What Better Setting for a Thriller?
Unmarked graves, a network of caves once used to store bodies, and an institution once called the Asylum for Inebriates–these are the things that make up the setting for Shadow Play.
The setting of a piece of fiction infuses it with a physical, almost palpable world. Who doesn’t remember the Yorkshire moors of Wuthering Heights or the workhouse of Oliver Twist? The small southern towns of To Kill a Mockingbird and more recently, The Help by Kathryn Stockett? The setting provides a context, a specific time and place in which the action takes place. It also provides a social environment for the characters, a canvas for their morals, values and cultural attributes.
In my debut novel, Shadow Play, Psychiatrist Grace Rendeau’s life was back on track. A widow with two young children, she had recently moved to work in Rochester, Minnesota to work in the fictional Rochester Forensic Center for the Criminally Insane. In the background of Grace’s story of love, loss, and unimaginable grief, the setting is rife with possibilities for a thriller. Suspects in the nightmarish abduction of Grace’s children are legion and are taken from the prison environment. They include escaped and released inmates, colleagues with whom Grace has had uneasy relationships, and her fiancé, among others.
Setting also influences the mood of the story. I begin the novel in autumn, on a bright sunny day when anything seems possible.
Grace stepped out of her car, lifted her face to the sun and breathed in the smell of wood after a warm rain. Leaves fluttered lazily to the ground as she strode through the parking lot and waved to a handful of men dressed in prison issue khakis. Uniformed officers stood like toy soldiers watching as the inmates hacked at stumps of ivy clinging to the razor wire topped fence circling the prison.
Shortly afterwards, the setting begins to show ominous warnings that all is not what it seems.
No matter what their crimes, in the few weeks she had worked in the unit, Grace had begun to see their humanity. Even felt a kind of sympathy for some of them. The barbaric ice baths, insulin shock, and lobotomies her predecessors once performed on those very grounds still caused her to shudder.
In the late 1800s, patients had worked on the land, growing vegetables that were preserved in a system of neighboring caves. The food from their labor fed the old state hospital population through the long Minnesota winters. The grounds now housed the modern Rochester Forensic Center, where she was the new psychiatrist.
The setting helps reveal the characters. We see that Grace is aware of the history of abuse the early patients suffered and is a compassionate, caring clinician. In the next paragraph, another character is introduced. The setting also heavily influences Bud Anderson’s character traits.
Corrections Officer Bud Anderson fell into step with Grace halfway to the entrance. Bud Anderson was forty-three years old, over six feet tall, and as large and gray-headed as a buzzard with a military buzz cut. He fell into step beside her. “Morning, Doc. What a day, huh?”
Grace had heard through the prison grapevine that he was having marital problems. Word was that he had a core made of iron and a life mortgaged to the hilt. He also had a limb length discrepancy resulting from an injury during his service and wore an orthotic shoe with a lift. Even so, his gait was brisk and measured.
“So, how ‘ya doin’ Grace?” Anderson asked with a familiarity that set Grace on edge. He smiled. He had a space the size of a small stream through his front teeth.
Lastly, setting influences the mood of the story. This is particularly obvious in mysteries and thrillers. Several scenes in the novel take place either on the grounds of the Quarry Hill Nature Center, which is adjacent to the institution or, in the prison, originally the old state hospital. A key scene takes place in caves, which were once used for purposes of keeping the hospital’s food supplies cold as well as storage for bodies when the inhospitable and frozen Minnesota soil did not permit them to be buried. Within the context of this setting, it is easy to vary the mood from a happy, hopeful family outing to the nature center, such as my family and I have often enjoyed, to Grace’s rising panic and claustrophobia while touring the cold, damp cave.
Once the scene has been set with this unrest, a mysterious woman follows Grace and her children leading to further questions. The scene ends with a visit to the cemetery where two thousand nineteen of the early souls from the institution are buried in unmarked graves.
The history of the grounds, although not dealt with significantly in the novel, provides a subtle background for the events that transpire in Shadow Play and certainly influenced how I wrote the novel. My hope is that this subtly influences the scenes with a degree of eeriness and dread.
Today, on a beautiful spring day at Quarry Hill, one might still come across a limestone fireplace or a cave, the old quarry or Dead Man’s Bridge, the reported site of a hanging. Just the name–Dead Man’s Bridge–is enough to raise the hairs on the neck of an unsuspecting hiker. Although, it’s the perfect setting for a crime, I like to think that the unfortunate souls who suffered from mental illnesses at a time when science and medicine had no cure, found respite on these hallowed grounds.
D.A. Lampi is the author of the forthcoming novel, Shadow Play. Visit her at dalampiauthor.com.