...for readers who love animals, and animal lovers who read!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Novel Settings - Beyond Geography

by Sheila Webster Boneham

Setting is an essential part of many mysteries, as well as other types of fiction. Some settings are important enough to be regarded as "characters" of a sort – Tony Hillerman’s Southwest, John Connolly’s Maine, J.A. Jance’s Arizona and Seattle, Carl Hiassen’s Florida – well, I could go on for pages!

My own mystery Animals in Focus mystery series featuring 50-something animal photographer Janet MacPhail, her Australian Shepherd Jay, and her orange tabby Leo, occupies a number of settings, if you will. Some of these might be unnecessary in a stand-alone novel, but because this a series with an “accidental” amateur sleuth, several series sub-plots weave through the stories, and each has what I call a “sub-setting.”

Downtown Fort Wayne at night.
The major setting is, of course, geographical: Janet lives in Fort Wayne and gets around to other parts of Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. I chose the area partly because I grew up there and know it well, and partly because it is a beautiful part of the country that often gets short shrift from outsiders who think all of Indiana is the fairly flat stretch of farmland from just west of Toledo to just east of Chicago. To dispel the "nothing but corn, beans, and steel mills" stereotype, I send my protagonist, Janet MacPhail, to the lakes, rivers, forests, and ravines of the state as well as the cities, small towns, and occasional quirky attractions. (Seriously, have you ever been to a pickle festival?) She also gets around her hometown a lot, and spends her time and money in local small businesses like The Firefly Coffee House and The Cookie Cottage (real places and worth a visit!).

The sit-stay in an obedience trial.
The series is also set in the world of canine and feline competitions, training, and other activities. Drop Dead on Recall (2012), the first book, opens when a competitor keels over during the “drop on recall” exercise in an obedience trial, and much of the action takes place in “doggy” settings. I have been involved in that world for more than two decades as a competitor, breeder, rescuer, instructor, judge, and writer, so it’s a setting I know well. Even better, it’s populated with all manner of characters, with and without fur.

My Lab, Annie (1993-2006), doing what retrievers do!

Book two, The Money Bird (2013), finds Janet and Jay at retriever training sessions with Janet's friend Tom and his Labrador Retriever, Drake. Catwalk (forthcoming fall 2014) takes us to canine and feline agility rings and a cat show. Janet's cat, Leo, finally gets his due!

Please note – although I don’t mind an occasional talking critter (Carole Nelson Douglas’ Midnight Louie is one of my favorites!), the animals in my books are as realistic as I can make them. They don’t talk, and we don’t get into their heads except through their behaviors (although personally I would give a lot for five minutes inside a dog’s, cat’s, or horse’s mind!). I just happen to think animals are far more interesting as animals than as “fur people.”

Finally, Janet’s mother is wrestling with dementia, and Janet has to meet that challenge with a lot of help from her new friend Tom Saunders and a little less help from her brother, Bill. So the third setting in which Janet spends some time is the Shadetree Retirement Home, complete with therapy cat  and dog, and a garden therapy program. 

Each setting is a little world of its own, but they overlap and provide a textured background in which the series can play out. 

For more information about the Animals in Focus mysteries, and the series, please visit my website Mysteries Page, and for immediate news join me on Facebook or Twitter.

Autographed copies of Drop Dead on Recall, The Money Bird, and my nonfiction books, including Rescue Matters, from Pomegranate Books. 

Also available from your favorite bookseller (think Indie!) and online: Paperback and Kindle editions HERE
Audible editions HERE

Sheila Webster Boneham writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She started this blog as a way to bring readers and authors together over all sorts of writing that involves animals in some way. Learn more at Sheila's Website


  1. I agree! Setting is so important to a book. I lived on the Navajo Reservation for several years and didn't discover Hillerman's books until after we'd left. But they were so evocative that reading them brought back all that lonely, beautiful country. As for talking dogs , you really ought to try the Chet and Bernie series by Spencer Quinn, which is a pen name for Peter Abrahams. They're wonderful. Not at all "cutsie." :)

    1. Susan, I love Tony Hillerman's books. I will try the Chet and Bernie books.