Guest Karen Olson – Writing a Strong Sense of Place

Hey, it’s Liz and I’m so happy to welcome Karen Olson to the blog today! She’s talking about writing a strong sense of place. Take it away, Karen!


As the former travel editor of the New Haven (CT) Register, I love books that have a strong sense of place, like Laura Lippman’s Baltimore, Sue Grafton’s Santa Teresa, Dennis Lehane’s Boston, Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles. I want to feel like I’m really there, like I’m really in that scene walking down a particular street, the details on the page coming alive in my imagination.

I set my first mystery series in New Haven, which was the obvious choice. I’ve lived in the area my whole life, I’ve worked here. I love the city with its distinct neighborhoods and history and amazing pizza. I wanted to bring the city alive to my readers, most of whom might never get to see it in person. My next series setting wasn’t such an easy choice. I was going to write about a tattoo artist, and I felt that the location needed to match the edginess of the character. I picked Las Vegas, despite having been there for only two days 12 years before. It’s easy, I thought, because Vegas is everywhere: on TV, in movies, in other books. But about halfway through writing The Missing Ink, I told my husband, “We have to go to Vegas.” It was the right choice, because the words flowed onto the page after that, and I feel that the series evokes the craziness that’s Vegas.

All series come to an end eventually, though (Sue Grafton’s on Y now, and we all know what that means), and I struggled a little with what I was going to do next. I’d written some pages a few years before, and my agent urged me to finish it.

It was set on Block Island.

My husband and I spent our honeymoon there, and we’d visited again after that. But it was after I took a press trip to the island and wrote a piece for the newspaper that I decided to set the book there. “I’ve been missing for 15 years,” is the first sentence in HIDDEN. I had no idea who she was or why she was missing, but I knew where she was. The story grew out of that one small sentence, and Block Island was a perfect place for someone who was off the grid, concealing her identity—and, as it turned out, her crime. As I wrote, I closed my eyes and could see the stone walls, the lighthouses, the marinas, the tiny airport, the bar where she meets her friend Steve. I could feel her fear as she tries to hide from her past.

I wish I could have left her there. But my editor wanted a series, and she was already sequestered on a small island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, another idyllic place that I’d traveled to.

My Black Hat Thriller series has become a travelogue of sorts, as computer hacker and fugitive Tina Adler is always on the move. From Quebec, she goes to Miami, then to South Carolina, and then to Paris. Google street view is my new best friend, as I pore over my photographs and notes from my travels. I’ve probably got some things wrong, but the sense of place is what I’m striving for. I want my readers to feel like they know a place after putting down my books, like I feel when I’ve spent time in Rob Hart’s Prague or Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh or JA Jance’s Seattle or Carl Hiaasen’s Miami.

What is your favorite book with a strong sense of place?

Karen E. Olson writes the Black Hat Thriller series. She won the Sara Ann Freed Memorial Award for best debut mystery and has been nominated for a Shamus Award. She balances writing with working full time at Yale University Press. She is empty nesting in Connecticut with her husband and cat Eloise. Please visit her website at


22 Thoughts

  1. Welcome! I agree that place is so important in our books.I really feel Louise Penny’s Quebec, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the province, as my sister lived there for more than twenty years.

  2. Well, you didn’t say it had to be a mystery! For me, it’s Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy and George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series (I’ve only read the first three). We know the places the authors describe don’t really exist, but they feel so real, and they are so clearly described and differentiated that you can feel them. I still have a map of Middle Earth that I bought in the Village in New York (back when that was cool) in the 1960s, framed and hanging on my wall.

    1. I agree that it doesn’t have to be a mystery! In Harry Potter, JK Rowling created a world that feels so real when you read the books, much like Middle Earth.

  3. Thanks for visiting, Karen! I would have to say I love to read The Number One Ladies Detective Agency books by Alexander McCall Smith for just the reasons you mention. I love the sense of place and people they evoke and always wish to travel to Botswana after finishing one of them.

  4. You’ve mentioned some good ones. Probably the one that hit me hardest was Annette Dashofy’s Zoe Chambers mysteries. They’re set in a fictional county in southwestern PA, but I had to check a map to make sure it didn’t really exist.

  5. I’ve never been to New Orleans, but I felt like I knew so much about the city after reading John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces.” The city was almost like one of the characters.

  6. Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti mysteries, set in Venice are a favorite. Visited there when I was in my teens and a return is on my “to travel to” list. I did spend this past weekend in Louise Penny’s Three Pines; would that I could settle there permanently.

    1. Another series I haven’t gotten to. Venice is an amazing city. And I could definitely see myself living in Quebec…if it weren’t so cold most of the year. I had a great time researching for my book Shadowed. An excellent excuse for a trip to both Montreal and Quebec City.

  7. Writing that brings a place to life without slowing down the story is wonderful! Right now, I’m reading a debut that does it wonderfully – Hollywood Homicide by Kellye Garrett.

  8. I am such a visual reader that I’m never sure if I saw a movie of the book or just have such a strong picture in my mind of what places look like. I certainly like books that take place in cities I know, but I like imagining what fictional places are like. I do walk down streets and see sights as I read. I can’t think of a favorite – I love so many, but Terry Pratchett’s Disc World series is a place I would love to visit!

    1. I read The Hunger Games before the movie came out and I had a hard time visualizing the world, but the movie really did a spectacular job with it.

  9. Welcome to the Wicked Cozys, Karen!

    Like Jessie, I’m going to give a shout out to Alexander McCall Smith, but for his two Edinburgh series, the Isabel Dalhousie series, and my particular favorite, the 44 Scotland Street series. It was so much fun to walk the streets of Edinburgh after reading these books.

  10. Welcome, Karen! My favorite books from my childhood books by Maud Hart Lovelace have such a strong sense of place. They are set in a fictional version of Mankato, Minnesota. And I also think Janet Evanovich does a wonderful job of bringing Trenton, NJ to life.

    1. I’ve never read those book, but I loved the Anne of Green Gables books and someday want to go to Prince Edward Island because it’s described so beautifully. And you’re right about Janet Evanovich’s Trenton…although maybe not so keen to visit 🙂

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