Location is vital in all facets of our lives. Comfort, convenience, commute, and community are essential considerations when selecting where we wish to reside. When writing, it makes sense to consider the impact of where we have our characters live.
Location can be more than the physical terrain in which we set a story, although some places can take a back seat to the plot. However, the setting is another tool in the author’s arsenal to add depth to the story. The choice of locale sets the period of the story, when and where it takes place. It affects how the characters behave, speak, and reflect on the society where they live. More importantly, when needed, the setting can become another character creating a mood and emotional tone.
A few inquiring minds have asked me what is so appealing to me about New Orleans and why I set so many of my stories either there or in Louisiana, where my upcoming novel, Crescent City Lies, is set. After all, I’m from South Carolina, a beautiful state with its own vibrant culture and uniqueness. It also has faults, as do all places, and those faults in a community can also add depth to your story.
When deciding on a setting for a story, the flavor of Louisiana draws me into its spell. Nothing like the sultry summer heat in the south, when life slows down, and the humidity rises. The spicy aromas and comforting palate of Cajun food and the smooth sounds of New Orleans jazz are alluring and set a mood that seems to touch my writer’s passion. Wicked antagonists, flawed heroes, and enticing strong women seem to belong in the bayou or the French Quarter.
In reality, I love the beach. Ribbons of sand lapped by waves, air tangy with salt, majestic pelicans soaring against a cornflower blue sky. My heart lies on the shore, rejuvenated by the sun’s heat. My soul rests in the bayou.
I am fortunate to live in an area that some people call paradise—if you consider heat, humidity, sun, and ocean paradise. I do! As the photo shows, expansive sky, lush vegetation, a body of water, and a bench to enjoy the quiet beauty sets a mood just outside my door. Not to mention, there are ducks, sea birds, and two resident alligators to add to the ambiance.
I suppose we choose where we want our stories to unfold for a myriad of reasons. Genre certainly plays a role and can dictate the amount of world-building necessary to create the foundation you need. A cozy mystery often occurs in a small town, a detective murder mystery in a city setting, but let your creativity decide what works for your story. How descriptive you should be depends on how important the location is to your storyline. For instance, a city with the ambiance of a New Orleans, New York City, San Francisco, or San Antonio becomes a character within the story, adding depth and mood by using the uniqueness of the environment to enhance the plot. The same for small towns that can provide coziness and character to the story.
My thoughts always seem to be on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, the Battery in Charleston, or an Atlantic beach in Florida, all locations which spur my muse. Let those places you love inspire your muse and your stories.
Writing. Can’t live with it. Can’t live without it.
Ask anyone who has the urge—no, the need—to write, and they will tell you that once that creative need possesses you, you have to write. I feel a compulsion to write and immense satisfaction that regardless of whether anyone else reads my words, that I wrote them.
A while back, a fellow author asked me to write an article about my writing journey for her blog. Like all writers, I had the usual reasons—a love of reading and influences in the form of my father and my favorite elementary school teacher to spur me to write. But what keeps me writing?
As a fan of mystery novels and action thrillers, my reading, when I can find time for it, centers on works from authors like Michael Connelly, Clive Cussler, or John D. MacDonald. Throw in a good sci-fi or fantasy, and I am a happy reader. When the urge to write began to creep into my soul early in my life, I envisioned being a famous mystery author someday. Of course, I was twelve at the time, so I suppose that daydream wasn’t too embarrassing then. Now, that same desire to publish a mystery novel remains, but hopefully without the delusions of grandeur my twelve-year-old self expected.
I have the good fortune (or, on most days, good fortune) to be an administrator for a large writing group on Facebook. There are many reasons that it is an enjoyable opportunity. Engaging with members at all levels of writing is cathartic. Most writers can identify with the confusion and timidity of novice writers as we have all been there. The experienced and published authors offer guidance and encouragement to those of us who strive to publish our first novel.
All right… let’s get personal—my first novel.
That’s where a crystal ball to tell the future would come in handy.
When I first had the urge to write again after many years, and more importantly, the time, I decided to hone my rusty writing skills by writing fanfiction. While working, I wrote many personal and training manuals, newsletters, marketing material, advertising copy, and the like but zero fiction. As there is a distinct difference in writing fiction and non-fiction (although there is a movement toward creative non-fiction, which is another discussion entirely), I felt writing fanfiction about my favorite canceled science-fiction series would be just the exercise I needed.
I jumped in, and by the time I finished, I had written eighty stories (from short stories to novellas). I believed that by not needing to create the characters or world build, I could concentrate on story development. Once I felt confident in my storytelling ability, I began to create original characters to interact with the canon characters and soon moved on to world building. When I decided my skills were strong enough, I embarked on writing a science fiction/murder mystery/romance.
Okay, pretty ambitious combination of genres and only possible because Amazon/KDP provides a platform for mixed genres that traditional publishers and their narrow marketing programs don’t allow. I finished that novel, all 116,000 words of it. I haven’t published it.
Then I began writing a murder mystery with the main character a photographer. A cozy mystery of sorts with romance thrown in the mix. I finished it. I haven’t published it.
Next, another novel, another murder mystery/thriller with the main character a lawyer but the secondary character a police chief. I finished it. I haven’t published it.
And then—a detective murder mystery intended to be a series. I haven’t quite finished it, but… you get the picture.
So why haven’t I published?
Why the heck haven’t I?
That’s where a crystal ball would have come in handy. Seeing what my future was going to be might have facilitated planning things a bit better.
I am not alone. Many of us have finished manuscripts we have yet to query to an agent or find a publisher or self-publish. There are some inherent issues with finding agents and traditional publishers, time being one of them. The process of querying an agent, securing one, and having them find a publisher is tedious and anything but fast. Going directly to a publisher is no guarantee that the process will be any faster.
The time and effort to publish the traditional route is a difficult one that requires patience. Besides, writing a query letter and a book synopsis is more challenging than writing a book. I have drafted a lot of query letters and hated each one of them.
That takes us to self-publishing. A more straightforward path but still wrought with problems. I don’t know about you, but I choose my writing to be grammatically and structurally correct. However, when publishing on one’s own, hiring a professional editor can be expensive but necessary. That issue alone can keep us from hiring an editor.
Don’t forget that pesky cover. What do all the “experts” tell us? The cover of our book needs to be catchy, tasteful, and reflect the book’s plot. Well, no pressure there.
This costs money. Money we may never recoup after publication. So what do those who decide I want to publish, and I want to publish now, do? We do the best we can. First, determine a budget and decide if you can live with the fact you may never realize enough royalties from your work to cover the cost of preparing the book for publication. If you can do that, then search for editors who offer a discount or charge little to start with, but don’t forget the adage that you get what you pay for, because it’s true.
Inexpensive book cover designers advertise on several websites, but please be wary of the “cover for Five dollars” mantra. Again, you get what you… well, you know, so always get references.
But that’s not the only reason that many of us drag our heels before we commit to publishing.
In my case, I am fortunate to have friends who deal with the English language and writing every day who are willing to read my work for grammar mistakes. I also embarked upon educating myself on writing cleaner with fewer grammar mistakes and writing proper structure. Do I use a grammar program? Yes, I do, and I realize grammar programs are not perfect, so I rely on the kindness of my friends to tell me to stop writing comma slices. I hear that a lot.
I am also lucky to have some skill with Photoshop and a decent eye, so I create my covers. I still have them critiqued but so far, so good. That saves me money, but the angst of doing a decent job on a cover is always present.
It would appear my procrastination at publishing is moot. Yet, I haven’t published.
What is my problem?
I think my problem is a lot like all authors who are on the verge of publishing. Life gets in the way. Or at least, we allow it to.
I finished the science-fiction novel just as a family issue arose, and I became a caregiver. Then one personal issue and another, and I’ll stop here. There isn’t anyone who cannot identify with this scenario. I like to tell myself that the time I spend dealing with the large writing group, which takes a great deal of my time, is another reason. After all, we have published five anthologies, and the sixth one is going to press. That takes time.
Okay… that’s an excuse.
And now I have run out of them.
It is time to do this. I have always been a proactive person in most situations but a tad lax when it comes to my own needs.
Please don’t do what I have done. Remember, your needs are essential, and for whatever reason you wish to publish, for money, for possible fame, or the satisfaction of accomplishing your goal, just do it. There is a reader out there who will enjoy your story.
Me? I gazed into that crystal ball. I see a published book with my name on it soon.
This short story is based on the February 2021 image prompt for Writers Unite! Write the Story’s project. I hope you enjoy it!
D. A. Ratliff
Gabriela swung her legs from the taxi and stood for a moment on the corner, taking in the activity swirling around her. It was spring, sunny, warm, and the world was alive once more. Walking across the plaza toward the Paris Beaubourg café, her stiletto heels clicked as she crossed the dark cobblestones.
Her contact had not arrived. Contact. She chuckled—Bruce Layton, junior Foreign Service Officer, was hardly the kind of contact she expected on an assignment. Brash and jovial, he attracted a great deal of attention in the embassy. She would love to avoid him, but she was in Paris for a reason, and while an annoyance, he was part of the situation. When he clumsily asked her to a late lunch using the code phrase, all she could think of was there was no accounting for who the agency was hiring these days.
Only a couple of tables just outside the restaurant were vacant, and she wanted space around them. She chose a table under the pavilion across the walkway from the restaurant and facing Centre Pompidou. She could see the plaza fountain filled with colorful artwork and a few strolling musicians entertaining the tourists from the table. No one would notice them, she hoped.
A loud voice told her he had arrived. “Serveur, deux grands espressos, s’il vous plait.” He called out to a server in less than stellar French as he strode toward her. Cocky, he was.
“Gabriela.” Bruce sat, leaning on his elbows on the table, and smiled. “Been wanting to get you alone since you arrived at the embassy.”
She took a deep breath and counted to five for control. “You know the drill.”
“Ah… yes. I’ve heard about you—beautiful, but all business.” He cleared his throat. “Lovely weather, I was afraid it would rain.”
She responded, “I brought an umbrella just in case.”
He laughed. “Good, now that nonsense is out of the way. Let’s order lunch.”
“I am going to assume that your foolish behavior is a cover?”
“My behavior? What do you mean, sugar?” This time he spoke in a heavy Southern US accent. She must have had a disgusted look on her face because he burst out laughing.
“Ms. Gabriela Jones, may I introduce myself, Bruce Layton, spy.” He spoke in a quieter, more resonant voice. “And yes, the Bruce you see at the embassy is a cover.”
The glee on his face as he admitted his embassy persona was fake turned her stomach. In a profession that often required her to be someone she was not, she still cringed at what she and others at times became. She thought she might like Bruce less than any of the covers they assumed.
The server returned with the coffees, and before she could speak, Bruce ordered the café’s famous pizza for them and waved the server away. He sipped his coffee and, with a serious look on his face, spoke.
“Gabi, you know the target. What can you tell me about him?”
She sipped her coffee and then responded. “I am the senior agent here. I believe you need to report what you know about the target to me.”
Bruce’s eyes narrowed for a fleeting second. He was not happy that she pulled rank. That not only told her he was disgusted but the accompanying tightly drawn lips told her he was angry. She kept her face impassive.
He nodded. “I have watched Thomas Quincy for two months since he transferred to the embassy. He served four years in the US Embassy in Russia, and we were able to ascertain that he turned and is now a Russian asset.”
“I’ve read the reports. What have you observed since he arrived?”
“Quincy keeps to himself but has begun to meet a woman, a Russian woman, Galina Ivanov, at this very café each morning before he leaves for work and sometimes for lunch. Why I thought it was smart to establish the café as our favorite.”
Her stomach flipped at his emphasis of ‘our.’ “What is the woman’s significance?”
“I followed her to Turgenev Mekhovshchiki, a Russian furrier. The owner is a known Russian agent. She arrives there about seven and leaves at ten p.m. We believe she is passing information that she receives from Quincy to Moscow.”
She sat back in her chair. “How do you know he turned?”
“Planted a report about troop movements in the Gulf on restricted access area of the computer. One that Quincy has access to so he could prepare reports for NATO. We later intercepted that data in a communique between the Russian military and the Russian ambassador to France. Oleg Turgenev and the ambassador are close friends and see each other often.”
“Do you have direct proof that he passed on the information to this woman, and she passed it on to Turgenev?”
Bruce pulled a small recording device from an inside jacket pocket and pressed a button.
A woman with a heavy Russian accent spoke. “Thomas, Oleg will be thrilled to get this information. He will be most pleased and reward us both.”
A voice she recognized as Quincy’s responded. “That’s what I am here for, Galina. If I make them happy, it makes you happy.”
He shut off the recording. “I think Galina is a honeypot, and Thomas fell for it.”
The server arrived with the pizza, and for a moment, they ate in silence. Gabi took a drink of her coffee before she spoke.
“I’ve been in this business, and nothing surprises me, but Thomas Quincy has an impeccable record of loyalty to our government and his service.”
Bruce scoffed. “Well, his wife died a few years ago. Man’s gotta have fun, and Galina is a looker, got a rack and a half on her.”
Gabi had enough and pushed away from the table. “I need more proof before I take this to my supervisor and order a larger operation. Continue surveillance and report back to me in the morning at the Embassy.” She rose. “Thank you for lunch.”
“I’ll return to the embassy with you.” He started to rise.
“No, I have a few errands to do and then a reception to attend. I will see you in the morning.”
She walked along the cobblestones, her heels clicking in a quick cadence. She was well aware his eyes were boring into her back as she walked away. Disgusted, she picked up her pace. Once out of sight of the café, she slipped her phone from her purse.
“It’s me. I made contact.”
“And was I right?”
“Yes, my instinct tells me that you are correct.”
“I always did like that gut of yours. Keep to the plan. If this is how the information is getting into foreign hands, we need to stop it now.”
“Yes, sir. I will call you with more as soon as I have more.”
She ended the call and hailed a cab. There were things to do.
Gabi walked into the embassy office she was using with a cup of Starbucks coffee in hand. The familiar aroma made her think of her home in the US. A home she hadn’t been to in a long time. She had just tossed her purse on the desk when the assistant assigned to her came to the door.
“The Ambassador wants to see you now.”
She sucked in a breath. “Thanks, on my way.”
Gabriela’s cover as a US State Department attaché for special projects allowed her to travel to US Embassies without creating undue notice from the host countries. Sixteen years of experience had taught her to lie low with the political appointees. Still, she discovered the current ambassador was no one’s fool and had suspected something was going on within his territory as soon as she arrived. Rumors were that he had been agency at one time himself.
She walked past the ambassador’s assistant’s desk and down the short hallway to his office. This time her heels quiet in the thick carpet. She chuckled silently. At least, she could sneak up on someone on oriental rugs. She rapped on the door to a quick “Come in.”
He rose as she entered, and walked around the desk, extending his hand. “Thanks for coming to see me on such short notice. Please sit.” He motioned to two chairs next to the large windows.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Ambassador?”
He smiled and adjusted the French cuffs of his shirt. She noted they were the precise distance from the sleeve of his suit coat as fashion dictated, yet she didn’t sense he was a vain man. He was, she thought, a true diplomat who played the part, including the costume.
“Gabriella, I have been in diplomatic service for forty years and ambassador to four countries. My stint here in France is something of a reward from the President for my service,” he paused, “and I suspect because we have been friends for years. Because of that friendship, I may be privy to more than meets the eye.” He grinned. “I also was a special attaché in my early career.”
Gabi smiled. “I am aware of your background, sir. It is quite impressive. Again, what can I do for you.”
“I have been briefed on the security problem that may exist within the embassy and that you are here to solve this problem. I want you to know you have my full cooperation. Whatever you need is at your disposal.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Are you certain that the target is who you suspect?”
“Without a doubt.”
“How quickly can you wrap this up?”
“Quite soon, Mr. Ambassador. We have put certain measures in place to forward planted data that will reveal our quarry.”
“I am glad to hear that. I look forward to this security issue going away quickly.”
“As do I, sir.”
He rose. “Good. Then you will report to me soon?”
She stood as well. “Yes, sir. Soon.”
As she walked toward her office, she stifled a laugh as she reduced in her head the formal conversation where they tap danced around the subject to three sentences.
“Gabi, do you know the traitor who’s selling US secrets?
“Yes, I do.”
“Then nail that bastard.”
Reaching her office, Gabi dropped into her chair, grabbed her coffee, and took a big swig of the lukewarm liquid.
“Ah, diplomats,” she whispered as she took her phone from her suit pocket. “Time to put this plan in motion.”
It was nearing ten a.m. when Bruce walked into her office unannounced. “Hey, beautiful, what’s happening this morning.”
“Mr. Layton, beautiful is not a proper way to address a co-worker.”
He laughed out loud. “Sorry. I’ll do better.” He sat down. “So, everything a go?”
“Yes. Information planted, and our target has accessed the data.”
“Surveillance set up?”
Gabi nodded. “Yes. His phone tap tells us he is meeting with Galina for lunch at the café at two p.m.”
“Good. Then it’s a date. Let’s get this jerk.”
“Yes, let’s do that.”
Gabi told Bruce she would meet him at the café and arrived before he did by design. It took her a few seconds to spot Quincy and Ivanov at a table under the awning where she had been the day before. A glance around told her the surveillance team was in place. A quick conversation over their hidden mics told her nothing had happened yet. She took a table on the edge of the main outside seating area. Bruce arrived a moment later.
“Has he passed it yet?”
“No. Surveillance says they talked and ordered lunch. Almost finished.”
Bruce ordered lunch, and he and Gabi waited. Another half-hour passed before Quincy reached into his jacket and pulled out a flash drive. Ivanov smiled and kissed him. Quietly, Gabi ordered the team to move in.
Within seconds four men surrounded the small table. Quincy tried to protest, but an agent opened his jacket to show his badge hanging around his neck and the gun at his waist. Quincy stood with his head bowed, resigned to the situation. An agent pulled Ivanov to her feet, and the team escorted the pair to a black van parked nearby. Once seated, the van pulled away.
“Woohoo!” Bruce fist pumped and called a server over and ordered champagne. “This calls for some bubbly. Excellent job, beautiful.”
“Good work in spotting what Quincy was doing.”
“Only doing my job. Can’t let spies get Uncle Sam. Now let’s finish lunch and enjoy the champagne.”
Gabi began to relax. She decided to enjoy the champagne and the Paris afternoon. They dallied over lunch for forty minutes before she turned to her companion.
“Ready to go back to the embassy. I might even let you buy me dinner.”
Bruce grinned and responded in his fake Southern accent. “Why sugar, I would like nothing better. Dinner it is. But I’ll meet you back at the embassy. Have an appointment in a bit.”
Gabi nodded. “Okay, just don’t forget dinner.”
He leaned down and kissed her on the cheek. “I would never forget dinner with you.”
He walked away, oblivious to the man and woman who followed him or the white van that was rolling slowly behind them—two more people inside.
Gabi was watching as a voice sounded behind her.
“He doesn’t have a clue, does he?”
Gabi smiled at Thomas Quincy. “No, he doesn’t. Took you long enough to drive around the block.”
He plucked a tomato from her salad. “Took you long enough to finish lunch.”
Galina Ivanov sat down at the table. “On behalf of my government, I thank the United States. You helped us catch the spy who was not only trading your secrets but ours to the Chinese.”
“You are welcome, Ms. Ivanov, but it is Thomas who you should thank. Had he not spotted the information tampering at the Moscow embassy and traced it to Bruce Layton here in Paris, we wouldn’t have known any of this. At least, not this quickly.”
“Our collective hero.” Galina smiled and stood. “I am going to report to my government now. Do svidaniya.”
They said goodbye, and Thomas shook his head. “Been a long time since we worked together, Gabi.”
“That it has, Tom. I only heard about your wife’s death after I arrived in Paris. I am sorry.”
“Thanks. It’s been three years, Gabi. I have learned that life goes on.”
She smiled. “Good, and it’s also a good thing the agency assigned you to the embassy in Moscow. Great catch on those discrepancies in the programming.”
“I was lucky. The Russians are usually better at this than we are.”
“At least better at the sneaky part. Working with them might have helped warm up the relations a bit.”
He smiled. “At least for a moment, we have a common enemy—the Chinese.”
“That we do, and I…” She stopped as her comm activated. She listened then told Thomas the message, relief evident in her voice. “The agents have Bruce Layton in custody along with his Chinese contact and the flash drive with the planted data. Got the transfer on tape.”
“Well done by all. Thanks for stepping in to coordinate all of this. I just want to know who hired Bruce.”
“I think the better question is who turned him?”
“We should go back to the embassy and debrief with our people, and I promised the ambassador a quick response.”
“The suit will be happy.”
Gabi laughed. “Oh, he will.”
They rose, and Thomas took her arm. “How about dinner after we get through with the paperwork?”
“You know, I had a dinner date, but I think my date might not be available. Dinner would be nice.”
“Then dinner it is.”
As they left, he slipped her arm in the crook of his. “Those heels have to be killer on these cobblestones. You could trip.”
Gabi felt her heart flutter just a bit. “Then good thing I have you to keep that from happening.”
She glanced around the Beaubourg café and the plaza. Paris was a beautiful city. Perhaps, she might stay for a while.
Author’s Note: Please forgive any incorrect French or Russian words or grammar. I am solely at the mercy of online translation for the phrases or names.
My friend, author Paula Shablo recently told me about the platform Vocal.media as a source for publishing original work. From their website: Vocal is one of the fastest-growing platforms for creators, writers, musicians, podcasters, videographers, and more.
I decided to give it a try and have published a previously written article that I wrote for Elaine Marie Carnegie – Padgett’s blog where she features writers and their journey to writing.
Authors are able to discuss the journey that leads them into the enticing world of words through a website run by author and publisher, Elaine Marie Carnegie. She has graciously asked me to join her platform to share an article on the path I took to become a writer. Please click on the link to learn about my journey.
Please click on the link to read about my journey.
Musings of a Southern Writer’s Journey by Deborah Ratliff
I am an unabashed lover of books.
My journey into the world of words began when I was five years old, and I have never stopped. Granted at five, the books I read were golden or comic, but I loved each of them. As I grew older, I progressed from Chip ’n Dale and Justice League of America comics to reading Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and The Adventures of Tom Swift. A neighbor, Miss Boozer, a retired librarian, recognized my passion for reading and on my birthday and at Christmas gave me money to buy books, several books. I liked her. ………………… Please continue reading at https://bit.ly/3jgXTpz.
About Elaine Marie Carnegie
Elaine Marie Carnegie, a Paralegal, and Private Investigator worked on the side as a Newspaper Journalist, history and foodie columnist for a decade before accepting a publishing partnership; then opening her own SPPublishing and Author Services. She has worked with both the FBI and Texas Rangers, written for Discovery ID on Human Trafficking, and works for the PI in a consultant capacity today. Her articles have been used in the Texas Legislature, utilized in regional Texas school systems, published in both print and online venues, as well as in anthologies, charity and collaborative projects. She is honored to have been included in the “Who’s Who of Emerging Writer’s 2020.” She makes her home in the idyllic East Texas Piney Woods… on a private lake, doing what she loves and living her best life! You can find her online at https://www.authorelainemarie.com/