Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Why Setting is a Writer's Best Friend {+ Giveaway}

It’s a pleasure to welcome author Martha Conway to Thoughts in Progress today as part of her WOW Blog Tour for her release, SUGARLAND: A JAZZ AGE MYSTERY.

As part of the tour, I have one copy of SUGARLAND to giveaway. Please see the end of the post for more details.

Martha combines history and mystery in this story of Eve Riser, a jazz pianist in 1921 who witnesses the accidental killing of a bootlegger. To cover up the crime, she agrees to deliver money and a letter to a man named Rudy Hardy in Chicago. But when Eve gets to Chicago she discovers that her stepsister Chickie, a popular nightclub singer, is pregnant by a man she won't name. That night Rudy Hardy is killed before Eve's eyes in a brutal drive-by shooting and Chickie disappears. Then things really get complicated!

SUGARLAND recently received a Reader’s Favorite Book Award.

Genre: Historical Fiction
Hardcover: 314 pages
(Also available in paperback and e-book)
Noontime Books: June 1, 2016
ISBN: 978-0991618552

Please join me in giving a warm welcome to Martha who is joining us today to talk about ‘Why Setting is a Writer's Best Friend.’ Welcome, Martha.

The other day my daughter and I were talking about dreams, and I realized that what stays with me the most about a dream is where it is set. There are some places—houses or rooms—that I swear I’ve been to again and again in my dreams. Other places are startling because they are so unique.

Where I go in my dreams is as vivid to me as where I go when I read. I’ve been to some amazing places in novels—the flatlands of northern Mexico in Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses; a neglected southern farm during the Civil War in Cold Mountain; small English villages in any Jane Austen novel; Dunkirk during World War I in Atonement.

Each of these places I can picture in my mind’s eye as if I’d made my own movie. I think that’s one of the real thrills for me about reading (or dreaming!). In a very real way, readers are a part of the creative process.

As a novelist, I usually think of characters and their story first, and setting second. However, once I’ve fixed a location where my story takes place, I try to exploit it for all that it’s worth. I’m a setting junkie.

Setting is a potent tool in a writer’s toolbox, because it can be used to indicate all sorts of things in a “show don’t tell” sort of way. I like to put each scene in a setting that reflects the mood. My novel Sugarland opens with a romantic tryst in an abandoned train car late at night. The dark intimacy is perfect for the scene, but the train car also represents something more, something about the overall story itself—Eve, the main character, is about to go on a journey both literally and figuratively.

It’s fun to play around with what a place can represent, and I feel as though novelists sometimes don’t do that enough. When I am at odds with how to show what a character is feeling (short of saying, She felt this), I like to have her look at something or hear something in her environment that indicates her interior feelings and thoughts.

On a larger scale, I also like to use setting to create an overall story atmosphere; in Sugarland, there are a few scenes of musicians playing in clubs — either performing on stage or after hours, toodling around— and it helps to bring up a Roaring Twenties kind of vibe (the novel is set in the 1921). There’s excitement in a club setting: the music, the illegal hooch, gambling. But there’s also tension: gangsters, racial prejudice. I feel like that is a potent mix, which I could not have achieved nearly as well just by dialogue.

To paraphrase writer Richard Russo (and probably others): “Place is character.” The way a writer describes a place, and the way they allow characters to inhabit that place (comfortably or not so much), is an amazingly effective way to add depth and complexity, both to the characters and to the story itself. And as a reader, if a setting is done well, I get this beautiful gift of going somewhere I would not normally go. Like a dream.

Martha, thanks for visiting with us today and sharing these thoughts on settings. As a reader, settings do play a very important role in the books I read. Sometimes it’s the setting alone that draws me in.
Now for those who aren’t familiar with Martha, here’s a bit of background on her.

Author Martha Conway
Martha Conway’s debut novel 12 Bliss Street (St. Martin’s Minotaur) was nominated for an Edgar Award while Thieving Forest won an Independent Publishers Book Award, the Laramie Award, a Reader’s Choice Award and the 2014 North American Book Award in Historical Fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Mississippi Review, The Quarterly, Folio, Puerto del Sol, Carolina Quarterly, and other publications.

She graduated from Vassar College and received her master’s degree in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She has reviewed fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Review of Books, and The Iowa Review. The recipient of a California Arts Council fellowship in Creative Writing, she has taught at UC Berkeley Extension and Stanford University’s Online Writers’ Studio.

Other Books by Martha Conway

·        12 Bliss Street
·        Thieving Forest

You can find out more about SUGARLAND and Martha by visiting her website and blog and connecting with her on Facebook and Twitter.

SUGARLAND is available through Amazon as well as your local independent bookstore.

Here’s a listing of blogs participating in Martha’s tour. Be sure to visit them for more chances to win a copy of SUGARLAND.

*Monday, October 10 @ The Muffin
Interview and Giveaway

Wednesday, October 12 @ Renee’s Pages

Monday, October 17 @ Lisa Haselton’s Reviews and Interviews

Friday, October 21 @ Bev Baird

*Monday, October 24 @ Building Bookshelves
Interview, Review and Giveaway

Tuesday, October 25 @ Choices

*Friday, October 28 @ Mystery Thrillers & Romantic Suspense Reviews
Guest post and Giveaway

*Sunday, October 30 @ Vickie S. Miller
Review and Giveaway

Wednesday, November 2 @ Bring on Lemons

Thursday, November 3 @ Deal Sharing Aunt

Monday, November 7 @ Celtic Lady’s Reviews

Thanks to the wonderful folks at WOW, I have a print copy of SUGARLAND by Martha Conway to giveaway. The giveaway is open to residents of the U.S. only and will end at 12 a.m. (EST) on Thursday, Oct. 27.

To enter the giveaway, just click on the Rafflecopter form below and follow the instructions. The form may take a few seconds to load so please be patient.

A winner will be selected by the Rafflecopter widget and I’ll send an email with the subject line “Thoughts in Progress Giveaway.” The winner will have 72 hours to reply to the email or another winner will be selected. PLEASE be sure to check your spam folder from time to time after the giveaway ends to make sure the notification email doesn’t end up there. If you win and you’ve already won the book somewhere else or you just decided for whatever reason you don’t want to win (which is fine), once again PLEASE let me know.

Thanks so much for stopping by. Do you enjoy books that have a mix of history and mystery? Do you enjoy books that have a jazz tie-in?


  1. I am always drawn to novels with a basis in history - though I am happy for that history to be twisted. And I agree wholeheartedly that setting is important - and often not given the attention it deserves.

  2. Mixing in some history makes it more real. I'll admit, setting is not one of my strong suits, although I can see it clearly in my mind. It just doesn't end up on paper.

  3. Oh, I really like that combination of history and the mystery, too! And the Jazz Age is a terrific context. This sounds really interesting, Mason, so thanks for sharing.

  4. The setting should be a character, alive and with depth, but it's not easy to achieve.

  5. I love historical mysteries, and this sounds like a good one—thanks for the chance to win a copy!

    skkorman AT bellsouth DOT net

  6. Setting I can sometimes skimp on, even though I can see it, working on that though. I've used the staring at something trick a time or two. Dreams sure can go back to the same spot many a time too, mine sure do.

  7. I enjoy historical mysteries which are captivating and intriguing. This novel sounds wonderful.

  8. Martha, thanks again for joining us. Blending history and mystery is a good combination. Wishing you much success.

    Hi everyone! Thanks so much for dropping by.

  9. What a coinidence, I love jazz! And historical mysteries! My lucky day, me thinks. Congratulations, Martha. The cover is a great hook.

  10. This sounds like a really good historical mystery. I would love to read it! Thank you!

  11. I love books with history and mystery, or either one of these elements. I don't think I've read anything yet with a jazz tie-in, but it sounds good!


I'd love to hear your thoughts on today's post. Thanks for dropping by.