“That’s a good place to dump a body,” I said, forehead pressed against the passenger window of my sister’s pickup. A tangle of oaks, briars and wild grapevines followed a meandering creek in a thick greenbelt along the quiet road north of Dallas.
My sister, who'd had to endure growing up with me, said something about my creepy outlook on the world, then admitted that the police had recently caught a couple of teenage boys as they walked out of that overgrowth—from dumping the body of another youth they’d choked to death.
My formative years in law enforcement were spent in the South so I tend to think of that area in fairly violent and bloody terms. Apologies to all my relatives and friends who still live there. I have plenty of happy memories too. But I’ve found too many bodies in the woods. Some were in shallow graves or tarps or bed sheets or old carpet. Some were in nothing at all. There’s something about the oppressive humidity, the sweet smell of decaying earth, and the mottled light through the branches that just screams, “There’s a dead body in here!”
Man-trackers know people tend to follow natural lines of drift, moving generally over the same path as those who have gone before them. Oddly, it's not unheard of for one crime scene to overlap with another. I heard someone say recently that if all the bodies buried in the desert outside San Bernardino stood up, the place would look like a forest.
Just like dense woods can evoke a sense of foreboding, other places dredge up different feelings and thoughts. If done correctly, setting is not just a backdrop in which characters move around. It’s a character in its own right.
I’m writing this at 30,000 feet, between DC and Los Angeles. Washington, with its Heroic statues, less than heroic politicians, granite monuments, spies, spies in training, and herds of unruly youth on summer trips, provides a perfect backdrop for intrigue—the same way a sunset over a wide West Texas street says gunfight.
I often set scenes in areas where I’ve worked, including DC. In an early Jericho Quinn novel, I wrote a key chase scene set in and around Arlington, Virginia, basing it on my memories and Google Earth. I ended up back there for several weeks on assignment while working on that same book—and realized that, though I had the geography correct, I’d neglected to mention the thrumming buzz of cicadas that filled the trees at that time of year. It was a small detail, but a word or two about these insects certainly fleshed out the setting.
My first Western was set in Western Montana in 1910. I had about a third of it written before I had sense enough to research what was going on in that part of the country in that particular year. Turns out they had a humongous forest fire—belching out enough smoke that streetlights on the East Coast had to be lit during the day. That fire became a major character in a story that would have fizzled without it.
Over the last few days I’ve walked through chases and fight scenes in Manhattan’s Chinatown and the warren of tunnels that make up the DC Metro system—both places that, at least in my mind, make for great settings/characters. It’s a delicate balance between being too sparse or too wordy in your descriptions.
There’s an old story among lawdogs about a Texas Ranger who, after a gunfight with a fugitive, sent a telegram with the following report to his superiors.
“Ranger attempted to arrest outlaw, outlaw drew weapon, Ranger shot outlaw, outlaw expired.”
Of course the Ranger’s Captain sent word that he needed a more detailed report. The next day he received the following amended report:
“Ranger attempted to arrest outlaw, outlaw drew weapon, Ranger shot outlaw, outlaw expired. Weather: cloudy.”
Each place has its own unique details. Ambient sound—the slap of a halyard against a sailboat’s mast, the creak of saddle leather, or the buzzing of blowflies; smell—the odor of fish and desperation in the teeming backstreets of Chinatown; and weather—oppressive heat that pushes a person to strip to the skin or bitter cold that makes holding a firearm painful if not impossible. They can all add interesting layers to setting and place.
I admit that I enjoy writing descriptions—probably a little more than I should. I slash a good many of them on my own, then again, when my wife reads the manuscript…and again when my editor gets his/her hands on it. We overnight tonight in LA. Tomorrow we head to Japan for a few weeks, visiting our grandchildren and scouting other locations for fights, foot pursuits and new settings where Jericho and friends can have their adventures. A place like that overwhelms my senses, leaving me feeling like Scrooge McDuck in his counting house, except, instead of money, I roll around in a great pile of words and ideas.
Our flight arrives in LA in the early afternoon. I really should go for a run when we get to the hotel. Google Earth shows a nice greenbelt just a couple of blocks away—but I’ll stick to the treadmill. I’m just not in the mood for what I might find out there in the leaves.
Marc Cameron is a retired Chief Deputy US Marshal and 29-year law enforcement veteran. His short stories have appeared in BOYS’ LIFE Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. He's published eleven novels, six of them Westerns.
TIME OF ATTACK fourth in his USA Today Bestselling Jericho Quinn Thriller series, is the newest release from Kensington February of 2014. DAY ZERO will hit the shelves February 2015.
Marc lives in Alaska with his beautiful bride and BMW motorcycle.
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