Thursday, February 10, 2011

Timothy Hallinan talks about settings

I'm thrilled to welcome author Timothy Hallinan to Travels with the Muse! 

Timothy Hallinan was just nominated for the 2010 Best Novel Edgar for THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, the fourth book in his series of Bangkok thrillers featuring expatriate travel writer Poke Rafferty.  With ten conventionally published books to his credit, Tim has decided to alternate in the future between “tree books” and e-books and his first e-book original, CRASHED, is now available for $2.99 on Amazon.  CRASHED is the first in a series of “thrillers with a laugh track” about Junior Bender, a Los Angeles burglar who moonlights as a private eye – for crooks.  Coming soon is Junior's second adventure, LITTLE ELVISES.  He lives in Los Angeles and Bangkok.

Here's what Mr. Hallinan has to say about the settings for his novels, along with some terrific photos he has provided for your enjoyment.

A setting is usually defined as the place in which a story unfolds.

But what's a place?

I believe it's an experience, and it's different for almost everyone. My Seattle, my Bangkok, is different than yours. I see different things, smell different things, experience the climate and the light differently. What we see or remember is only partly a function of where we go. It's also what we look for and what's important to us.

That's why I think the best-written books don't have a setting. They have settings. Every major character will – and should – experience the book's geographic setting differently.

If they do, then I thing two things will happen. First, the setting will be in three dimensions, because at least two perspectives are necessary for 3D. Second, the writer will find literally dozens of ways that reactions to the setting can differentiate his or her characters.

I write a series set in Bangkok, so let's look at one of my Bangkok books, The Fourth Watcher. I'm using my own books as examples because (a) I know them better than I know anyone else's, and (b) it's a sneaky way to plug them.

In The Fourth Watcher, my central male character, travel writer Poke Rafferty, comes up against the person he wants least to see in the world, whom we'll call Mr. X, and also a member of the U.S. Secret Service named Richard Elson. And he's married to a Thai woman named Rose and the adoptive father of a little girl, a former street child named Miaow (pronounced like the sound a cat makes.)

To Rafferty, Bangkok is his new environment. After a few years there, he loves it, he doesn't yet completely understand how it works, and he tends to accept what he sees on the surface, although he's gradually learning that in some situations, that might get him killed.

Rose came to Bangkok as a teenager and has had a very rough time there. She regards it with a kind of wary understanding and worries about the way her husband accepts things at face value. Miaow has in her head a complete map of the city's unlighted areas – its alleys and empty buildings, shuttered hotels and all the places where it's especially dangerous to be a child.

Elson, the Secret Service guy, has just arrived, and he hates every square foot of it. He hates the traffic, the noise, the heat; the food gives him the squits; but at the same time, he's secretly distracted by the city's Byzantine sex scene. And for Mr. X, Bangkok is a great place to hide from some extremely dangerous people.

We see the city from all these people's perspectives, even if it's only in the way they talk about it, and I think that helps the reader see Bangkok as something more than a picture postcard or a stage setting in front of which the story is acted out. When reviewers like my books, they almost always talk about how real the setting is. I think the reason is that they've experienced several different Bangkoks, through the eyes of very different characters.


  1. Thank you Tim, for sharing your thoughts about the setting for your books and how they reveal your characters!

  2. Joyce: Oops. In your intro, you say "The Fourth Watcher" was his fourth Bangkok thriller and earned the Edgar nom. Instead, that should be "Queen of Patpong." :)

  3. Thanks Everett, you are so right - Tim and I missed this and I have made the correction.

  4. I dunnit, not Joyce. I was not thinking clearly, completely preoccupied with finishing PULPED, the first Simeon Grist book since 1995. (Which I did finish yesterday.) And since I was thinking about WATCHER for this post, I wrote it in the intro.

    Mea Culpa. Good to know you're watching out for us, Everett.

  5. Incredible photos, Tim.

    Joyce, thanks for hosting Tim today. I'm especially looking forward to reading the Poke Rafferty series.

  6. Hi, Patricia, and thanks. I wish I could take credit for the pictures, but I can't. I bagged then off the web to use in the PowerPoint presentations I do in bookstores.

    Amazing place, Bangkok -- the home of contradiction -- for everything that's true, the exact opposite is, too.

  7. It's funny, Tim, because I think in the Poke books you get across yet another Thailand--my Thailand, never having visited it. I've currently finished the third in the series, and although I agree that each character experiences the city in their own way, I still feel a sense of unrest and unease that I think is mostly mine.

    Anyway, great post, and Joyce, great find for a guest!

  8. Interesting comment, Jenny - we talk a lot about settings that reveal character - but sometimes fail to consider how they effect the reader's "character"!

  9. I'm definitely intrigued-- Bangkok has always struck me as an evocative place, gorgeous and mysterious and dangerous. Off to buy a copy of Queen of Patpong!

  10. Hi, Jenny, hi, Heath --

    So glad you could both drop by. Jenny, there's plenty of unrest and unease with the current political dissatisfaction, and nobody knows what's going to happen in the next 3-4 months. But you'd probably enjoy Bangkok; almost everyone does.

    Heath, thanks for making the leap. If you like QUEEN, the other three would probably be best read in order (it doesn't matter that much with QUEEN since most of the book happens before Poke even gets to Thailand). They are A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, THE FOURTH WATCHER, and BREATHING WATER. And if you want a cheap read with some cheap laughs (okay, expensive laughs) you might try CRASHED for the Kindle at $2.99. It's the first in my newest series.

  11. Excellent post! I think you're right, wherever you set your story it is based on your experiences. I'm anxious to read one of your books, and am happy to have been exposed to you here at this blog. Thanks for making e-books too!

  12. Tim's books not only have fascinating settings and intriguing plots, but he had a really great writing style too.

  13. Great post, Tim. I may steal some of this for my "crime and climate" panel at LCC!

  14. I'm reading Tim's books out of order. I read a Nail in the Head first, then the Queen of Patpong. Now I have Crashed on my Kindle and I'm wondering if I'll like it as much. Well, I know I'll like it, but I dislike the mental effort of moving into a different series.

    Keep it up Tim. You're a great writer and I'm reading until I catch up with you.

  15. Wow, look at all of you. Joyce really draws a great-looking crowd.

    Hi, Maureen and thanks. I hope you enjoy whichever book you start with -- the first, NAIL, is the toughest in terms of subject matter; the others are all easier. The e-book series that begins with CRASHED is much lighter than the Bangkok books, although they do deal with some serious themes.

    Donis, that means a lot coming from you, since THE OLD BUZZARD HAD IT COMING was one of my favorite books of 1910.

    Neil, I'd be flattered to be quoted at LCC, and especially by you. I've got no problem with it if Joyce doesn't, and I'm sure she won't. Wish I could be there.

    Writer Lady, thanks for the kind words. The Junior e-books are very different from the Poke books but a lot of fun, and the next one, LITTLE ELVISES, is really, really good, even if I do say so myself. Please e-mail me to let me know what you think -- my address is in all the books.

  16. @ Neil - no problem - these are Tim's words! Have a blast at LCC. I won't be there this year but hopefully will meet you at the next one.

    Great to see so all these comments coming from different angles - goes to show how much depth and breadth there is in Mr. Hallinan's books!

  17. I enjoy reading about the "modern" Thailand, as I lived there as a teenager when the klongs (Venetian-style waterways) still held sewage and fighting fish:)

  18. Hey, Jinx -- is there anywhere in the world you HAVEN'T lived? The klongs still hold sewage, but any surviving fighting fish must have superpowers.

  19. well said about Bangkoki like this blog

  20. Hi Tim,

    That is great advice! I worry a lot of the setting - especially if I've not traveled to the actual place. I think your approach will allow me to face this part of writing with more confidence because I will learn to see a setting through my main characters eyes and they will see it differently from me or anyone else.