Location in YA Mysteries: It Matters, It Doesn’t

Vail Mansion, Vermont, 1940s

Beth Kanell here.

So far, I’ve come up with two polarities for writers choosing “young adult” (YA) mystery locations: Either they totally matter, as much as who you are inside, or they totally don’t.
Meaning what? Well, imagine you’re about to write a mystery that you believe will be YA — that is, accessible to teen readers and in some way compelling their attention. Have you already written books set in, say, your home location (more or less), or a fantasy location only you know, or a historic time/location (such as 15th-century England) that insists on being part of your daily thinking and dreaming? Then location is probably going to come first for you. Siobhan Dowd’s Bog Child, set in Ireland in the 1980s as Fergus McCann tries to make sense of his world (jailed brother, parents arguing, the Troubles), couldn’t take place anywhere else. And for many readers, following Fergus into this landscape will comprise their first trip to Ireland, and a memorable one.
On the other hand, Peter Abrahams opens a story with some similar plot points in Bullet Point, as Wyatt changes his mind about his jailed father — but the location boils down to “near a prison,” and even though Abrahams is a New England author, landscape barely matters. All the emotion and plot are involved with situation, not location.
So that’s one of the early questions to ask during the drafting of a YA novel: location or situation? Bear in mind that location, especially if it involves time period, can be influential in how readers bond to the story line. Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle Trilogy, starting with A Great and Terrible Beauty, is a paranormal suspense novel (yes, suspense IS a subgenre of mysteries, and paranormal doesn’t disqualify it!) set first in India, then in a boarding school outside London in 1895. While the book hinges on an underlying battle of good and evil, it’s Gemma’s choices that drive the impact. And the moody, misty England portrayed will connect for many readers with Sherlock Holmes (and the more recent YA versions of the Holmes detection series).

I’m a location-first author, and usually it’s an aspect of a place and time that raises the situation that becomes my YA mystery. I know I’ve moved from outlining or proposing to “writing” when the protagonist takes a face and voice and begins moving across my inner/outer landscape (so far, always Vermont, although I have at least one future book set in Provincetown, Mass.). Does that limit a book to readers of that location? Not at all! Look at Mark Twain’s books, practically branded Southern, yet devoured by readers around the globe.

On the other hand, some authors may choose to blur location, aiming for “situation recognition” first and foremost. The Night She Disappeared by April Henry could be “anywhere” (although Henry is a Northwest author), and Meg Cabot’s 1-800-Where-R-You? series draws on being “typical Midwestern” until the action (situation) asserts that “typical” has lost its applicability except in terms of how the character feels, responds, and chooses. Kimberly Derting’s The Body Finder could have taken place anywhere, too.

One last note: Scroll through the YA mysteries you read as a kid (if you were so lucky). Mine included Nancy Drew books that inserted the teen sleuth into various locations that were supposed to be fun but became situations instead, as in The Secret of Shadow Ranch and The Secret of the Wooden Lady. Consider your own favorites — do they influence the way you think about writing a YA mystery?

So — are you a location-first author, or a situation-first author? And what will that mean for the YA mystery you may eventually write, or be writing now?

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About bethkanellbooks

My life is always a three-strand braid: love for Vermont, love of mysteries, and the need to write (and write better and better). Come visit and chat at any of my blogs and posts -- there's a big wonderful world of writing and reading, and we're in it together.
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3 Responses to Location in YA Mysteries: It Matters, It Doesn’t

  1. Nancy Gardner says:

    Interesting posting, Beth. I always loved an unusual setting when reading as a YA.

  2. Me too, Nancy — I felt like I “knew” other places that way, and the plot twists were doubly exciting!

  3. Lisa Jackson says:

    I’m more about the situation than a specific place when I write YA. I can base the location on a place that I know, but I’ve never felt the need to ‘name’ it in YA. And in thinking about the ‘why’ of my process, I come up with how, when I was a kid, I always wanted to imagine the place was near me. I read the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy series, and town names didn’t mean much probably since I didn’t travel except where my parents took me. 🙂 In my YA stories, I describe the place, but don’t name it, so the reader can pick wherever he or she wants it to be. The situation seems more relevant.

    Your post got me thinking, Beth! thanks 🙂

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