Saturday, January 31, 2009

More Somer breeze

A few outtakes from this week's interview with Mehmet Murat Somer touched on setting, exotic and otherwise, a matter of occasional interest here at Detectives Beyond Borders.

"My books are not tourist guidebooks," Somer declared. Some crime novels, he said, express their sense of place through description, but "Istanbul is a personality in my books. It reflects ideas, feelings." To that end, he said he once turned down a request to give a visitor a tour of his novels' Istanbul and took the visitor for coffee instead. "What am I going to do, take them to transvestite nightclubs?"

At the same time, Somer appreciates the eye that a tourist or traveller can bring. "An observing eye," he said. "Even what we observe going for one day is valuable." This reminds me of Michael Genelin's remark at Bouchercon this year that a visitor may sometimes pick up details that a resident would miss because they are so commonplace.

With Somer's remark about Istanbul in mind, how can an author create a sense of place other than by taking readers sightseeing?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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16 Comments:

Blogger Loren Eaton said...

This is a tough one. One can always turn to straight exposition, although that's boring. I've seen authors take characters on a walk or drive through a city, ostensibly on other tasks, dropping little bits of description here and there. It's not exactly a tour.

January 31, 2009  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

Food, street names, different character names, music, book titles, politicans' names, the names of rivers. Little pieces here and there as Loren said. I think the more ordinary you can make it all sound, the better. When it's a writer's own country, it feels more organic.

January 31, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Every novel I've ever read about my home state mentions fragrance, be it orchids or Frangipani which is what mainlanders used to call plumeria.

It's not often an exposition but a casual sentence, often in the opening paragraph. "As (protagonist) got off the plane in Honolulu, the first thing he (she) noticed was the scent of flowers."

January 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren: Or one can do what Jason Goodwin did in The Snake Stone, which is to populate the novel, set in Istanbul, with important characters from elsewhere. This afforded ample space for exposition to make its way into dialogue in the form of history lessons. It worked rather well.

January 31, 2009  
Anonymous Karen C said...

Sometimes setting a sense of place is as much about the sensibility of the characters - there's something rather different about people's behaviour and attitudes when they are moving through and living in - say Paris - than there is if they are lurking around the "mean" streets of Canberra.

January 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patti, I wonder what Mr. Somer would say if he hapened to read this. Other than character names, his books don't have much of the sorts of indicators you suggest. I suspect he meant that his books exemplify something looser and less easily defined about life in Istanbul. Perhaps I'll get to quiz him further on this matter.

February 01, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, it would be interesting to ask Hawaii-based writers about this. Do they highlight the aroma of frangipani because they notice it? Are they influenced both by their state and by what others have written about it?

February 01, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Karen, I think you may have hit on something like what M.M. Somer meant about Istanbul reflecting ideas and feelings. We must convene a seminar om this subject.

February 01, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Peter, there are very few Hawai'i mystery writers one could ask. I've long thought there was room here for someone who could write in the vein that John MacDonald did; not McGee, but his other Florida-based stories about criminal developers. Lord knows we have lots of under-the-table behavior as grist for a mill of that sort.

Want any more bad metaphors? ;)

February 01, 2009  
Anonymous Karen C said...

A seminar sounds like an excellent idea - your choice of pub or mine?

February 01, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Karen, what's halfway between your place and mine?

February 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, am I imagining things, or was Magnum, P.I, set in Hawaii? Maybe I think so just because of the shirts that Tom Selleck used to wear. In any case, the only Hawaii-based crime fiction I can think of is Raoul Whitfield's Jo Gar stories from the 1930s.

You mentioned MacDonald. Another potential parallel or model for Hawaii-based crime fiction is Stuart Kaminsky's Lew Fonesca stories. Fonesca is an Illinois guy who, distraught after his wife is killed, sets out on the road until his car breaks down in Sarasota, Fla., and sets up shop there as a low-rent private investigator. This probably reflects Kaminsky's own move from Chicago to Florida, and it lets him give his protagonist and outsider's view that is decidedly not of the sight-seeing variety.

February 02, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Oh yes, Thomas Magnum was indeed based in Hawai'i. The cast members all had memberships in the private club I was DP Mgr for, and I remember bumping into Selleck there a few times. He was always polite. The guy who played Rick was not.

There are a few local mystery authors who've located their books here, but frankly the quality isn't high. Better than I could do, but the series don't grab me like many have.

February 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hawaii would seem a natural location for crime fiction for a number of reasons. Maybe it has been less so than it could have been because it's out of the way for many American writers.

I wonder if any Chinese, Japanese or Australian authors have set crime fiction there.

February 02, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

I wonder if any Chinese, Japanese or Australian authors have set crime fiction there.

Earl Derr Biggers' Charlie Chan

February 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thank you, Number One commenter.

I've never read any of the Charlie Chan stories or seen any of the movies. From time to time, I'll come across an article that tries to rescue Biggers and his character from the accusations of sterotyping. I always find that interesting, so I may keep an eye out for Charlie Chan in video stores and bookshops.

February 02, 2009  

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