Thursday, June 21, 2012

Where'd you say you were from?

Jen's post yesterday generated a lot of thinking about where we set our crimes so I thought I'd talk about my own setting. It's not nearly as romantic and sophisticated as San Francisco, the home of Jen's mysteries, nor is it as charming as her hometown of Swindon.

I set my mysteries in my hometown of... Placentia, California.

Yes, that's pronounced Pla-SEN-cha, a Latin word for "a pleasant place to live." It is not, as my brother says, "Afterbirth, California." The town began around 1837 as Rancho San Juan Cajon de Santa Ana but that wouldn't fit on the envelopes at the post office, so some woman named Sara Jane McFadden suggested Placentia. For some reason, that stuck.

It's now about 6.5 square miles, with 50,000 residents, surrounded by Fullerton, Brea, Anaheim, and Yorba Linda. All just names of cities to most of you, without any flavor or interest. Sure, Anaheim has Disneyland, Angel Stadium, and Honda Center (home to the Ducks hockey team), but a stranger to southern California would probably race down the freeways without even noticing they've left one zip code for another.

Hell, I did.

After I had lived in Placentia for a few years, I began to notice the difference. It feels more like a small town, more intimate. It also feels more Hispanic and truer to its heritage. The schools are diverse, filled with ethnicities from African-American to Samoan and everything in between. For a multi-racial family, we were planted in the right soil.

When I started planning my mysteries, I thought a lot about inventing a fictional town that looked a lot like Placentia. I wanted a small-town feel in a large metropolis setting, so that strangers could wander in and out. In a big city, one murder is barely a ripple and may not even make the news. In a small town, you can only kill off so many residents before property values start to head south.

I imagine Peri's house looks like this.
But in a town like Placentia, with so many towns nearby and a train track running through it, well, you can have quite a few murders!

While I was thinking of a town name, it slowly dawned on me that readers might actually look on a map for my setting. Perhaps I should include a little blurb that explains it's a fictional town based on my hometown, the way Sue Grafton's Santa Teresa is really Santa Barbara, wink, wink.

After a few days' thought, I decided to hell with winking and making up names, etc. It didn't matter what I named the town, it was Placentia. Let's call it what it is.

The landmarks and streets of Placentia are used in my book, although I change a few things to fit into the story line. I moved a street in Hit or Missus because I needed Peri to have a flat tire at a specific location. I'm also a little leery of naming actual restaurants now. Two restaurants have closed after I mentioned them in my books.

I don't want to be anyone's jinx.

The Backs Building - where the first body was found.
Although I try to put the reader in Placentia, I doubt if I'm enticing people to come and visit this exotic locale. In fact, I'm certain my motives for setting my books in my hometown are purely selfish and lazy.

I want my murders to be nearby, so I can be a part of the action.


  1. It's good to get to know more about your home town and setting. My stories are set in Eugene, which local readers love. Other readers have said they enjoy getting to know Eugene, while some critics have said my books don't have enough setting and could be anywhere. That makes me think I've hit the right balance.

    As far as "too many murders"in small towns, readers will suspend their disbelief. Think about Cabot Cove. :)

  2. It sounds like you live in a wonderful place, Gayle.

    A friend and I were discussing the Cabot Cove syndrome just the other day, and while she felt a little put out about being expected to believe there were that many murders in a small town, I was like, "Bring 'em!" Hello? It's fiction. It's a story.

  3. As I mentioned yesterday, I made the decision to move my protagonist here to San Diego. My reasons are similar to yours--it's easier because I know the place. But I also feel I can give the readers a richer reading experience because of that. Knowing every nook and cranny does have its advantages.

  4. I must admit, Gayle, when I first saw a sign post for Placentia I thought, "why would anyone name a place that?" and secondly, "who would want to live in a place named that?" I'm used to it now, and I bet it causes quite a bit of interest for other readers not familiar with it's name. Quirky, like Peri.

  5. Believe it or not, Jenny, one reviewer of Freezer Burn thought I had made up the name "Placentia" because of the subplot - that Peri thinks she might be pregnant.

    Um, no.

  6. Oh, that's how you pronounce it ;)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.