Location, Location, Location

By Poison Ivy,

When I look for a romance to read, the author’s choice of locale matters to me. And to most readers. It isn’t enough to describe a romance hero as a haughty Spaniard. It’s important to describe Spain, to show the place that made this man this way. A story about a coolly remote Frenchman would not be the same without descriptions of his world, be it a fancy chateau and vineyards, or a major city such as Paris. And what about those wild and crazy Aussie men? To leave out the country that made them is to leave out a major part of understanding who these men are. The same applies to heroes from Texas or California. Not only are people from these states known to be idiosyncratic and colorful, so are the states themselves.

I once read a manuscript submission whose story took place in Alaska. But the characters never went outside. They hung around in coffee shops. For all the local color they provided, they might as well have been in any chain restaurant in some no-name city in some bland state. None of the majesty, beauty, isolation, or ruggedness of Alaska or the individuality of its inhabitants came through. What a lost opportunity!

The writer could have recovered from her error if she had described how isolated parts of Alaska become in winter, and how the moose wander in the streets, and how inhabitants congregate in warm indoor spots. And then the writer could have described what the landscape outside looked like during that season. And how the weather affected people’s moods. And what they wore to get from one warm indoor location to another. All of these elements would have given the story substantial visual and emotional heft. But alas, the writer did not use them.

People pick a story to read not just because of the characters and their situation but also to participate in the locale. Readers like to be armchair travelers. A story that happens in Paris, for instance, gives the reader the opportunity to enjoy or learn something about Paris without any of the trouble or expense of going there for real. Plus, if the characters are local inhabitants, not just visiting, their knowledge of the territory and its social ways brings the reader in close. And if the main character is a tourist who meets and interacts with a local beyond the ordinary level of a tourist, the story gains even more depth from its location.

There’s a difference between a story that occurs on the standard tourist route of a country, and one that explores something more personal. For instance, island cruises around Greece typically hit the same selection of islands. So if a story follows that exact itinerary, it runs the risk of being too obviously just the story of a standard tour of a country, and nothing more. On the other hand, if the reader has already been to that country and those places, the common tourist sights might seem pleasantly familiar. So the jury is out on whether going the extra step of seeking out-of-the-way venues within a locale is necessary.

Still, the use of location ought to show some creativity. I read another manuscript in which the characters were in Tahiti and they had a picnic. Nice. They were outside at least. But just a picnic? Couldn’t the author find something else to have them do, something special to Tahiti that they could not do back home anywhere in the US of A? The location ought to be used to its fullest.

In real estate, the humorous but true mantra is “location, location, location,” meaning that it is the most important element of a deal. In a romance, location isn’t quite that important. But how the writer treats location can make or break the reader’s enjoyment of the story. And ignoring or slighting it leaves a story flat and often unconvincing. It’s like seeing a play on a stage without any sets. The reader should not be expected to imagine Alaska, or Paris, or Tahiti. The writer should describe the location and make it an integral part of the story.