Sense of place

Writers describe why the Vineyard makes for a great setting, and is almost a character itself.


Bestselling authors like Judy Blume, Richard Russo, Richard North Patterson, Geraldine Brooks, Linda Fairstein, and Elin Hilderbrand have done it. The list continues with Jill Nelson, Nicole Galland, John Hough Jr., and Stephen L. Carter, and I’m just getting started. These writers have all written novels set, or partially set, on Martha’s Vineyard. Philip R. Craig and Cynthia Riggs have each written an entire series of mystery novels that take place on the Vineyard. Books that came out in the past month which take place on the fictional Martha’s Vineyard include titles by T. Elizabeth Bell and Sunny Hostin. Our little Island with a winter population of, well, who really knows anymore, shows up as a setting in a long list — OK, there’s no actual list yet, but I recommend we start one — of serious, salacious, historic, and comic literary imaginings for readers of all ages. 

“The islanders were already astir,” wrote Dorothy West on the first page of her 1995 classic novel, “The Wedding.” While West wasn’t the first writer to use the Vineyard for the setting of her book, she was at that time one of a select few — notably, Philip Craig’s first “Martha’s Vineyard Mystery” was published in 1989. Since then, the Vineyard has not only turned into an Internationally known vacation hotspot, it has also emerged as a hotspot in fiction. According to Molly Coogan, manager and book buyer at Bunch of Grapes bookstore, there are seven books that are set on the Vineyard that have been published within the past year or so. 

“As a Vineyard person, I have mixed feelings about using the Vineyard,” mused bestselling author Jill Nelson during a recent phone interview. Nelson’s 2009 saucy novel “Let’s Get It On” was set on the Island and the waters around us. “I use the Vineyard because it’s so familiar to me. I can describe it and see it with my eyes closed. And also because as much as it has changed over the years, it hasn’t,” explained Nelson. “Vineyard landmarks are still there. The Cliffs at Aquinnah are getting smaller, but they’re still there. The Gazebo is still there. Not to mention that the Island has so much panache.” Asked what the biggest challenge is to setting a novel on the Vineyard, Nelson said, “In some ways the biggest challenge is being true to the place but fictionalizing the characters who are inspired by the place.”

I sent an email with three questions about using Martha’s Vineyard as a setting to novelists Cynthia Riggs, who has written 14 mystery novels set on the Vineyard; Nicole Galland, who grew up on the Island and whose 2018 novel “On The Same Page” was set on the Vineyard; and to T. Elizabeth Bell, who lives half-time on the Island and has written two novels set on the Vineyard, including the just published “Counting Chickens A Martha’s Vineyard Novel.” 

Below are their answers, which have been edited for space. 

Why use the Vineyard as a setting? 

Cynthia Riggs: I thought about using a fictional island called Whale Island as a setting, but that seemed phony. I couldn’t imagine what my fictional island would be like. A writer’s No. 1 rule is “Write what you know.” I know the Vineyard. I can feel the wind and weather, hear the sound of the sea, smell the lilacs. 

Nicole Galland: My story could not have been set anywhere else; the individual community elements (two indie newspapers, direct democracy, seasonal economy) are rare enough, and the coming together of those elements may well be unique to the Vineyard; and anyhow, this is the place I know and love.

Elizabeth Bell: I set my novels on the Island because I wanted to share the state of what I call “Vineyard bliss” with others. Vineyard bliss, for me, is when you feel utterly relaxed and both connected to and wonderfully aware of your surroundings — similar to mindfulness but with a warm, happy feeling inside.  

What was the biggest challenge of using Martha’s Vineyard as a setting? 

Cynthia Riggs: There is such a wealth of material on this special Island, how can one choose? The variety of settings is extraordinary, from marsh to forest to beach to tidy towns to hidden hovels. From cherished historic homes to wildly modernistic retreats. 

Nicole Galland: I was terrified of offending people.

Elizabeth Bell: My biggest challenge was getting the Island right. Not the scenery — anyone can describe that — but the (albeit fictionalized) lives of the locals and the summer people. I intentionally paint a rosy picture of life on the Vineyard — my novels are beach read/rom-coms, after all — but I also want to bring in some of the realities of life here, like the “summer shuffle” and shortage of affordable housing. 

Did you fictionalize any parts of the Island, or feel like you had to be authentic to the sense of place?

Cynthia Riggs: I felt no need to fictionalize the Vineyard, and didn’t think I would get into trouble by using real places, real towns, real restaurants or shops as settings. I’ve been careful in using a place of business, not to have dreadful things happen there. I must admit, I use Island characters freely, and have been known to kill off a recognizable Islander or two when he (or she) has caused me grief. So far, I haven’t been challenged or even questioned, although I did find out, several years later, that one character I’d killed off had deputized an employee to surreptitiously buy the book in which the unusually painful murder occurred. This magical Island can’t be fictionalized.

Nicole Galland: I had to be authentic. I squirmed when I realized I had placed a driveway someplace that would have intersected a Land Bank property.

Elizabeth Bell: I feel I am authentic to “sense of place,” although I occasionally blur the details, rename real businesses, and make some stuff up. The Island is almost a character itself in my novels, not just a setting. It has a transformative impact on my (human) characters. Through their experiences, the Vineyard helps them to realize what is truly important to them, what will make them happy.



  1. And now even podcasts. Season 2 of the near future horror story Blackout with Rami Malik, takes place partially on Martha’s Vineyard.

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