Nov 1 2011 1:00pm

RIMBY: Romance in My Own Backyard

Instant Attraction by Jill ShalvisYou hear a lot about accuracy when it comes to historical romance, but it’s really rare to hear someone crowing about how accurate a contemporary romance is. That’s something I find puzzling, considering the huge number of contemporaries I feel have poor research or just get things wrong. (Sandra Hill’s infamous okra-peeling gaffe comes to mind.)

I live in the mountains of Northern California. And while there are a few books set in this area, there are very few romances that capture the spirit of the environment here. Where the landscape is another character. And that’s important, because up here, the land shapes how we interact with each other.

The best examples I can find of Sierra-set romances are the Wilder Brothers trilogy by fellow Sierra dweller Jill Shalvis. The fictional town of Wishful has a similar vibe to many of the small towns in the greater Tahoe area. Some of the shops she mentions are similar in ambiance to local hangouts I’ve patronized on my trips up to there. The businesses in Wishful aren’t big chain corporations, but locally run small businesses. And while Wishful is fictional, I can tell exactly which elements of the real towns the author pulled from to make her own version of a small, mountain town.

In Instant Attraction, the heroine is aware of just how different Wishful is from what she’s used to:

“Pulling into town always made her smile. Wishful was an authentic Old West mining town, filled with nineteenth-century false front buildings. Back in the day, that being the 1800s, Wishful had been infamous for its wild saloons and lawless residents. Tamer now, it was still alive thanks to its close proximity to Lake Tahoe.”

Beyond the authentic small town feel, there’s the weather. The shock of waking up to four feet of snow overnight, the constant power outages, the isolation that comes with knowing the drive to town is a few miles but could take a few hours. All of those details lend a depth to the stories that are, at their heart, fairly simple.

Romance writers are frequently told to “write what you know.” And I think the best part of that often happens when they focus on where they live or areas they know intimately. There are “in-jokes” and a whole unique vocabulary to every place. And knowing, and showing, those quirks are what make a setting come alive.

Talk Me Down by Victoria DahlVictoria Dahl’s Tumble Creek series is set in a fictional town in the Rockies. Not so coincidentally, Victoria Dahl lives in the Rockies. And although the Rockies are not the Sierras, there’s a similarity between Tumble Creek and Wishful. The scene in Talk Me Down where Ben, the police chief, is lecturing Molly about her impractical car and lack of four wheel drive is a classic example of an authentic detail that only someone who lives in snow country would think to include.

I know I’m not alone in using books to “travel” on a budget. And that means I like to read contemporaries where the setting is important. Where it “feels” authentic. In Exclusively Yours by Shannon Stacey, the Kowalksi’s family ATV camping trip into the wilds of New Hampshire is so realistically written that you can practically feel the mosquito bites and mud. In her holiday novella, Holiday Sparks, a snowmobile ride highlights rural New England in winter.

Moon Called by Patricia BriggsVeering slightly away from straight contemporary romance, Patricia Briggs’s Mercy series highlights the Tri-Cities area of Washington state. The scenes where Mercy travels as a coyote are most evocative for me because so much of what she does in that form is shaped by environment.

Whether it’s travel by book or reveling in a familiar setting, I am grateful to the authors who put so much effort into the environment where their characters live. And I get a special thrill when I can point to something in a book, and nod my head in agreement.

How do you feel about romances set in your backyard? Do you worry they’ll get it wrong and avoid them, or do you seek them out, enjoying when they capture what makes your city/state/region so unique? What romances do you feel capture the feel of where you live best?


Amber McMichael, Romance and Mystery Reviews, Buried By Books

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
Great post! I know exactly what you mean.

Linda Howard set one of her books in Orlando, Florida (where I'm from), and I read it very closely, looking for tidbits I could relate to. But while I don't remember any factual errors, I remember being a little disappointed that the setting didn't play more of a part in the story.

On the other hand, I've always loved when Suzanne Brockmann brings her knowledge of areas like Gainesville and Sarasota in her Troubleshooters series. It was fun to read about Sam and Alyssa running around in a Gainesville mall in their book, for instance, and Gina playing at a bar on Siesta Key.
Amber McMichael
2. buriedbybooks

I'm glad I'm not the only one who enjoys a well done setting! It's been some time since I've read those Troubleshooters books, but I do remember how immersive they were. And that's what I love: the ability to just sink into a book and know the setting is realistically written.
Carmen Pinzon
3. bungluna
After an awful experience, I avoid books set in my home country like the plague; not that many writers are dying to set their stories there. ;-D

I love reading books that bring a sense of place to the table. If I've been there, any little wrong detail WILL throw me off. If I can recongnize the place it makes my enjoyment of the story richer.
4. JanetW
What do you think of Robyn Carr's books: I "think" they're set in the California hills -- I know whenever I read about a big grass bust, I think of some of the perils in the woods (the criminal enterprises) described by Carr.

Your twitter handle is so perfect for what you described: the onset of a huge winter storm and enough books to see you through ...

Great blog -- when I know enough to be critical about a combo of place and character, it's hard to get back into the story if there are mistakes.
5. EvangelineHolland
The only books set in my backyard are Eileen Rendahl's paranormal series, so it's pretty fun to read the character going places I've walked or driven. However, I did grow up in the DMV (that's the DC Met area to those not in the know!), and I have a difficult time reading books andwatching movies set in that area. Unless the author has lived there, they always get the atmosphere of the place wrong.
Amber McMichael
6. buriedbybooks
Why is it that so many books get your country wrong, do you think?

I still haven't managed to read those Carr books, although they are staring at me from the TBR. But yes! Pot busts are a huge issue for those who live in the National Forest. We get a huge one every other year or so (most run by Mexican cartels who defend those grows with violence).


I know I can usually tell when an author has lived in an area (or just knows it really well) versus when they've only traveled through and have a superficial knowledge. It's hard to get the tiny details right, otherwise.
7. lki1130
I'm in agreement with EvangelineHolland, I grew up and still live in the Annapolis/Southern Marylandand area and can tell immediately when the writer has lived in the area, is familiar with the area or just knows enough to get by. There are a some things that can be a character all to itself and is such a part of the culture of the state (the Chesapeake Bay for example) it will put me off of a book, tv show, movie if the writer has gotten something wrong. I guess I shouldn't be so picky but the locale can be as much of a character that when you envision what the writer is trying to convey and you know the writer has it wrong, you feel slighted because it seems like it wasn't worthwhile for them to research the area and therefore, you, as the reader is not important because you won't notice the missing details.
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