What Makes a Special Setting Special?

My favorite of all the Special Title Lists is the Special Settings List. I can’t begin to say how many times I’ve scoured through that list looking for books to read in different exotic locales, paying particular attention to the Europe and the Middle East and Africa sections of the list.

I’ve written here before about my fondness for romances set in Greece. But in reality, I’m a sucker for romances set in any exotic or unusual location. Sure, like many of you, I love romances set in the U.K. But as a travel lover — both armchair and in real life — I long for variety in settings. Four years ago, Rike wrote a Letters to the Santa of Romance post that included many of our requests for romance. Mine was:

Could you please arrange to have some romances — contemporary romances with not a trace of suspense — set in some different parts of the world? I’d love to see a romance set on Santorini or Crete. And how about one set on Malta? What about Berlin or Amsterdam? Oh, and Mexico City might be nice as well. But please, Santa of Romance, in addition to no suspense, could these books also include no billionaires, no secret babies, and no sheiks?

That request still holds. It’s possible I’ve missed them, but I certainly haven’t read any new contemporary romances set on Malta, Santorini, Crete, or any of the other settings I wished for in the last four years.

What do I look for in a setting? First and foremost, I want to feel as if the characters are actually in the setting. Simply having a romance “set” in an unusual locale isn’t enough. I want to feel as if I’m there, see something other than the inside of the heroine’s office or restaurant, or a hotel room. Throw in an interesting location or two – be they historical monuments, museums, or neighborhoods – and I’m happy. I still want the focus on the characters and the romance, but I want the setting to shine through. I also don’t want to notice any obvious inaccuracies about the setting.

Some of my favorite, older romances have led me to do research on a locale. After reading the following passage in Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Breathing Room(2002), I spent considerable time doing research on San Gimignano and have now added it to my list of places I would like to visit:
“The city of San Gimignano sat like a crown on the hilltop, its fourteen watchtowers dramatically outlined against the setting sun. Isabel tried to imagine how the pilgrims on their way from Northern Europe to Rome must have felt as they caught their first sight of the city.”

I had been to Paris several times before I first read Lord of Scoundrels. But after reading the shooting scene by the Palais Royal, became fascinated with that place. Although I had walked through the Palais Royal several times I had no idea of its history. Since reading LOS, each trip I’ve made to Paris has included a visit to the Palais Royal, and I see it very differently thanks to LOS.

Not surprisingly, given my love of the Amelia Peabody mysteries, one romance with an unusual setting that stands out for me, and that has been a frequent reread, is set in Egypt. In Connie Brockway’s As You Desire (1997), the Egypt of the 1890s comes alive. It’s not any particular scene that brings the setting to life; the entire book makes me feel as if I am in 1890s Egypt with Harry and Dizzy. Yes, Dizzy showed the annoying Lord Ravenscroft the pyramids, and yes, she was taken from a market. But more importantly, they moved effortlessly in the society of the day, giving me a real feel for the time and the place. Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible is another favorite historical romance, also set in Egypt. The setting never takes away from the characters; they’re still firmly the focus, as in the following passage:
“Daphne was only dimly aware of the pyramid, one of the world’s wonders. All she could see was the man, and far too much of him: the shirt taut across the broad shoulders, the thin fabric almost transparent in the harsh light, revealing the contours of muscular arms and back.”
But as a reader, I’m still very aware of the setting.

While India isn’t my favorite setting for fiction, two newer books have brought historical aspects of the country to life for me and caught my interest. Deanna Raybourn’s Dark Road to Darjeeling and Lauren Willig’s The Betrayal of the Blood Lily are personal favorites from the past two years. I wasn’t convinced I would like either one, but the combination of fantastic characters, great plots, and vivid settings sucked me in, and has placed both on my DIK shelf.

As it happens, the Special Settings list is currently open for submissions and we would love to add some more to our list. And about those special settings, is there someplace you would love to see more romances set?

– LinnieGayl Kimmel

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10 Responses to “What Makes a Special Setting Special?”

  1. farmwifetwo says:

    One of the reason’s I enjoy foreign mysteries is the writers live in those places. The place, time, culture, is the lure. Sorry, NA (Can or US and even many UK) books are bland in that aspect.

    Not only am I interested in the locale but I want proof that the author has lived there, not just visited for a couple of days and spent some time at the tourist info booth or on google. The difference is very obvious once you’ve read books written by those that have lived in those places.

    I can’t add to your romance list… but if you want to start a mystery one… I have a list you can have.

  2. Maggie AAR says:

    I can’t think of any good exotic locales in romance either. The inspirational market does a wonderful job of offering historical variety but exotic locales seem to be something that is missing. I’ve read a few suspense books recently set in various locations but the location on those has been a bit cardboard. I miss authors like MM Kaye and Mary Stewart who wrote the most beautiful scenery.

  3. I want an author to show me what’s special about a place, whether it’s Paris, London or a small town or village. I like it when I get the sense that an author is sharing what he or she loves about a particular city or town.

  4. LynnAAR says:

    Yes – I have noticed fewer and fewer books with non-UK/USA settings. In series romance, I can still find plenty of Australian settings and I enjoy some of the authors who write there, but otherwise, it is hard to find a variety of settings. I loved travelling the world in books when I was in high school/college. Sometimes I miss that.

    And, since I love historicals, I also pay attention to time periods when I look at settings. I love anything where the author gives readers a real sense of being in a particular time and place, but I especially love it when that time is something under-utilized (i.e. not the Regency).

  5. HJ says:

    I just checked your Greek settings post, and I see that one commentator mentioned MM Kaye’s Death in Cyprus. She wrote a whole series of books called Death in …, which are romantic suspense/mysteries, and each of them is set somewhere exotic (I want to visit the Andaman Islands because of her). She was a military wife, and each book is set somewhere she lived while her husband was posted there.

    Like Mary Stewart, she was writing in the 1950s, so the places have changed. But the books capture that period and the wonderful locations perfectly.

  6. There are quite often Greek settings in Harlequin Presents. In another line, Nina Harrington’s My Greek Island Fling is presumably set where it’s title suggests it’s set.

    I recently came across a Harlequin Historical set in India: Forbidden Jewel of India by Louise Allen (out this month or the next) and also in India, but this time contemporary India, in the Romance line, is Shoma Narayanan’s Monsoon Wedding Fever (she’s Mills & Boon/Harlequin’s first Indian author).

  7. LeeB. says:

    I love books set all over the world too. Gives me ideas for future trips.

  8. I’ve oversampled the “bland” settings you speak of and long for some romance and multicultural fire from the exotic Middle East. Not the “sheik” stuff, but a unique new twist on the setting. Jerusalem, for example, is the birth of the “passion” so to speak. And what about Tel Aviv?

    • LinnieGayl says:

      Mary, I would definitely be interested in Middle East settings that are non-sheik and also non-suspense. I think there’s a lot that could be done there.

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