Writing a book set in America
From books to films to television shows, I’ve long been a fan of the ‘small town America’ setting. There’s something fascinating about the dynamics at work in a close-knit community. I remember being totally captivated by the Finch family in To Kill A Mockingbird, unable to put down Boy’s Life because I was so enthralled by Cory Jay Mackenson and the town of Zephyr, and eagerly waiting each and every visit I’ve paid to Castle Rock over the years.
Also as a reader I quite enjoy the escapism of a story based a world away from my own life. And as a writer I found exactly the same to be true. So it was with this in mind that I decided to set the fictional town of Tall Oaks 5,000 miles away from home.
The American setting also made some of the plot points possible in way that wouldn’t be had I set the story in the UK. I really wanted to capture the feeling that Jim, the policeman in Tall Oaks, was very much working the case alone, with little support. The sheer size of America made this feel much more plausible, with resources stretched thin and serious crime raining down relentlessly. I wanted the Harry Monroe abduction quickly pushed from the front pages, it further adds to Jess’s (Harry’s mother) feeling of desperation, that more isn’t being done, that nobody cares anymore.
After I’d settled on America, drawn a rough map of the town and the surrounding areas, I then began to think about where exactly to base the town. Tall Oaks is affluent, the kind of sought after place that the rich would choose to live. The houses are large, the streets lined with trees. The story takes place during a sticky, oppressive summer. There’s a national park that borders the town. After some research I decided on California. It seemed a natural fit once I’d taken everything into account.
I then came to the challenges of actually writing a book set in America. And there were lots. Perhaps the biggest was the language barrier. I knew there were differences, trousers are pants, football is soccer, garden is yard. But there were loads that I missed. Thankfully my copyeditor was particularly brilliant when it came to catching my mistakes and stopping me from looking like a complete ass (arse). See, I’m getting the hang of it!
I also had to ensure that the description of the town itself was accurate, from making sure that the flowers growing were the type found in California, to checking what the houses should look like, and which shops might be found on Main Street. I also did lots of research into how a missing child investigation would be handled by a small town police chief.
It’s so important to me to make the story feel authentic, and I really hope I’ve managed it.
Here's the synopsis and my review of the book:
When three year old Harry goes missing, the whole of America turns its attention to one small town.
Everyone is eager to help. Everyone is a suspect.
Desperate mother Jess, whose grief is driving her to extreme measures.
Newcomer Jared, with an easy charm and a string of broken hearts in his wake,
Photographer Jerry, who's determined to break away from his controlling mother once and for all.
And, investigating them all, a police chief with a hidden obsession of his own...
Tall Oaks is Chris Whitaker's debut novel and I have to say that he is off to an excellent start. Tall Oaks, a tiny American town is rocked by the disappearance of a three year old boy, taken from his own bed in the middle of the night. In such a small town, everybody wants to be involved and help desperate mother Jess to find her little boy; the problem is, it could easily be one of the locals who took the child.
Chris Whitaker follows several of the town's inhabitants, from the police detective on the case, to the guy in the camera shop who still lives with his mum, from the car dealership guy to the local teenager who thinks he's Tony Soprano. It took me a little while to get a hold on all the characters but they were all fantastic creations. Manny was my favourite, he's the teenager who would like to be a gangster; his one-liners added the humour that this book needed and I was always pleased when he popped back up in the story.
This book is extremely dark too, the disappearance of three year old Harry is upsetting enough but as we get to know the characters, it is clear that there are many disturbed inhabitants of Tall Oaks and many dysfunctional relationships and secrets.
Chris Whitaker writes at a good pace and the ending of the book took me completely by surprise. For a debut novel it is fantastic and I hope that the author has great success with it.
Many thanks to Emily for inviting me to be part of the blog tour and providing me with a review copy.