"Location is the key that informs the characters and their situations in The Darkest Child," says Laura Hruska, Soho Press associate publisher. This January release by Delores Reynolds unfolds in a small rural community in Georgia in 1958. "The town in the book has a fictional name," Hruska explains, "as does the county, but the author grew up in the geographical area. She left when she was 13 with her family." Now a psychiatric nurse living in Cleveland, Reynolds focuses on Tangy Mae, the darkly complected daughter of Rozelle. The girl is fair-skinned enough to pass for white, but the townspeople know better. With 10 children by 10 different men, Rozelle considers 13-year-old Tangy Mae mature enough to start cleaning houses and bedding men. But the Supreme Court has just ruled against segregated schools, and Tangy Mae desperately wants an education.

The 1968 assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. figure prominently in When the Finch Rises (Ballantine, Oct.) by Jack Riggs, as does the fictional lynching of a young black man in a small North Carolina town. "The politics of the time and the civil rights activity going on in the Deep South are part of the story," says editorial director Maureen O'Neal. "In-house the book has been compared to To Kill a Mockingbird and A Separate Peace. It's about the friendship between two 12-year-old boys during a six-month period in 1968 when everything in their world falls apart. It's told by one of the boys in a very simple style, not in Southern baroque. The Finch is a river in North Carolina, a river that rises and threatens, but the title also refers to the birds. The author is Southern and well-connected." Riggs teaches at Perimeter College in Atlanta.

Anything You Say Can and Will Be Used Against You (HarperCollins, Feb.) by Laurie Lynn Drummond, a collection of short fiction about women police officers in Baton Rouge, La., is based on the author's own experiences, reports executive editor Marjorie Braman. Now living in Austin, Tex., Drummond returns to her old beat in a powerful way, Braman emphasizes. "These stories are about five different women who aren't trying to compete with men. They're just doing their own difficult jobs. Laurie writes about that and about what goes on inside their heads when they finally go home. It's a gritty book with an emotional sensibility about people coping with life and death and with bad options. There's a very definite southern feel to the book, but Baton Rouge is also like other cities, with citizens from every economic level."

In August 1976, Helene Strickland returns home after a long absence to attend her aunt's funeral in Knee Deep in Wonder (Holt/Metropolitan, Sept.) by April Reynolds. "The action takes place almost entirely within a small region of Lafayette County in Arkansas close to the Texas border, within a specific black world without any acknowledgment there is another white world out there," explains Riva Hocherman, senior editor. "There is a strong sense not just of place but also of condition. It's almost its own planet." The author, now a New York City resident, received a Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation Award for this work about family secrets and survival. "April has several future novels planned set in this same region," Hocherman tells PW. "Her father is from Lafayette County, and some of the stories are drawn from her father's story. It's a very big lead title for us." Reynolds will plug the book during a 12-city national tour.

A 1965 real-life double murder in Houston is spun into a novel by Hugh and Martha Gardenier in The Ice Box Murders (Redbud Publishing, Oct.). "We're a small press that began in 1999," says editor and publisher Sylvia Tomlinson, "and we're really excited about this book. The authors have already appeared on TV in Houston and Dallas." The Gardeniers, who live in Houston, have been on the case since 1997, seeking to unravel the crime that they claim the police didn't want solved. The title refers to the repository where the carved up bodies of a husband and wife were found in their home. But was the murderer their 43-year-old son? Says Tomlinson, "The authors, who are forensic accountants, followed the money trail to find the answer. The murderer, the parents and others are mentioned by name, but this is a novel—it's fact-based fiction."

New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association

Battles between the British and the Americans take place offstage, but in New Brunswick, N.J., there is plenty of intrigue, romance and even a dead body in Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Murder by Karen Swee (Bridge Works, Jan.). "This is a mystery that takes place during the Revolutionary War," says editorial director Barbara Phillips. "The protagonist is a smart, sharp-tongued female who runs a local tavern, and when one of her guests is murdered, it's not clear which side of the conflict he's loyal to. The plot is based on very good research, and there is a lot of local color." Swee knows the area: she lives in Highland Park, close to New Brunswick.

Baltimore provides the setting for Losing It by Lindsay Faith Rech (Red Dress Ink, Oct.). Diana Christopher, a 32-year-old waitress, drives her car into the front window of a local café, and then the plot unfolds in flashback. Diana is overweight, a disappointment to her mother and troubled by the death of her father, who died when she was a child. Rech, who lives in Holland, Pa., just outside Philadelphia, is only 24, says senior editor Margart Marbury. "She really understands relationships, and women will definitely relate to the characters. This isn't chick lit. It's a serious but very entertaining story with a triumphant ending."

In a linked collection of stories, Say That to My Face (Norton, Sept.) by David Prete follows Yonkers-born and -bred Italian-American Joey Frascone from age four to 19. "He and all his friends are always talking about getting out of Yonkers," says Alane Salierno Mason, senior editor, "but Joey is the only one who does. The city looms as a Promised Land of glamour and sophistication. Joey crosses the river and becomes a bartender in Manhattan." In real life, Prete is an actor living and working in NYC. "He's naturally gifted at capturing Italian-American speech. Maybe it comes from his having an actor's ear," conjectures Salierno Mason. "He has the exact tenor of the Italian-American dialogue. I read the manuscript coming home from a family wedding, and I said to myself, 'I know these people.' "

Brooklyn is the home of debut novelist Aaron Zimmerman, while the East Village is home to his fictional protagonist, the overweight author Eliot Greebee, in By the Time You Finish This Book You Might Be Dead (Spuyten Duyvil, Oct.). Chapters from the fictional writer's fictional nonfiction guide, Changing and Improving Your Life Through CUTLAS, alternate with the narrative of Greebee's antic pursuit of a maiden fair in this send-up of the self-help industry. (CUTLAS stands for Cost/benefit United-based Transactional Life Analysis System, Greebee's proposed panacea for life's woes.) "There's a wonderful overlap," says publisher Tod Thilleman. "It's a madcap adventure of 24 hours in New York, but the general thrust is actually very dark. This manic guy is obviously in his own world. The action ends up in Coney Island."

New England

The inauspiciously named Poverty, N.Y., in the Adirondacks, is the setting for Sue Halpern's The Book of Hard Things (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Oct.). "It's a town with a summer community and a year-round population that's a totally different socio-economic class," says editor-in-chief John Glusman. "This is about a friendship between two men of diverse backgrounds and how it develops and how it is misperceived by the people in town. There's a certain inevitability that Sue choreographs so well. You have a sense of what might happen, something you don't want to happen, but the two men have no control over it. The consequences are quite dramatic and violent." Halpern, who lives in Vermont and upper New York state, has two nonfiction books to her credit and is married to environmental writer Bill McKibben. "One wonders if a nonfiction writer can shift gears and make the change," says Glusman. "Sue does. She knows the region and evokes it so well. Poverty is as dysfunctional in its way as in Winesburg, Ohio."

Living in Yarmouth, Maine, Sarah Beth Martin has written The One True Ocean (Sourcebooks Landmark, Oct.), in which she imagines a young widow returning from Cambridge, Mass., to Cape Wood, a fictional Maine town where the woman's mother and aunt once lived. There, she begins renovating their old home and discovers clues to a past that had been kept hidden from her. "She finds pieces of love letters under the wallpaper, which turn out to be letters to her mother from the father she didn't know she had," says editorial assistant Laura Kuhn. "Digging in the yard, she discovers a small skeleton of a baby." Amid such revelations, the stark beauty of Maine provides a stirring backdrop. "The book deals with nature, with the ocean, with trees," says Kuhn. "The setting is very important."

All the characters in Grave Circle: An Ivory Tower Mystery (Sept.) by David D. Nolta are associated with the venerable, albeit fictional Clare College in western Massachusetts. "The book is very satirical of the elite, Ivy League, East Coast academic milieu. David pokes fun at what he calls its Anglophilic environment," says Holly Gruber, publisher, Quality Words in Print. The novice novelist is an art historian who teaches at Massachusetts College of Art during the academic year and at Yale during the summer. Notes Gruber, "The book is written in a very deliberate, fully descriptive style to enhance the pretentiousness of the characters." The unfaithful wife of a professor of archaeology is murdered, and brother-and-sister amateur sleuths Hiawatha and Antigone Musing are on the case. Two more installments featuring the siblings are in the works.

Now teaching at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., Edward J. Delaney, author of Warp & Weft (Permanent Press, Jan.), was born in Fall River, Mass. He calls the unnamed central city in his novel an "extension" of Fall River but stipulates, "I view the setting of this book as being a New England mill town, of which there are many. The events of the book are not faithfully based on real events. The city is a character in that its needs shape the lives and needs of those within it." The novel follows three generations of men toiling in the industrial northeast. Delaney relates, "As a high school and college student in the mid and late 1970s, I spent summers unloading trucks in several different mills, and I've found no other work so hard and relentless."

Great Lakes/Upper Midwest

Born and raised in desolate northern Wisconsin where her debut novel, The Turtle Warrior (Viking, Jan.) is set, Mary Relindes Ellis says, "The country of my childhood was still filled with working-class immigrants and with intense populations of Finns, Germans, Swedes, Poles, Croatians, Czechs, Slavs, some French and the Ojibwe. These groups mixed only when absolutely necessary, maintaining for many decades their own pockets of ethnicity and race." She adds that the region is sometimes cynically referred to as "flyover land." In her book, a drunken father brutalizes his wife and two sons, one of whom goes to fight in Vietnam while the younger sibling stays at home and fashions a shield from the shell of a giant turtle in his attempt to fend off danger. The author currently resides in western Wisconsin.

Murder disrupts the Yuletide in Michigan's Upper Peninsula in Season's Revenge (Forge, Oct.) by Henry Kisor. "I have family there. The descriptions are very authentic," says executive editor Bob Gleason. "They made me think of my own Christmases in the U.P." After Lakota deputy sheriff Steve Martinez investigates an "accidental" death that at first glance seems to be a bear attack, he is infused with the true holiday spirit. "Henry Kisor is the book review editor of the Chicago Sun-Times," notes Gleason. "He's spent a lot of time up there, and it shows. He has really captured the small-town life. It's a unique slice of Americana. And I think the bears are a brilliant touch."

In Rachel Coyne's Whiskey Love (Ruminator Books, Nov.), Kat is drawn back to Comfort Lake, the town of her birth in rural Minnesota, where she seeks to grasp the total truth about the death of her beloved cousin, Tea. "Most of the action takes place on the family farm," says Eve Marofsky, marketing director. "The life cycle of the corn is a main theme. All the characters grew up in this rural setting and therefore were very centered on each other. Kat left after high school and became a traveler. She can't settle anywhere for long because she hasn't made peace with the place she called home." Marofsky reports that the book's remote environment is modeled after Chisago, Minn., where Coyne lives and serves as the town's director of parks and recreation.

A small, unnamed Michigan town—not far removed from author Lorna J. Cook's residence of Holland, Mich.—is where 17-year-old Suzan VanderZee and her 15-year-old brother Evan learn that even an average, normal family like theirs is full of secrets. Sometimes, however, the secrets are in the mind of the beholder, as when Suzan mistakenly believes that her mother is having an affair. Departures (St. Martin's, Feb.) "is about getting to know members of your family and getting to know yourself," says Dori Weintraub, associate director of publicity and editor-at-large. "These are good people and good kids. The 15-year-old is so perfectly realized. He turns out to be the hero." She adds, "People have to learn that departures are a natural part of life, but this is not a dark book in any way. It's charming."

Mountains & Plains

In Night Journey (Simon & Schuster, Oct.) by Murad Kalam, Eddie Bloodpath, an amateur boxer in Phoenix, Ariz., becomes the target of police harassment after his brother commits murder and, as one consequence, Eddie converts to Islam. "When you think of Phoenix, you think of retirees, sun and golf," says senior editor Denise Roy. "Murad takes us to the underside of that world, a place that's very real, very raw and very gritty. At the same time, this is a beautifully written book." Kalam is an unusual novelist on the scene today, points out Roy. "He is an American, and he is a practicing Muslim. His novel is about the education of a young man, and when Randall Kennedy [author of Nigger ] mentions Richard Wright in the quote he gave us, the comparison is apt." Scott Turow also recommends Night Journey with a hearty, "You must read this book." Although Kalam grew up in Arizona, he is now an attorney in Washington, D.C.

"Anyone who has watched ER and who enjoys that kind of human drama will really like Lie Still," says Morrow editor Sarah Durand of the October novel by David Farris. "It begins in a small town in Arizona and moves to Phoenix and other cities in the Midwest." The protagonist is surgery resident Malcolm Ishmail, who is caught up in a medical crisis when an emotionally disturbed 13-year-old suffers an inexplicable cardiac arrest. "This is a medical thriller that is both a commercial read and a beautiful read," says Durand. "It's going to do for medical thrillers what Scott Turow did for legal thrillers because the author thinks outside the box." Dr. Farris is a pediatric anesthesiologist with years of experience in emergency care, which is why Durand can say, "There is a great deal of heart-pounding medical detail here." The author's hometown is Freemont, Neb., but he now lives in Portland, Ore.

Having run away from home at 17 to chase her dream of becoming a rock 'n' roll star, Tallie Beck, the protagonist of Riding with the Queen (NAL Accent, Oct.), returns reluctantly to Denver at age 34 after she is promised a job singing in a downtown bar. "There is no other place for her to go," explains Leona Nevler, senior editor. "She drinks too much and smokes too much. She is afraid of turning out like her bipolar mother." When Tallie connects with a man who also suffers from bipolar disorder, her fears compound. The author, Jennie Shortridge, is a lifelong musician and songwriter. "She lived in Denver for a long time," notes Nevler. "She now lives in Portland, Oregon. She and her husband still perform, but informally."

"Under Cottonwoods contains many scenes of hiking, camping and fishing on the stream in outdoors Wyoming," says George Donahue, senior acquisitions editor, Lyons Press, of this February release. "It's a quiet novel. I like best the interplay between the two main characters, the two friends. One suffered brain damage while looking for Indian hieroglyphs." The author, Stephen Grace, lives in Laramie, where he has been a whitewater rafting guide, snowboarding instructor and volunteer ambulance driver. Relates Donahue, "Whenever he's run out of money, he's done all sorts of jobs. His experience as a social worker shows up in the book." So does the writer's love for fly fishing, which unites the fictional friends for a heart-tugging plot twist.

Pacific NW/California

The state is Idaho, where a mother and her 14-year-old son, as well as a man and a younger girl are at the center of Love and Country (Little, Brown, Sept.) by Christina Adam. "The vast open spaces surrounding this high valley town are somewhat threatening, or at least challenging, to those who don't own the big successful ranch," says senior editor Pat Strachan. "The story takes place in the early '80s, before outside developers and franchises moved in, so it's not about nostalgia. It concerns four people, of various ages, who are still growing up." If Adam's writing is not nostalgic, neither is it as grim as Cormac McCarthy's. "The prose is clear and plain, but that plainness is hard-won and powerful," says Strachan. "Chris was a very, very careful writer." Sadly, Adam died last month at age 55.

"The stories in Every Night Is Ladies Night are connected by the fact that the characters all live in El Monte, Calif.," says Rene Alegria, editorial director of HarperCollins's Rayo imprint. Michael Jaime-Becerra, the author of the January release, lives in nearby Long Beach. "All the characters happen to be Latino, but the writing here is so strong that I don't want to pigeonhole Michael. This is much more than a run-of-the-mill, anthropological short story collection. These are real, hard-working people, but no matter what they do, they can't seem to get out of El Monte. They're people with universal problems that we can all relate to." Jaime-Becerra was one of Ann Patchett's students at University of California at Irvine, where he earned his MFA in creative writing, and where he is now a teacher.

Senior editor Karen Kosztolnyik describes How to Meet Cute Boys (Warner, Sept.) by Deanna Kizis as "a chick lit novel that has been turned on its head. It's written by a young woman who is the West Coast editor for a woman's magazine [Elle] and who is very immersed in the magazine culture in L.A. She personifies the book." In this first novel, Benjamin Franklin is an oddly named 27-year-old female journalist who catalogues the perils and pleasures of the L.A. dating scene for the fictional Filly magazine. She is flummoxed after meeting Max to discover that her dreamboat is beneath legal drinking age.

A little-known terror campaign during World War II is at the core of The Cloud Atlas (Delacorte, Feb.) by Liam Callanan. "The Japanese launched nearly 10,000 bomb-laden balloons at North America," explains editor John Flicker. "Our government very carefully hid this from the public to avoid widespread panic." In the novel, a young American bomb disposal sergeant arrives in Anchorage, Alaska, on a mission to chase down the enemy weapons. Says Flicker, "It is a beautiful environment, yet mysterious, a place where things can happen." The soldier encounters a half Russian/half Eskimo prostitute and a Yup'ik shaman. "It's a novel about belief and why we believe what we do and how we come to that belief. The narrator chooses not to leave Alaska," notes the editor.

Set in Washington, Mary of Bellingham (Jodere, Nov.) by Anneke Campell is the story of a pregnant teenage virgin who wanders into Bellingham, Wash., where a middle-aged black man named Joe takes her under his wing. "The setting is not crucial in a geographical way," says publisher Debbie Luican. "It's presented as a typical American community with typical American characters, but the book is rich in meaning with lots of layers. Even if the biblical references evade the reader, it's still a wonderful read." Asked about the tale's conclusion, Luican remarks, "As in all good stories by good writers, the twist at the end is not so much about the physical baby, but about the importance we attach to it." Campell resides in Venice, Calif.