Fascinating Settings for Thrillers

by | Sep 20, 2017 | On writing | 4 comments

The Sahara desert

Settings mean a lot for thriller writers. In some cases the settings are the thriller. I’m thinking of stories like The Perfect Storm and Into Thin Air. The latter in particular utilizes the endlessly fascinating setting of Mount Everest. What could be more nerve-wracking than marching up a frozen mountain in air so thin that only 200 people since 1978 have climbed to the summit without supplemental oxygen? Where the corpses of those who died in the attempt litter the trail because it’s impossible to carry them down? Just reading this, doesn’t it make you want to find a book on the subject and learn more about the mountain, what it takes to climb it, and why those who attempt it feel compelled to do so?

Many thrillers combine dangerous locales and action into their stories. For my first Emma Caldridge novel, Running From The Devil, I had the idea to place an average person in an unusual area that cut her off from the support systems that most of us take for granted. That meant no police assistance, no ambulance, no hospitals and no way to reach any of it easily. Outside of war zones, such areas are usually found in extreme climates. I chose the Colombian jungle because it ticked off all the boxes. It’s dense, so Caldridge would not see the sun rise or set and use it to determine direction, it’s used by the paramilitary groups to hide their hostages and those same groups place land mines throughout to discourage intrusion, and it’s vast and whole sections can only be reached by air. The setting informed the novel and allowed me to provide numerous, fascinating facts along the way.

Which brings me to another advantage of locale in thrillers.

Set in the Sahara Desert

Extreme locations allow you to discover some interesting, true facts. As you can tell from my comment above, I love to learn while I read, and this doesn’t always require a non fiction book to do it. I’ve discovered fascinating facts reading thrillers. For my novels, I usually try to find intriguing, real, facts that I then weave into the thriller. I think it adds to the story.

For example, my next Emma Caldridge novel Blood Run starts in Dakar, Senegal and ends with a deadly march through the Sahara desert. I researched the political situations in various African nations as well as the climate of the countries. Insurgencies operate in various locations on the continent, and many can be found in a small area bordering Senegal, Mauritania and Mali. I decided to place Caldridge in this area and to have her take on the challenge of avoiding danger while crossing the Sahara. For this setting I needed to learn the average temperature in the desert, the existing trails, and the possible sandstorms that could occur.

Needless to say, the Sahara provides a lot of interesting facts. The average temperature is between 40 (C) or 104 (F) to 47 (C) or (117 F). Couple this with a complete lack of vegetation or shade and you get the idea of how deadly the desert can be. The photo at the top of this post shows you what you are facing on a march through the desert; miles and miles of endless sand. Camel trains still take the paths along the dry riverbeds, but the Tuareg nomads have the knowledge of the area that a Westerner might never learn.

Sandstorms in the desert are deadly. There’s an ancient story that the Persian ruler Cambyses II’s army of 50,000 conquered Egypt only to be swallowed up alive by a sandstorm on their way to the Siwa Oasis, never to be seen again. Can you imagine? 50,000 men buried without a trace? The number boggles the mind. Many thought this was a myth, but recently some artifacts have been found that some believe may be from this doomed army.

All of these facts added to the story and allowed me to get a real sense of what my protagonist was facing in attempting the trek. In this case the setting really informed the story, just as it did for the first in the series.

If you’re writing a thriller and have an idea that can be set in an unusual locale, by all means give it a shot. Locations can add to the complexity and interest of the story, and the exotic ones give readers like me a chance to experience what it would be like to experience Everest or the Sahara and to learn something in the process!

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  1. Gayle Lynds

    I love your descriptions of settings, Jamie. The escape through the Sahara must've been difficult and exciting to write. Can't wait for the next Emma!

  2. Jamie Freveletti

    Thanks Gayle! It was interesting to research and I loved writing it.

  3. Sonja Stone

    Jamie, I loved the setting in Running From The Devil. The disorienting nature of the climate, the lack of guidance and direction from the sun… The setting absolutely added to the strength of Emma's character. I'm really looking forward to BLOOD RUN. Living in the Sonoran Desert, I understand the precarious nature of this climate. Sandstorms blow in quickly, blinding the city in the process. I imagine the Sahara is much worse–at least the Sonoran Desert has ample vegetation to slow the blowing sand.

  4. Karna Bodman

    What a great post, Jamie! I completely agree that it is so advantageous to "learn" while reading a thriller….and the idea of someone traversing that desert is somewhat mind-boggling to me…and yet your writing certain informs the mind of exactly what it would be like. Thanks for posting.