Capturing Convincing Settings

Capturing Convincing Settings 1024 576 Reader Views

by Randy Overbeck, Author of the award-winning Haunted Shores Mystery Series

One of the common comments about my Haunted Shores Mysteries by reviewers and readers is about my ability to capture vivid descriptions of my scenic locations.

The settings of the story had so much details that I could imagine myself there. Whether it was his office or his house or the sailboat, I felt right there with the characters.” Amazon reviewer, BLOOD ON THE CHESAPEAKE 

“The setting was also wonderfully described, from the houses to the beach.” Amazon Reviewer, CRIMSON AT CAPE MAY

Overbeck evokes a slice of the Florida landscape—from sunny beaches to dusty backwater towns—with vivid language and sensual details.”—Amazon Reviewer, SCARLET AT CRYSTAL RIVER

During my author talks, I’m often asked if I grew up in the locales of my stories—the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake bay, Cape May, New Jersey and the Gulf Coast of Florida. Readers are often surprised by my answer, no.

“How the are you able to capture these scenes so convincingly?” is often the next question. My response is careful study, research and great local help, not to mention learning from authors who are accomplished in this area.

 Want to make your setting come alive? Here are my four suggestions.

Study the experts.

Read the authors who have mastered creating memorable settings, who have the ability to take the reader to a completely different place (and sometimes time). I treasure and often choose great writers who excel in this area. Two of my favorites are C.J. Box and Kent Kreuger. Box’s stories take place in the rugged outdoors of Wyoming and capture the stunning beauty, the desolate cruelty and the awesome grandeur of the mountains, plains, rivers and lakes of this magnificent part of the country. Kreuger’s Cork O’Connor mysteries are set mostly in northern Minnesota and paint a remarkable picture of snow-capped mountains, crystal blue lakes, and winding trails through huge, unspoiled forests. I’ve learned a great deal from reading them and studying how they paint portraits of land, weather, conditions and even people. I’m certainly not in their league, but studying them has definitely upped my game. If you’re interested in more great examples, you can check out my guest blog for the Strand Magazine entitled “My Top 7 Authors Who Steal the Scene.” (

Don’t simply rely on Google maps or YouTube.

Google maps (or other similar programs) can be helpful, but if you want to truly create a vivid, memorable setting in your work, you need to go there, spend some time there, drink up the scene. Drive the roads, feel the potholes, smell the air, taste the local specialties, listen to the people talk. Ask the natives what they think. When I wrote about the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, I had visited the area several times to absorb the nuances of the setting—even though my POV character is an outsider experiencing the area for the first time. For example, when I wanted to include a scene about Darrell experiencing the thrill (and terror) of sailing on the Chesapeake, I took my first (and second) sail on the same. I don’t think I could have made the sailing scenes as strong and believable if I had tried to absorb the info from a book or a YouTube Video. That doesn’t mean you should not use such technological help such as YouTube or Google, but these should be use to confirm your personal experiences, not replace them.

When you do visit your setting, don’t simply take a hundred pictures.

Keep a notebook (or do this electronically) to record your observations. In doing the research for BLOOD ON THE CHESAPEAKE, I recorded all sorts of tidbits I never realized I would use—until I did. For example, I noted that no one swims in the Bay water. Later, I learned it was because of the nettles floating near the surface. So, of course, this went into the novel. After I finished my initial sail, I came ashore and scribbled everything about how it felt, what the air smelled like, what the birds did, how the captain piloted the boat. In putting together the manuscript for the second book in the series, CRIMSON AT CAPE MAY, I took a good number of pictures of the magnificent Victorian houses, which figure predominantly in the tale. But I also took copious notes and descriptions to be matched with the photos when I was trying to come up with the perfect description of a mansion for the manuscript. I sampled the cuisine at the town restaurants to get a feel for the locals’ preferences—and because I love to eat, of course. I took the tour in each place and learned about the area.

Cultivate local help.

The first person I’d suggest is the Director of the Chamber of Commerce or the Visitors’ Bureau. She often knows the history of their area especially well and can share with you gems of that background and knowledge that will strengthen the believability of your scenes and add details which will delight your readers. Also, she can help connect you with a merchant or business in the town/area that you might want to use in your narrative. The second native I’ve found extremely helpful has been the local librarian or head of the local historical society. Regardless of whether your story has historical elements to it or not, it is always helpful to you to know the history about this character, this church, this shopping center, this covered bridge, when you want to use it in your narrative. In Blood on the Chesapeake, the central crime I wanted to deal with was a murder some thirty years earlier, actually a lynching. As I was doing my research on the area, and working with a local librarian, she said, “Did you know we had two lynchings here on the Shore? Though it was years before your story.” I hadn’t uncovered that nugget of knowledge before (since it wasn’t widely known and admitted in the area) and it became an important piece of the puzzle I put together for my novel. After I established a relationship with these individuals, I found I could call or email them when I found something I needed more information or clarification on. And I found these locals quite happy to provide the help. I’ve even asked them to read an early manuscript to make sure my portrayal of the world of their town rings true.


Dr. Randy Overbeck
Award-winning educator, best-selling author, in-demand speaker

Dr. Overbeck has served children as a teacher, college prof and school leader for more than three decades and this experience has infused his writing with a rare authenticity. Using the canvas of the normal, sedate public school, he has crafted tales of suspense, mystery and breath-taking action, where his characters—teachers, prinicpals, janitors—face daunting, out-sized challenges such as a terrorist attack or a murderer.

His work has captivated readers and has earned national awards including “Thriller of the Year” (ReadersFavorite) “Gold Award” (Literary Titan) “Mystery of the Year” (ReaderViews) and “Crowned Heart of Excellence” (InD’tale magazine). His first novel, LEAVE NO CHILD BEHIND and his Haunted Shores Mystery trilogy have all earned numerous five star reviews from national and international reviewers. The first two entries in series, BLOOD ON THE CHESAPEAKE (2019) and CRIMSON AT CAPE MAY (2020), have even become Amazon and B & N Bestsellers.

Dr. Overbeck is an active member of the literary community, contributing to a writers’ critique group, serving as a mentor to emerging writers and participating in writing conferences. When he’s not writing or researching his next exciting novel or sharing his presentations, “Things Still Go Bump in the Night” and “A Few Favorite Haunts,” he’s spending time with his incredible family of wife, three children (and their spouses) and seven wonderful grandchildren.


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  • Carolyn Howard-Johnson

    Randy, I love that you shared this. One question: When do you feel the timing is best for these visits, interviews, and the like? Before you start? As you’re nearing the end of your first draft when you’d presumably have a better take on what details you might need?
    Very best,
    Carolyn Howard-Johnson
    A fellow author

    • Randy Overbeck

      Carolyn, Thanks so much for your response and for the question. My process–prepandemic, anyway–was to make multiple trips to my locale. My first is always before I start as the location is part of the brainstorming process for the narrative. I’ll look around, do the tourist thing and meet the locals. If the place perks my interest, I’ll do my research and note taking, photographs and interviews. Then I’ll start putting together a rough outline together and maybe start to do some writing. Somewhere early on, I’ll return to check if I’m getting the setting details right. During this time I’ll be in touch with local “experts” to ask questions and get some guidance. Toward the end I may return to check my nearly finished product against the reality. Of course, all this had to be truncated for the last book in the series because of the pandemic.
      Hope this was helpful. If I can help further, feel free to email me privately @

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