Thursday, February 23, 2012

Dreaming California: Setting and THE WIG IN THE WINDOW

Inspiration for "Luna Vista"
Describing setting doesn't come naturally to me. There is, in fact, one inconspicuous paragraph in my middle grade mystery THE WIG IN THE WINDOW that took me an entire day to write. If I ever dared reveal which paragraph (not even torture would convince me to do that), you would be hard pressed not to burst out laughing.

I blame my setting challenges on my itinerant childhood. As I was growing up, I moved every two years or so. My childhood memories are a jumble of different schools, houses, friends, and neighbors. When I write, I tend to visualize places from my past that call up certain emotions. I might imagine my seventh grade classroom in Reno, Nevada to write one scene, but transport myself to my sixth grade cafeteria for the next. My resulting prose might do a great job of conveying my characters’ mental landscape, but in early drafts (and – yikes! – even later ones) my descriptions of their physical world are riddled with inconsistencies. In a draft of THE WIG IN THE WINDOW sometimes kids walked down linoleum hallways and at others they strolled across outdoor courtyards. “Is the school campus-style?” my editor politely asked in her editorial letter. “It was a little bit hard to visualize.”

No kidding. When I went back and sketched diagrams of the fictional jumble of places I’d created, the result looked like I'd hired Picasso to draw up blueprints.

Setting is important to me, though — however hard I struggle to evoke it. I set THE WIG IN THE WINDOW in the fictional California seaside suburb of “Luna Vista,” because I wanted to create a surreal backdrop to my mystery. Preposterous events are easier to accept when the entire world of a story is just a bit off kilter. Besides, ugly secrets are best uncovered in beautiful surroundings. Luna Vista’s surreal nature also gave me more liberties in depicting my character’s lives. My young sleuths Sophie Young and Grace Yang roam about more freely than actual suburban kids do these days— a useful ability when it comes to conducting high-stakes investigating. A more true-to-life setting might also have required them to be tethered to that universal foe of  mystery: technology.

However surreal the fictional town of Luna Vista is, it was inspired by a real place: Los Angeles’ stunning Palos Verdes Peninsula, where I was lucky enough to live briefly as a kid. Luna Vista Middle School — and the beach where the book’s final late-night showdown takes place — bears a strong resemblance to my former public middle school, Malaga Cove:

Of course, halfway through sixth grade, my family moved. This was my new school:

I think I picked the right setting. Don't you?

Kristen Kittscher's debut mystery THE WIG IN THE WINDOW (Harper Children's 2013) follows the comic misadventures of two tween sleuths who suspect their school counselor is a dangerous fugitive -- and just might be right! A former middle school English teacher, Kristen lives in Pasadena, California, with her husband, Kai. When she's not writing, you'll find her running her after-school tutoring business or taking orders from her hopelessly spoiled pets. You can find her  on TwitterFacebook, or at Sleuths, Spies & Alibis, where she blogs with other YA & MG mystery authors.


  1. How cool is that middle school on the beach! Yes, you picked the right location - the other school is a tad depressing.

  2. Love this: "Besides, ugly secrets are best uncovered in beautiful surroundings." :)

  3. Yet another reason for me to grab up THE WIG IN THE WINDOW as soon as it comes out: my husband is from Palos Verdes, and his parents still live there. He went to Dapplegray Intermediate School and Miraleste High School.

    I don't find too many MG and YA books set in California. I'll be paying tribute to San Diego in my upcoming release, and I'll be happy to tell people, "For other books set in sunny Southern California, check out Kristen Kittscher's THE WIG IN THE WINDOW!"

  4. Ashley -- Just a tad, huh?
    Liz - Thanks. It's true, isn't it.
    Cat - What a coincidence! I'm happy to provide further reasons to pick up WIG. When you make your next SoCal jaunt (or move to Pasadena:-), we'll have to get to the bottom of this connection.

  5. That's a great setting (the first one, that is!). I wish my schools had been by the beach!

  6. Oh man, what a gorgeous school! It's hard to believe that's a real place!

  7. "When I went back and sketched diagrams of the fictional jumble of places I’d created, the result looked like I'd hired Picasso to draw up blueprints." You crack me up. Great post!

  8. It was so nice to hear someone else has troubles with setting. My characters are always in hallways?? I've got to write them into a room for goodness sake!

  9. Lydia & Jessica - I wish ALL my schools had been by the beach, but at least I got in that one. It is an unreal spot, I agree.

    Elisabeth - I'm glad my woes can at least entertain! :-)

    Jennifer - I just became horrifingly aware of several hallway moments in WIG... Glad to have someone in the same boat.

  10. swope middle school is the bomb. so Ashley eslton SHUT UP