by | Jul 24, 2022 | Isabella Maldonado, On writing | 4 comments

by Isabella Maldonado

I write two crime fiction series, one with a homicide detective and the other featuring a federal agent. A major difference between the two is how the setting changes the feel of the story. Having your main character work in the same place grounds your story deeply in the history and culture of a location. My homicide detective works and lives in Phoenix, Arizona, which gives everything a southwest vibe.

The other main character is an FBI agent who chases serial killers all over the country, affording me the opportunity to share some of my favorite cities with readers—and to learn about others.

Part of the fun of writing about different cities is describing the settings as well as the food and throwing in a bit of local perspective. I love getting into the minds of lifelong residents.

A Rural Setting. The outskirts of San Antonio are lovely and the driving relaxed.

For example, driving on the outskirts of San Antonio was a completely different experience from driving in Boston. Not just because cattle would occasionally wander onto the roads in Texas, but because of the way drivers reacted. As I approached from behind, vehicles ahead of me would invariably move to the right. I asked one of the locals about it, and she told me that Texas drivers move aside to allow faster traffic to pass as a matter of courtesy. Wow. Compare that to my harrowing white-knuckled experience navigating the traffic circles (locals call them “rotaries”) in Boston during rush hour, which felt like a blend of Darwinism and Chaos Theory.

A city setting. Boston rotaries in rush hour are a nightmare.

When in Savannah, it’s like I’m in a different country. Spanish moss drips from towering trees, Southern delicacies grace every table, and the speech is colorful. I don’t just mean the famous low-country drawl, I’m referring to their expressions. A Southerner has a way of saying things that makes it clear what they mean even if you’ve never heard the expression before. They might refer to a thunderstorm as a “frog-strangler,” or they might say they’re “nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers.”

A long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers.

California is so large and populous that it has its own regions with varying cultures. It’s hard to pick a favorite city, but I’ll admit to being partial to San Francisco. Not only is it possible to get fruits and vegetables so fresh they taste like nothing you’ve ever bought in a grocery store, but the seafood is right out of the water too. Don’t get me started on the Napa and Sonoma Valley wine. Or the authentic cuisine in Chinatown. Or the sourdough bread at Boudin. Not only did I discover that locals don’t call their city “Frisco,” but they also shy away from most tourist-oriented spots, preferring their own favorite haunts, which they jealously guard.

Boudin bread provides a variety of sensory themes that are crucial in building setting in San Francisco.

As I write this, I’m recalling a visit to Kennebunkport, made famous by former President George H.W. Bush, where I had incredible lobster. It occurs to me that I’ve got a thing for fresh seafood, which is tragic since I now reside in landlocked Arizona. If it doesn’t swim in a lake or river, fresh fish or crustaceans must be flown or trucked in via cooled containers. By the time it gets to your table, the bloom is off the rose.

Perhaps that’s why the southwest is known for a variety of powerful spices and robust seasonings. Here’s something I wondered about upon moving to the Sonoran Desert: Why do people eat spicy food when it’s 118 degrees out? Asking the locals, I learned that they believe the heat of the peppers actually causes the body to cool. I looked into this counterintuitive bit of local wisdom, and found that science backs it up, which is probably why the spiciest foods in the world are served in the hottest climates. Apparently, eating hot food raises the body temperature, which causes you to sweat—especially on your head and face—which ultimately cools you down faster than all the iced sweet tea in Savannah.

Knowing your setting means knowing what locals eat and why.

In my travels, I have found that I love to immerse myself in the food, culture, and ambience of each locale. There is nothing like walking through New York City with a native to provide insight into the mindset of the people who call it home (it’s also your only shot at hailing a cab or crossing the street without getting run over), but the same can be said for visiting a red rock formation near a vortex in Sedona. Wherever you go, locals can tell you how to navigate the terrain…if they deem you worthy of such arcane knowledge.

Sedona, Arizona, is known for its giant red rock formations. Setting a novel there without them would be a grave mistake.

I will finish with a quote that sums up my feelings perfectly:

“Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.”—Seneca

Do you have a favorite travel destination?

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Rogue Women Writers

    It’s so great that you give your readers a “taste” of different “cultures” in various parts of the country in your terrific crime series! (I always wondered why people in hot climates eat such hot, spicy foods….I used to think it was to cover up the taste of food that had gone bad, but now I have your new explanation). Thanks for a terrific post!….Karna Small Bodman

    • Isabella Maldonado

      Thanks, Karna! I visited Thailand a few years back, and it was pretty warm in Bangkok and Phuket. That was also where I had some of the spiciest Thai food ever! I recall asking about it at the time and the locals assured me it cooled them down to eat it that way. I learned not to ask for my food to be “Thai hot” unless I wanted to burn my mouth, LOL. (But the cuisine was amazing and delicious).

  2. Lisa Black

    That’s so cool to have both, a detective who’s well versed in a place, and another who can travel around and experience new things. The best of both worlds!! That was a major goal with my new series, I wanted my character to be part of a traveling team of forensic experts, so I could work my travels and new vistas into the narrative!!

  3. Chris Goff

    In my thrillers, the characters travel. I love experiencing new places and working that into the fabric of my stories. In my mysteries, the characters stay in the same place–not that I wanted to write them that way. They are Birdwatcher’s Mysteries, and most people have no concept of how far a birder will go to get their bird. In the US, there are approximately 50 million birdwatchers, and they spend well over 18 million dollars a year traveling to see birds. Not that the argument swayed my editor. When I asked if I could take my birdwatcher’s on a birding trip, I was told no. When I pressed, I was told I couldn’t them out of the US and preferably no further east than Chicago. In book #5, A Sacrifice of Buntings (aka Death Shoots a Birdie), I rebelled and took them to Georgia!

    Great blog, Isabella.