Listen To Your Reader

Born and raised in Southern California, Marja McGraw worked in both criminal and civil law enforcement and calls on her experience when writing.  She eventually relocated to Northern Nevada where she worked for the Nevada Department of Transportation.  Marja also did a stint in Oregon where she worked for the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and owned her own business. She briefly lived in Wasilla, Alaska.

McGraw and her husband now live in Arizona, and they say they enjoy life in the desert. “Bullhead City has really become home, and the city even made a cameo appearance in Prudy’s Back! I’ve set it up so that two of my characters live here, so from time to time I can involve Bullhead City in my mysteries.”

McGraw writes two series, one involving a young, female private investigator named Sandi Webster, and one featuring a Humphrey Bogart look-alike named Chris Cross. The books are lighter with a touch of humor. Asked why she chose this type of story, McGraw said that she wants to entertain her readers, and she feels that humor is the way to do that. Old Murders Never Die – A Sandi Webster Mystery was released in July, 2011, from Wings ePress. Previous books include A Well-Kept Family Secret, Bubba’s Ghost, Prudy’s Back!, The Bogey Man and Bogey Nights.

I recently read some comments about readers’ pet peeves. Someone commented on settings in a story. Readers want to know where a story takes place. It’s a little like putting a face to a character. If a character is running through a forest, the reader wants to know where that forest is located, and sometimes they even want to know if it’s a real location or fictional.

Interestingly, I’d just been on a panel at a conference where we discussed settings. The general consensus of the authors on the panel was that setting is paramount to the story in most cases. Readers want to feel like they’re the fly on the wall while they read, and that’s difficult to do if the setting isn’t described in the story.

When I read, I like to have a feel for where the characters are and what they’re seeing and feeling. A well-written setting can achieve what, as a reader, I want to see in a book.

In July, 2011, Old Murders Never Die (by Marja McGraw, me) was released. I only mention this because it’s a good example of why setting is important to a book. This is the story of a female P.I. and her partner, who become stranded in a ghost town. The only characters in the story are the P.I., her partner, a rather large brown dog, a really large black horse, and a mysterious cowboy.

When the private investigator finds the town sheriff’s records, dating back to 1880, she learns of a series of murders from that era. As she reads the records, she doesn’t know if the crimes were ever solved or not. Now, here’s the thing. The ghost town, or setting, is so important to the story that it’s almost a character itself. Without the setting, there wouldn’t be a mystery. Also, having to do with the setting, it appears that many of the town’s people just up and left one day, leaving all of their belongings behind.

If you were reading this story, wouldn’t you want to be able to visualize the old town? Wouldn’t you like to see (in your mind) what the town looks like now, and what it looked like in 1880? While writing this I was almost the fly on the wall.

There was another woman on the panel whose books take place in the desert, and another one whose stories are located in Hawaii. Another woman writes travel mysteries, so obviously setting would be important. Would you rather have a writer say that the story takes place in the desert, period, or would you prefer that it’s a flat expanse with sand and saguaro cacti and Joshua trees, and when someone looks into the distance they see what looks like water, but probably isn’t? A mirage? Why does the image look like it’s moving when you know it’s not? Does it set a scene for a reader if the writer says it’s so arid their throat tickles–that water has never tasted so good to them?

Setting can be integral to a story, and readers know that and, surprise, they even discuss it. I listen to them because after being true to myself and my characters, that’s who I write for each day.

How do you feel about settings? Is it a major factor when you read a book? This inquiring mind would really like to know.

Lelia, thank you for inviting me to visit today. This is an awesome site!

(Two new books by Marja McGraw came out in 2011, so it’s been an exciting year. Bogey Nights-A Bogey Man Mystery was released by Oak Tree Press, and Old Murders Never DieA Sandi Webster Mystery was released by Wings ePress.)