Terrie Farley Moran is a short-story writer published in EQMM, AHMM, and a number of mystery anthologies. In 2009, one of her stories earned a place on the Best American Mystery Stories Distinguished Mysteries list. She is not only a writer of short stories, however; she is also one of the field’s most avid readers of them. She even wore the editor’s hat in 2011 for an anthology of original short stories, the second book from the Tri-State Chapter of Sisters in Crime, Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices. She’s obviously someone who has thought a lot about the storyteller’s art and she’s here to offer her view of where it often all begins. . . . —Janet Hutchings
Most fiction writers will tell you that plot, character, and setting are the underpinnings of the sturdy three-legged stool that supports a well-told yarn.
And as much as we all agree to the general premise, I find it amusing that arguing about the relative importance of each leg is a full-time parlor game among writers. Someone will suggest that a mind-bending plot is all that matters. Another writer counters that characters are the most important story element. Whether a character is empathetic or offensive doesn’t matter as long as the reader cares about the character’s plight. Then there are folks convinced that an exotic setting will draw the reader into a tale so that they can “live” in the unique environment for a while.
And where do I stand on all this? Well, I come down firmly on the side of setting. Nope. I’m not kidding. Think about it. Would the story of Beauty and the Beast be as powerful if the Beast lived in a two-bedroom apartment nestled over a tea shop, rather than a huge and forbidding castle in a dense and dark forest? I don’t think so.
It’s not that I’m committed to using only story times and places that are out of the ordinary. On the contrary, I often find a local setting that intrigues me and I develop a story to show it off. A while ago I wrote “Fontaine House” (EQMM, August 2012). It came about because I had rented a small place for a couple of months on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River in southwest Florida. I quickly became enamored of the river and day after day I spent time communing with its majesty. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the Caloosahatchee had a story to tell and it wanted me to tell it. So I created a family who resided about twenty miles down river on an island in the Gulf of Mexico, and then I invented a historical house a few miles up river. Finally I tied the geography and the people together with one present-day murder and one Civil War-era murder. In my heart, the river remains the moving force of the entire tale.
Setting is the inspiration for much of my writing, particularly for stories that take place in my native New York City. Times Square sounds one way. Battery Park sounds another. Once I hear the voices, the story comes together.
I am the first to admit that my love of setting is not a requirement for a great read. There are wonderful stories that could have been written in nearly any generic setting, but in some stories the setting defines the characters and intensifies the plot. As an example, I suggest you read “Misprision of Felony” by O’Neil De Noux, available in the December 2012 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The story has powerful characters and a fascinating plot, but I contend that it is the setting of post-Katrina New Orleans that gives the story its most potent emotional impact. Take a look and tell me if you agree.