Thursday, February 28, 2013

Using Location as a Character in a Novel

When asked what my new book, Valley of Thracians, is about, I immediately reply that it’s a suspense novel. Sure, it has a missing Peace Corps volunteer, buried treasure, a desperate journey while being chased by mysterious men dressed in black, and a showdown in an ancient tomb. But the book is a bit more than that.

I classify the novel as “travel fiction”. According to Condé Nast Traveler, a fiction travel book is “a book in which a place is as important a character as the protagonist; … it’s a book that has shaped the way we see a certain place; it’s a book whose events and characters could be set nowhere else.” While the characters in Valley of Thracians have been described by an early reviewer as “memorable”, the setting plays a major role in the narrative.

Bulgaria is a scenic country, full of picturesque mountains and quaint villages. The country and its citizens have a burning desire to quickly emerge from an eastern European mentality and catch up with the rest of the world. In my book I highlight some of Bulgaria’s rich history, fascinating culture and customs, and even Bulgarian cuisine.

This is not a travel guide to Bulgaria, yet the story could take place nowhere else. As it does for the main protagonist, who arrives in Sofia on a mission to find his missing grandson, Bulgaria comes alive in the story. Yet descriptions of this off-the-beaten-track destination don’t interfere with the fast-paced nature of the suspense.

As background, my job in Internet marketing was relocated from Tel Aviv to Sofia for two years, 2009-2010. During that time my wife and I traveled extensively around the country, seeing the sights, and learning about Bulgaria’s colorful past. We made many friends and even learned a bit of Bulgarian. Okay, a very small bit of Bulgarian.

Since returning to our permanent home and jobs in Israel, I have devoted my free time to writing about Bulgaria, but in the format of a novel.

I hope readers will not only enjoy reading Valley of Thracians but will take interest in Bulgaria. Visit Bulgaria now, before there are too many tourists!

Originally published on the website of crime & mystery writer Laurence O'Bryan.


  1. Very well written. Your article alone has drawn me in. I can't wait to read your book.

    1. The book is now available in both Kindle and paperback versions. I hope you enjoy!

  2. I love the idea of having a country like Bulgaria as a kind of protagonist. From your great post, I can tell how much you learned and experienced there, and how much you can share with your reader. I want to be able to do that too.

    1. Thanks Hannah for your comment. I'll be continuing to write about Bulgaria and my experiences there in the coming weeks.

  3. I completely agree, Ellis. I actually wrote about something similar on my blog... is "setting" the forgotten child of storytelling? It seems we focus 90% of our time on plot/character, but setting is always the number one thing I remember about a book long after I've put it down.

  4. Funny, I am editing a book set in the north of Finland (way up in the Arctic Circle) and the setting definitely informs the characters and their personalities.

    The landscape is a character for sure and no other place could be used to tell the story.

    Thanks for this article, It's a very interesting topic :)

  5. You are so right about location being really important. It is an exciting way of getting to know a place through words, definitely "see a location through an author's eyes".

    1. I don't think you're seeing the location through the author's eyes, but through the character's eyes. Because if the former is the case, than it's considered author intrusion. Don't your agree?

  6. Thanks for all your comments. If you want to get to know a place, you can try reading a travel guide, but I think you'll have much more fun reading a work of fiction that emphasizes the novel's location, its customs and traditions.

  7. You have interesting marketing techniques, Ellis. I just saw this on Twitter even though you wrote this post almost a year ago. Not complaining - just saying, interesting. I haven't seen it in practice yet.

    I only found out about you recently. We share more in common at this point that you know (could tell you in private at some point) and I wanted to come to you with a question. Originally I posted this on G+, but for the benefit of everyone I will copy paste it below:

    - - -

    research vs plotting vs writing

    So this is another one of these huge questions.

    Plotting never worked for me because I would start writing the actual story in the outline. I would usually start a bullet list in Evernote, which will slowly grow into sentences, then a paragraph, then three paragraphs, at which point I would ask myself, hey, am I writing the story or am I doing an outline?

    My flash stories, which I wrote so far, ignore this format completely. I just sit down and write for an hour or so, and when I'm done I have a story. The key to these is that I write everything in one sitting - sometimes I would in two consecutive days, but the major part of the writing would already be there.

    To make things more confusing (because, why not) I do enjoy research. I have an unfinished novel that started as research which went wonderfully, and another short one that involved some research and never seen the light of day because of the above conflict: where does the outline stops and the writing begins (or, where does the research stop?)

    Looking at my unfinished stories (the list is growing steady, over 10 stories so far), this is a similar pattern. Unless I write something very short, I get stuck because I want to research and I need to research. Looking at my bullet points, I thought, hey why not just keep going and when I'm done and have like a whole chapter inside the "outline" just call it a chapter? It's a draft after all, heavy editing will happen regardless.

    So this is where I am. On one hand I'm thinking, I want to write X amount of words a day - it's important that I write every day, it's a habit I used to do and liked with my flash stories. On the other hand I'm thinking, well, everything that starts involving any development on my part (character, places, plot) involves at least some research, which I also like, but then where does the actual writing fits? Where is my word count? How can I measure the work I did?

    It is important for me to measure my work so I can track my progress. I'm not talking NanoWriMo here, just in general.

    What do you this? Sorry this post is so all over the place. 

  8. I saw your link to this on Twitter and had to come and check out the post because the title reminded me of how the town of Maycomb was so important in To Kill a Mockingbird. I love this post, and Bulgaria! You don't really hear much about Bulgaria, but your post made me want to read this book, not only because you did such a great job talking about it, but also because I have close friends who traveled to Bulgaria a few times and adopted two children from Bulgaria.

  9. I couldn't agree more. We humans are more than two dimensions and in order for our characters to be believable they should also interact with the world around them.

  10. To me, the characters and the setting in VALLEY OF THRACIANS are both “memorable”. I recall referring to detailed maps of Bulgaria and researching the various locations of the story to get the feel of the places. Sometimes with well written novels such as this, I find it difficult to separate reality from fiction, but the reality of Bulgaria, in this case, has left a colorful lasting impression on me.

    Best regards from a reader close to Cayuga's waters.