Change the Geography!!!!

This is less of an exploration of Tana French’s work, than a post giving permission to do what she does: change the geography of a real place if it suits your story and don’t apologize for it.

All of French’s novels take place in Dublin, but if you tried to follow her street directions (kinda like people do for James Joyce’s Ulysses on Bloomsbury Day) you will get hopelessly lost. Because the places don’t exist.

What does making up geography do for you as a writer.

One word: FREEDOM.

You can do what you want, when you want, and you don’t have to reference maps or your own memory, if your setting happens to be a place you know and love. It saves you endless back-and-forth checking. It allows you to put obstacles in the character’s way. It allows you to make the setting your own.

So, if you’ve been stuck in a real city or other location and have rearranged whole plot points because of the plain-old existence of  certain things in your real-life setting, feel free to move some stuff around. Add a mile or two. Create a detour. Imagine a short-cut. Or extend a highway. If you do it in a convincingly descriptive way, no one will bat an eyelash.

And you can just add a note, like French does at the end of Faithful Place:

“Faithful Place did exist once, but it was on the other side of the River Liffey — northside, in the warren of streets that made up the red-light district of Monto, rather than southside in the Liberties — and it was gone long before the events of this book. Every corner of the Liberties is layered with centuries of its own history, and I didn’t want to belittle any of that by pushing an actual street’s stories and inhabitants aside to make way for my fictional story and characters. So, instead, I’ve played fast and loose with Dublin geography: resurrected Faithful Place, moved it across the river, and added this book into the decades when the street doesn’t have a history of its own to be pushed aside.
As always, any inaccuracies, deliberate or otherwise, are mine.”

Playing ‘Character Point Of View’ Tag

Strong POV characters dominate Tana French’s novels. Each of her people have definite ideas about life, love, work, and how things should be done. This allows each novel to be its own complete thing.

And there’s a really cool thing French does that makes these characters even more interesting — and that’s making her characters have opinions (strong, almost unbendable opinions) about the other recurring characters. The result is a very interesting conglomeration of people who you, the reader, know intimately, but leaves you suspecting that you can never really know anyone.

To illustrate this points, I’m going to track the game of Character Point of View Tag that French plays with her characters.

Beginning with In the Woods, the first book in the series. 
The POV Character/”It”: Rob Ryan, troubled survivor of an unknown trauma. He tells the story of his past and the present day murder, which are somehow connected. He’s presented as a somewhat sarcastic, youngish member of the Murder Squad. A guy really too smart for his own good:
“I have a pretty knack for imagery, especially the cheap, facile kind. Don’t let me fool you into seeing us as a bunch of parfit gentil knights galloping off in doublets after Lady Truth on her white plafry.”

The “tag” goes to Cassie Maddox, Ryan’s partner in In the Woods, who is described by Ryan: “She was wearing combat trousers and a wine-colored woollen sweater with sleeves that came down past her wrists, and clunky runners, and I put this down as affectation: Look, I’m too cool for your conventions. The spark of animosity this ignited increased my attraction to her. There is a side of me that is most intensely attracted to women who annoy me.”

And Maddox becomes the narrator for The Likeness, book number two:
“It”: Cassie Maddox. How she describes herself and while she escapes her day-to-day with target practice: “After the first few shots a fuse would blow in the back of my brain and the rest of the world vanished somewhere faint and far away, my hands turned rock-steady on the gun and it was just me and the paper target, the hard familiar smell of powder in the air and my back braced solidly against the recoil. I came out calm and numb as if I’d been Valiumed. By the time the effect wore off, I had made it through another day at work and I could go whack my head off sharp corners in the comfort of my own home.”

The “tag”: Frank Mackey, head of the Undercover Squad. How Cassie describes him: “He was a legend: Frank Mackey, still in his thirties and already running undercover operations; the best Undercover agent Ireland’s ever had, people said, reckless and fearless, a tightrope artist with no net, ever.”

Frank Mackey becomes narrator for Faithful Place:
“It”: Mackey’s attitude about his role in Undercover is a little different than Cassie’s: “Here’s the real risk in Undercover, in the field and out: you create illusions for long enough, you start thinking you’re in control. It’s easy to slide into believing you’re the hypnotist here, the mirage master, the smart cookie who know what’s real and how all the tricks are done. The fact is you’re still just another slack-jawed mark in the audience.”

The “tag”: And Mackey has definite opinions about “Scorcher” Kennedy — “Scorcher is close on six foot, an inch or so taller than me, but he holds himself like a little guy: chest out, shoulders back, neck very straight. He has darkish hair, a narrow build, a serious set of jaw muscles and a knack for attracting the kind of women who want to be status symbols when they grow up and don’t have the legs to bag a rugby player.”

But, before we move on to Scorcher, Frank Mackey is a very fast “It” — he also tags off another later narrator, Stephen Moran: “Stephen Moran, twenty-six years old, home address in the North Wall, good Leaving Cert results, straight from school into Templemore, string of glowing evaluations, out of uniform just three months. The photo showed  a skinny kid with scruffy red hair and alert gray eyes. A working-class Dublin boy, smart and determined and on the fast track, and — thank heaven for little newbies — way too green and too eager to question anything a squad detective might happen to tell him”

Scorcher Kennedy, narrates Broken Harbor:
“It”: How he describes himself: “Let’s get one thing straight: I was the perfect man for this case. You’d be amazed how many of lads would have run a mile, given the choice — and I had a choice, at least at the start. A couple of them said it to my face: Sooner you than me, man. It didn’t bother me, not for a second. All I felt was sorry for them.”

Stephen Moran, narrates The Secret Place:
“It”: How he describes himself: Cold Cases is good. Bery bleeding good for a guy like me: working class Dub, first in my family to go for a Leaving Cert instead of an apprenticeship. I was out of uniform by twenty-six, out of the General Detective Unit and into Vice by twenty-eight — Holly’s da put in a word for me there. Into Cold Cases the week I turned thirty, hoping there was no word put in, scared there was. I’m thirty-two now. Time to keep moving up.
      Cold Cases is good. Murder is better.”

And what’s even better is that you can reverse the tag game and hear what each of the narrators thinks about a previous narrator or two. Plus other side characters that haven’t taken center stage yet. The Easter eggs are fun to find.

Colloquialisms as a Way to Set Up Setting

There are a million ways to establish a setting. The easiest and most straightforward is to describe the setting in narration — just lay out how things look. But there’s more to a setting than physical surroundings and sometimes plain old description just doesn’t cut it.

Every place has its own rhythm, its own people. Its own dialect. And colloquialisms — the turns of phrase unique to a place — are a great way to establish a sense of place. In a lot of ways, authors (good authors) do this automatically. Stephen King’s “ayuhs” and northeastern slang never lets the reader forget that his stories happen, with the rare exception, in rural Maine.   

Tana French lives and writes in Dublin, focusing on Dublin cops, so some really cool Dublin terminology pops up. 
Now, most of the cops try to appear professional – the result is that quite a few of the policemen speak like American and British professionals because English grammar is English grammar, right? However, there are several turns of phrase that pop up – especially any time Frank Mackey shows up. Mackey in particular provides colorful language because he grew up and deals with “the streets” — so you get a really good sense of place and character through the language he uses. 
Some phrases that stuck out or otherwise interested me:
1. “Fair play to you.” – Means ‘well-done.’ But it seems to me that there’s an element of “way to kick my ass, smarty pants…” Or “Well done, you got me this time.” There seems to be a warning embedded in it, which I think is fascinating. I could be making up the undercurrents I sense in the phrase, or it could just be the nature of the mystery-reading beast that the characters always seem to be trying to one-up each other. 
2. “Butter wouldn’t melt.” – Means prim and proper, having a cold demeanor. I’d heard this first in a British play, Rattlesnakes by Graham Farrow. And I noticed it again in Faithful Place
3. “Ghost homes” – This one pops up in Broken Harbor and refers to the thousands of homes throughout Ireland that were built in anticipation of selling, but then the global housing collapse happened. So now there are a ton of empty houses making up empty neighborhoods. (Really, I’m quite surprised this term hasn’t been applied to more houses in the U.S.) The concept of entire neighborhoods of these ghost homes dominates the imagery of Broken Harbor.
4. “Bloody” – Okay, I’ve always known this is a curse word, but to my very American ears, it always catches my attention, so I thought I’d check out some origins. Of course, I did it via Urban Dictionary, which is the best place to go if you want to be offended or learn to be offensive. So, “bloody” comes from old English references of “By God’s blood.” Basically, it doesn’t mean “fucking” because “fucking” means “fucking.” A better translation would be “Goddamn.”
I’m sure that, as an American writer, I have plenty of turns of phrase and terms that I use without thinking about them. And reading Tana French has made me more aware that, whatever words we use, you can pretty much create a strong sense of setting both via your characters’ dialogue and in the local language elements you use in your narration. 
What author has used ‘local flavor’ successfully to establish a setting? Do you have any examples of not-so-good colloquialism use?

Writing a Series that Can Be Read Out-of-Order

As a reader of mysteries (and, to a lesser extent, fantasies), one of the difficulties I run into is finding a series where I don’t have to start at the beginning — like if the library or bookstore doesn’t have a copy of the number I need. And, sometimes I just wanna grab a book, read it, enjoy it, and not feel either guilty or unsatisfied because I “have to” wait for the next one.

As a writer, I appreciate what a difficult task this is to accomplish.

Quite frankly, no mystery-series author I’ve read (including the late, great Agatha Christie) has done as well in creating recurring characters, in a single location, working together in a single police unit, than Tana French.

I know this because I didn’t read her books in anything like the “correct” order. I did start with the first book, In the Woods, but then I jumped to the fourth, Broken Harbor. Followed that up with the fifth, The Secret Place, then hit the third, Faithful Place, and finished up with the second, The Likeness. I feel like I’ve missed nothing by skipping around like that.

“And why is this?” I ask myself.

Myself has come up with some reasons:

1. French focuses each novel on a specific character.
With the exception of The Secret Place (#5 for those keeping track) and a chapter here and there, all of the Dublin Murder Squad books are told entirely in first person. Even The Secret Place is predominately in the first person. This keeps the focus very tight on a single experience and covers a single arc. This can probably be accomplished in a strictly third person narrative, but I imagine you’d have to be really disciplined in order to avoid the siren’s call of other characters taking their place on the page stage.

2. French has not repeated POV characters as POV characters.
In the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich, the first person POV is always Stephanie Plum. (I’m not knocking the Plum novels — I really dig them as a matter of fact, but you can’t really read them out of order.) What this does is create a lot of self-referrential moments, so unless the reader is familiar with the previous Plum novels, they’ll have a hard time following relationship entanglements and even some bad guy plot points. French avoids this by bringing a new character to the forefront every time. So, wherever you pick up, you are getting to know a new character.

3. The recurring characters become Easter eggs. 
“But,” you may be saying in my imaginary conversation, “the reason to read a series is because we become invested in the characters.

Point taken.

With French’s series, characters do recur, sometimes to play significant parts in other novels, but the filter changes with the POV character, which makes these repeating characters more interesting and more well-rounded. (In fact, I’m so fascinated and impressed by the effect French creates that I’m going to try to explore it in a couple different ways — stay posted!)

For example, the most-recurring character is Frank Mackey. In The Likeness he’s a stubborn, Undercover Squad legend who pushes a protege too hard. In Faithful Place he’s a broken-hearted daddy with some serious family problems who deals with his high-school sweetheart’s murder. In Broken Harbor he’s an asshole who gets in the way. In The Secret Place he’s an overprotective cop-daddy who “doesn’t get it.” And every facet is just as cool and fascinating as the last.

4. A single arc per book — the story is started and completed.
Tied to the single POV character, there is only one story arc per book. It starts at the beginning of the novel and it goes through to the end. No cliffhangers.

5. French doesn’t feel pressured to give all the answers.
Here’s something interesting that French does: she doesn’t always solve every bit of the mystery. (This epically pissed off some readers of her first novel.) Strangely enough, this doesn’t make you feel like you have to read the book immediately following in the series. It feels like a fact of life. As an individual without omniscient abilities, you just can’t know everything. The Dublin Murder Squad books feel like that — and generally it’s a little bittersweet and beautiful.

***Are there other series that you don’t have to read in order? What makes them stand out? Do you prefer having a series move from A-Z, or do you like the freedom to move around?