In every story, every novel, an entire environment has to be created to give the story an anchor, a place in which to unfold.
When I write, I envision a house, a home, a base of operations. It can be a studio apartment, a rural farmhouse, a lakeside mansion-whatever. It springs to life in my mind and that is where my characters come to occupy the site. From there, their world expands outward. It's like sections of a map being spotlighted and zoomed in on until places of employment, restaurants, and ordinary places like pharmacies and doctor's offices, hospitals and parks spring into existence.
Sometimes, I base an environment on a real place where I have been. Most often though, I invent the who enchilada while only occasionally setting it in a place where I have been, or would like to visit. Mainly, it's a fictional town or area developed in my imagination, where my characters have free reign to enact their individual stories.
I like creating places almost as much as I like creating characters. I especially like creating houses- I have a passion for certain styles of architecture. In the as yet unpublished Ghost Chasers series, I have a haunted Second Empire-style mansion (think Psycho house on steroids), a rambling Queen Ann Victorian house, and a colonial era saltbox farmhouse featured. There is also an old brick warehouse on the banks of Lake Champlain dating to the 1700's, a turn-of-the-century theatre and a college campus with Federal and Georgian brick architecture. In the second book in the series, a Federal Colonial period sea captain's home that is now an inn is featured. In The Subtlety of Light and Shadow the Perspectives Art Gallery is housed within a gothic-style mansion on the shore of Whisper Lake. Royce's family home is a stucco,timber and fieldstone mansion in the English Tudor style, on Bolt Lake. In the as yet unpublished (much to Kelly's annoyance) Talon: An Intimate Familiarity Bryce Briscoe lives in a third floor, tiny studio apartment above a bridal shop. In the same novel, Dr. James Elliott lives in an large, elegant penthouse apartment in a more modern high rise in the city, while Dr. Giles Talon lives in a restored brownstone row house on a tree-lined street beside a park in the same city. In Making the Right Choice, a novelette included in Love Me Knots, Jesse Cooper lives in a 6-room, clapboard, classic farmhouse with additions, barns and outbuildings in New Hampshire.
These are the stages on which my characters perform. I've always felt that the stage is as important as the characters and their stories. The most unusual stage that I've created was in a sci-fi story called White Girl which primarily takes place in a sort of Starbucks-type, designer coffee bar outside of which a major battle is being fought in an alternate realm while the ordinary human beings passing by its windows are living their lives completely unaware of what is going on in the parallel universe so close to their own.
I have been influenced in my writing by Charles Dickens and many others. In a few words, Dickens could paint a portrait of a place. You could see it in your mind, and feel it as well. I strive for that sort of thing because environment gives rise to atmosphere- the very air and feeling in which the actions take place within the story.
I pay close attention to environments- whether it be an elegant restaurant, a roadside stand, a Co-Op food market, a house with secret passages within its walls, a cold barn in winter, a lakeside bungalow under renovation, a small apartment, a sprawling mansion, a museum full of bladed ancient and medieval weapons...whatever the location, the place where characters meet and interact, it is as important to the story as everything else.
Even though it's fiction- I want to build a realistic world in which my characters live and their stories unfold. I want to create a world that the reader can feel a sense of familiarity with, a place that might be someplace they once visited or would like to visit. It's a connection to the reader, for the reader, that will draw them into the story, into the lives of the characters and make them want to know what happens to these people.
Environment is as important as anything else when crafting a story. It is the stage- and a poorly designed stage will cause your characters to stumble and lose their places.
Writers are not just people who create other people and make them do things in order to tell a story- they are also architects, interior designers. landscapers, city planners and developers. They have to create a realistic world that helps the reader connect with the characters through a sense of the familiar.
I enjoy creating places and setting the stage on which my characters live their lives as much as I enjoy creating these people who have stories to tell.
Sometimes, though, it is the house that comes first and everything else just follows!