Memorable stories are like good vacations. They change the scenery. But they
also do something more mysterious – they stir our imaginations, reminding us of
all that is good and strange and wondrous about our lives.
People say characters make a good story. But it's often setting that makes
memorable characters, whether it's Huck and Jim's Mississippi, Atticus and
Scout's Maycomb or the Buendia family's magical Macondo (among countless other
This seems particularly true with mysteries and thrillers – from the English
villages and exotic resorts of Agatha Christie to the L.A. noirs of Raymond
Chandler or Michael Connelly to Robert Parker's Boston and Stephen King's Maine.
"You may think the story is about the characters and what happens to them – but
it's not," novelist Julia Keller wrote in an insightful essay in The Chicago
Tribune a few years ago. "The story is about where it occurs." The setting
is the story, she argues.
I've always been drawn to a sense of place in novels and felt comfortable
allowing the setting to control the vertical and the horizontal, so to speak.
The Psalmist begins with the setting of Tidewater County, and from the setting
comes the characters and the story. Tidewater is an old-fashioned community on
Maryland's Eastern Shore, which caters to tourists yet holds firm to tradition.
It's a place you won't find on any map, although it bears some resemblance to
the real Eastern Shore – an older and slightly romanticized version, probably,
drawn in part from childhood memories: a land of oyster-shell roads, cattail
swamps, meandering tributaries, working fishing harbors, waterfront crab houses
and sweeping views of the Chesapeake. But there's also something unsettling
about its empty, silent spaces and old wooden houses.
We all carry places in our imaginations that are touchstones to our childhoods
and to more idealized notions of our lives. Where good stories differ from
vacations is that they take us to locales we'll never quite find in the real
world, even though we may recognize some of the landscape.
The protagonists in THE
PSALMIST are Pastor Luke Bowers and homicide investigator Amy Hunter. Both
are in the good and evil business, although in very different ways. They join
forces after a woman is found murdered in Luke's church. The Tidewater County
setting complicates the crime for Hunter because she has to contend not only
with a killer but also with the ghosts of tradition that still haunt the county,
as well as an entrenched bias against a young female running the investigation.
(Tidewater County will also be the setting for the second book in the series,
THE TEMPEST, out in February 2015.)
Settings, like characters, can be complicated – and are always capable of
surprise. As Luke Bowers says at the opening of THE PSALMIST, "They say
that nothing happens in Tidewater County during the winter. Sometimes, they're
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