environment, to smell the burning of the incense in the chapel, the snow shaking from the trees, and the darkness of the guest lodge where the first victim meets his end.

The setting crystallized when I went biking on the Katy Trail near the town of Defiance, Missouri. As I drove around beforehand, I scooted down Howell Road and saw to the north a massive swath of open farmland and thought, "This is the place!" From then on, with that territory in my memory, I spent the next two weeks mapping out the grounds of the mentally-created St. Basil's Seminary. Even now I can close my eyes and see the campus, dream-like, laid out before me. The massive bronze-colored tri-bar cross at the entrance to the seminary. The brownstone chapel with its colorful icons and the perpetual whiff of incense. The grove of trees between the guest lodge and the main building. Every square inch of the library.

And to me, that's part of the excitement of setting for a writer. You're practically building a home for your story. And it's a home that you've built, unique in your mind and soul. Nothing like it in the world. And what gives me the most joy is that I get to share this world with the others in just a few months.

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