One of the things I like in a good contemporary romance is how real the characters feel. In a contemporary, the setting is familiar and the technology and manners and culture are all familiar, so I can sink into the characters and the story. Everything about the book feels like it could be happening down the street from me. It’s this quality that pulled me into Harlequin Superromances to begin with and it’s something I strive for in my novels.
The trick is to make a setting feel like it could be happening next door to me and next door to you and next door to a reader halfway around the world while still making the book feel like it’s set in a real place, rather than a generic Every Town. The realness of the setting helps the characters shine. A setting that feels fake can make the characters feel fake, while real, fully fleshed out characters interact with a real, fully fleshed out world.
One of the ways I do it is to set my novels in places I know intimately. I’ve set three novels in Chicago (Reservations for Two, The First Move, and A Promise for the Baby) and two novels in Durham, North Carolina (Weekends in Carolina and A Southern Promise). I lived in Chicago for four years and currently live in Durham, so the settings shine.
And so the characters shine.
But writing books set in my hometown has done so much more for me than make my books better. Creating a meaningful setting in books means creating the feeling of community, and the research I’ve done for my books, especially my Durham-set novels, has brought that community from the page into my life.
Setting a book in your hometown is convenient. I researched farming for Weekends in Carolina with Elise from Elysian Fields Farm, the source of my local farm share for the past nine years. When I needed to research the police department for A Southern Promise, finding the right person to contact was as easy as seeing a name on my neighborhood listserv.
However, calling local research convenient glosses over the most wonderful part of setting books in my hometown. The people I call or email for research questions are sometimes people I see at the grocery store. The homicide investigator who helped me with A Southern Promise was one of the officers handling security during the five mile race I ran in October. The woman who works for American Underground (the business incubator that helped me with research, also for A Southern Promise) frequents the same coffee shop I do. I’ve become friends with the woman who owns the restaurant where Howie and Julieanne have lunch.
Even better, people love to see aspects of themselves in the books they read. After I gave a copy of Weekends in Carolina to the grocery store down the street from me, it was fun to joke with the folks who work there about who was on the page saying, “Hey, sug,” as Max and Trey walked in the door. When I speak at book clubs or talk with library patrons and they find out that I write and that I set my books in Durham, they often ask me if my next book has room for a nice widow/retired computer programmer/mechanic/etc. Not only is it a piece of them walking around a novel, but it’s a piece of them walking around a novel set where they live.
Each of these interactions, from long conversations about police procedure to short conversations about having a widow in my next book build and strengthen my personal community. These conversations create connections for me, and the strength of these connections bleeds into my books. The connections tie an entire city to my book, making it something richer than anything I could write alone.
The backing and support I get from my community helps create a richness I hope readers can feel as they turn the pages.
Jennifer is giving away a paperback copy of A Southern Promise to a lucky U.S. reader. Make a comment below to be entered in a drawing!
Jennifer Lohmann is a Rocky Mountain girl at heart, having grown up in southern Idaho and Salt Lake City. When she’s not writing or working as a public librarian, she wrangles two cats and a flock of backyard chickens. (The dog is better behaved.) She currently lives in Durham, North Carolina, where her favorite cup of coffee is from Old Havana.
Impenitent social media enthusiast. Relational trend spotter. Enjoys both carpe diem and the fish of the day.
Settings are important. Books can give the reader a great introduction to different cities/towns.
“”One of the things I like in a good contemporary romance is how real the characters feel.””
This is my #1 thing, and it is also one of the hardest to find.
I read so many so-called contemporary romances where the main characters seem to be great-grandma’s idea of how Young People of Today should be!
In the end, the technology changes so fast you’re going to be out of date before the book is on the shelves. However, the feel of characters being real people will not change.
(As ever, as I’m not American, I can’t be included!)
I do prefer it when an author has as least been to the place they set their books in. I’ve been offended by a few unfortunately ignorant comments from authors who didn’t know much about the place their books were set!
I agree. I’ve just read contemp trilogy where all the heroes are clearly up for Romance Novel Sainthood. Yeah, they text and curse, but they never do anything that smacks of iffy. I dislike perfection in a character!
I like the local flavor in books – the more exotic and unknown to me, the better! – but I also like reading books set in my area when the author gets it dead on right….it depends on my mood & how far I want my imagination to travel, I guess!
I do like local flavor in books, but if the author gets the details wrong, it drives me up a wall, e.g., saying Woodland Park Zoo is in downtown Seattle. Or a character looking at Pike Place Market from a low floor at the Crowne Plaza (impossible).
In my one attempt at a novel, I set it in a small town filled with eccentric characters and quaint customs. But since I’ve never lived in such a place or known such people, my writing didn’t have the authenticity needed (along with other problems!)
It can take a while to get the feel right, and all small towns feel different. I remember reading a book set in a small Western town (like where I grew up) and thinking it sounded like a small New England town. It’s hard, but practice helps. If you like writing, keep at it!
I love your detailed settings. But even more, in your Chicago books, I loved the addition of ethnic elements – the Polish family background and the Chinese- American heroine in A Promise for the Baby. I am not of either ethnicity (Polish or Chinese) so I can’t comment on their accuracy, but it gave those books a “real life” feeling to them which I very much enjoyed.
Thank you! That’s so nice to hear! I loved writing the Polish-American family and I’m told by folks from the communities on the Southside of Chicago that I got it right. :-)
What is even worse than a contemporary that could be Everytown is one that pretends to be set in a specific place but gets the details wrong. Kudos to you for doing the research to get it right!
This is my worst fear, especially about setting something in my hometown. I’ve changed a few things on purpose (and gotten comments from people about that), but I still worry that a library customer will walk into my office and say, “”I do X and you got Y wrong.”” It’s not happened so far! *whew*
One of my pet peeves is lack of flavor of settings. I read a book a number of years ago that was set in the area I live in. The book was good but there was almost no local flavor–it could have taken place anywhere in the general region. I am looking forward to reading your new book.
Thank you! I know I’ve made decisions in other books I’ve written where I’ve kept the setting light, mostly because the rest of the story required so many words. It’s a balancing act every time. But, like you, I prefer to have a rich setting in the books I read.