As writers, our job is always to raise the stakes in our story’s conflict, making the situation as desperate for our heroes as possible—and what better way than to drop our protagonist in the middle of a natural disaster?

In this week’s Killer Nashville Guest Blog, author Peter H. Green shares how he incorporates the power of nature in his novels, not only as a vivid setting, but also as a formidable antagonist.

Happy Reading!

Clay Stafford

Clay Stafford
Founder Killer Nashville
Publisher / Editorial Director Killer Nashville Magazine

KNPHOTO PETER GREENCan Setting Become a Character in Fiction?

By Peter H. Green

How authors generate their characters and themes often remains a mystery to the writers themselves. This fact became apparent to me when Bouchercon selected the Gateway City for its national mystery conference in 2011, and we St. Louisans were dazzled by a firmament of crime-writing stars. The opportunity to meet some of them stimulated sparks of intuition among us with the rapidity of flint striking steel. My revelation came, not exactly because of, but during the course of drinking beer.

Because I had helped arrange workshops with him at St. Louis Writers Guild, Bob Randisi—who has written some 573 novels, including 400 westerns, and bills himself as “the last of the great pulp writers”—invited me to a dinner for the group he founded in 1981, Private Eye Writers of America, at the Anheuser-Busch brewery. I felt like a bug on the wall at this gathering of illustrious writers.

On the familiar plant tour, somewhere between the brew house and the beer tasting room, I encountered award-winning author S.J. Rozan. I had been hoping to meet her, since her career path of professional-architect-turned-writer paralleled mine. I asked her what challenged her most in writing architectural mysteries. “Actually,” she told me, “due to the slow development of most building projects, reading an architectural mystery is about as interesting as watching paint dry.”

But this hadn’t been my experience, and as we picked our way along a narrow catwalk overlooking three-story high vats of brew, I struggled to understand why.

“It’s different for me,” I told her at last. “That’s why mysteries occur during catastrophic events affecting buildings and the infrastructure. My protagonist, architect and amateur sleuth Patrick MacKenna, knows things hidden from the public eye and the average law officer, and he meets the obscure individuals, unknown to the average citizen, who handle millions of our tax dollars.”

I explained that their freedom to spend this money on designs for infrastructure, often hidden underground, or for our complex buildings, which only they can understand, afforded them an opportunity for major mischief! While I didn’t expect her effusive praise for this discovery, I was pleased when S.J. nodded and allowed as how this might be true.

As I plunged into my second career of writing, I also discovered the potential of natural disasters to turn a novel’s setting into a character in the story. In James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown, Hurricane Katrina broods, threatens, and attacks, while government blunders, people suffer, and detective Dave Robicheaux struggles to solve a crime. Similarly, in my debut novel, Crimes of Design, a “rain machine” as persistent as in St. Louis’s notorious 1993 flood poses a relentless menace to its victims, enabling evildoers to work unseen in the background of man’s comparatively feeble efforts to resist natural forces. Here’s how the setting becomes a character in the second chapter of Crimes of Design:

Find Fatal Designs on Amazon.
Find Fatal Designs on Amazon.

Foul weather compounded their troubles. Lightning and thunderstorms had unnerved St. Louisans for months. The newsmen called it another “rain machine”. As in 1993, it had settled over the sprawling Mississippi basin in early spring and stayed. The stationary front, anchored by low pressure over the Great Plains and a high-pressure system in the Southeast, sent storm after storm down a virtual railroad track across the Midwest, creating a new lake in North Dakota, swelling the Platte, the Kaw, the Missouri, the Illinois and finally the Mississippi out of their banks and reclaiming large chunks of the continent for their waters. The monster flashed its eyes, let out angry growls and kept coming, flooding the land and setting everyone on edge.

Similarly, in my latest mystery, Fatal Designs, an earthquake is the inciting incident, separating Erin MacKenna from her canoeing party. In ancient times, the Chinese believed such phenomena were the result of a huge dragon writhing under the surface of the earth. Although Patrick MacKenna knows perfectly well that shifting tectonic plates, not subterranean mythical creatures, cause earthquakes, he begins to sense an unseen evil being working against the honest efforts of mankind to survive this urban disaster—particularly against his own.

Almost without my realizing it, the setting of the novel had evolved into a character, which my protagonist feels is working to defeat him, much like some malignant, unseen dragon. It stimulates him to summon all his resources to find the human culprits, and solve the crime. Likewise, Burke’s choice to pit Dave Robicheaux against the forces of the hurricane, which he brings to life as an almost sentient foe, raises the stakes and makes his main character’s victory even sweeter.

Peter H. Green, an architect and city planner, launched a second career as writer in 2004. He has written a World War II biographical memoir, and two crime novels. He lives in St. Louis with his wife, Connie. For more about him and his works, visit his website at

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(To be a part of the Killer Nashville Guest Blog, send a query to We’d love to hear from you. Thanks to Tom WoodMaria GiordanoWill ChessorEmily Eytchison, and publisher/editorial director Clay Stafford for their assistance in putting together this week’s blog. And for more writer resources, visit us at, and