Guest post: Sense of Place: Setting in romance and why it matters by Violetta Vane and Heidi Belleau

Heart shaped world


As new authors, we were thrilled to receive our first ever review—a highly positive one—at the Dear Author blog. Even more thrilling, the reviewer highlighted something were very proud of: “The sense of time and place in this short story is amazingly authentic.”

That was for our free short story, “Harm Reduction,” which spans twenty years but stays within the same New York City block. It’s an area and an era I happen to know well. New York City was my home in the early 1990s, and I made a tenuous living at a strange assortment of jobs while migrating between an SRO on the Upper West Side, a warehouse-loft in the Brooklyn Navy Yards and a squat house on the Lower East Side. So when we set the story in the Lower East side, I had sense memories to draw on, as well as the feel of the era.

The US was in a recession. But social opportunities, at least, were beginning to open up, now that the repressive conservatism of the Reagan-Bush years was waning. And HIV/AIDS prevention policy was a huge beneficiary of that movement. Imagine the entire healthcare system in this country being legally prevented from saying that condoms could help stop the transmission of HIV! That was how it used to be, and why “Silence=Death” became the slogan of activists who fought for change.

We don’t mention these politics. But they’re still in the story indirectly, because our characters are very much products of their time, and one of them (Julio) is actively trying to change that time. He combines careful analysis with intense passion; he’s aware of what’s wrong in the world, and aware that a single person can’t fix it all… but he still tries.

If we didn’t spend so much time imagining and reimagining the setting, that passion wouldn’t be as grounded or real. Each character in a romance has to have a passion burning within themselves… otherwise, how can they feel it for each other?


Another awesome compliment we received on that story was someone who, tagging the book for their goodreads shelves, tagged it with ‘city-as-character’, which is really a fantastic way of putting it. In any given story, setting can easily just serve as a quiet, inconspicuous backdrop, or even be completely absent, leaving your characters living and loving in some kind of creepy white box. But as a consumer of media, one of the things some of my favourite romances do is bring setting to the forefront and make it integral to the story, as much a ‘character’ as the hero/hero/heroine or combination thereof.

For example, there’s a whole pile of time travel romances out there, but what would Outlander be without Scotland? Wuthering Heights without moors? Many stories live or die by the authenticity, appeal, or inherent romantic-ness of their settings.

One of my favourite guilty-pleasure movies is PS, I Love You. The story of a deceased husband gently helping his significant other through her grief is a pretty universal concept and could be set anywhere, but what that movie magically does is soak itself in Irish-ness from start to finish. Of course, if you asked my Irish husband about its portrayal of Ireland he’d balk from start to finish, but as a romance, you fall in love with Ireland just as much as you fall in love with Gerry, if not more, since Gerry is, himself, a part of Ireland, from his (oh so terrible, Gerard Butler!) accent to his music to the pub he drinks in to his choice in boxers.

I wanted to capture that same feeling when we wrote The Druid Stone, without writing some thatched-roof house fantasy version of Ireland. We hope our readers fall in love with something a little more grounded in reality, because ultimately the reality is just as romantic, economic troubles aside. So the first thing we did was start off with a character who doesn’t fall for the Ireland homecoming mythos—a man who, in fact, has significant reason to be especially resistant to Ireland’s charms.

Just like a good romance requires conflict between the main characters, The Druid Stone has conflict between character and setting. Sean’s background allows him (and thus our audience) to see Ireland more for what it is than what we often imagine it to be, which makes his love affair with the setting all the more enjoyable when he finally opens up to it. Ireland isn’t a perfect country, not by a long stretch ( nor is Sean’s Irish love interest, druid-for-hire Cormac Kelly), but there’s a definite reason for its significant emotional appeal in our cultural consciousness, and not tapping into that would be an absolute waste of a setting. We’re hoping that setting, and our dedication to portraying it as more than a postcard, will really set The Druid Stone apart.


The Druid Stone won’t be out from Carina until August, but we have a prequel story coming out this week that’s just as much about Sean’s complicated relationship to place.  Sean comes from a mixed family, but he’s not confused at all about what he is: he identifies first and foremost as Cuban-American. His confusion has to do with where— with a sense of feeling out of place and not belonging. At the stage of his life he’s at in “Cruce de Caminos”, he doesn’t feel at home anywhere… until he wanders into New Orleans.

The city represents a sense of history, a rootedness, that he longs for. “Cruce de Caminos” isn’t a romance, though. Sean isn’t ready for that yet. The passion New Orleans stirs up won’t be fulfilled, and the central question of the story is not whether he can find love, but whether or not he can even change his own tragically wasted young life. Like the blurb says, the city brings him to his knees.


But in defeat, or worship?

Of course, sense of place doesn’t have to be a complicated, conflicting thing. For Ori and Kalani in Hawaiian Gothic, their relationship with their home is like one between mother and sons. Hawai’i is a lifegiver and a caretaker and a beautiful, welcoming place, and every single setting across the islands is written to evoke that perfect feeling of knowing that you are where you belong. And when you’ve had a life as difficult and heartbreaking as Ori and Kalani’s, having something you can count on like that may save your life.


We’ve both been to Hawai’i, and our own passion for the place is woven through the story. We also love writing about places we’ve never been, however. Our free short story coming out for the Love is Always Write event is set almost entirely in Finland, 1941. Some of the descriptions of extreme cold came naturally to Heidi, but otherwise, we knew very little about the setting at the onset. We researched like crazy, and by the end of it, we’d fallen in love with the place through the eyes of our characters.


Your turn! Tell us, what are your favourite romantic settings? Any books that really “get” a particular setting or really take advantage of it? Any settings you’d like to see more of?

About Heidi and Violetta:

Heidi Belleau and Violetta Vane are two unlikely friends and co-writers from different sides of the same continent. Heidi, from Northern Canada, is a history geek with a soft spot for Highlanders and Victorian pornography. Violetta is a Yank (and a Southerner, and a Japanese-American) with a cinematic imagination and a faintly checkered past. Together, they write strange and soulful interracial and multicultural m/m with a global sensibility and the occasional paranormal twist.

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About “Cruce de Caminos”, out May 21st from Riptide Publishing

Addiction drives Sean O’Hara to a critical crossroads. Will he make the right decision, or will the floodwaters bound for New Orleans sweep him away?

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About Hawaiian Gothic, out June 12th from Loose Id

Childhood friends Ori and Kalani sort through dark family history and even journey to the Hawaiian ghostworld for a second chance at love.

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Links to free stories at Heidis blog

4 thoughts on “Guest post: Sense of Place: Setting in romance and why it matters by Violetta Vane and Heidi Belleau

  1. Thanks for such an interesting post. I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately on world building so this was really timely. And thanks for all the links!

  2. Thanks for commenting KatherineHalle!

    One awesome resource we use a lot is Google Street View. I think it would be useful for fantasy worldbuilding, too, when it comes to visual inspiration.

  3. Thanks for stopping by with such a great post, Heidi and Violetta – it’s a real pleasure to have you here.

    I have to admit, I’m a real sucker for any books set in New Orleans – I’ve never actually been there, but I feel like I have through my teenage reading of Anne Rice and Poppy Z Brite. One novel set there I read recently was post-Katrina, and that was incredibly evocative: Water Mark by JM Redmann.

    Many of my all time favourite books have a strong sense of place – I travel mainly through reading, so I treat reading evocative books as mini holidays, without the jet lag :)

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