Setting a Place

Jane/Susannah here, whose dream of spring has finally come true…

CrocusesHello, my Wicked Lovelies. Or are you Lovely Wickeds? It’s only been a month, but it seems like forever since I’ve posted. This coming weekend I’ll be giving a talk about cozy mysteries at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, as part of their 4th Annual Writers’ Weekend. (There are still tickets available, for the whole conference, individual days, and even individual classes. Click here for more information)

In putting together my presentation, I thought long and hard about what makes a mystery cozy. And I came to a conclusion that surprised me. Before I started my analysis, I would have said that the number one element of a traditional mystery is a relatable, likeable, mostly believeable heroine (or hero, if you want to be a rebel). After all, the reader is going to be spending quite a bit of time with that character, and doing the sleuthing right along with her, for several–hopefully many–books. I say mostly believable because really, how could any one person find that many bodies? But that’s why it’s fiction.

But by the time I’d thought longerer and harderer, I realized that setting is more important than the protagonist, more important even than the plot. Yup, you read that right. It seems to go against everything we’ve learned about craft as it relates to character-driven genre fiction, doesn’t it? But hear me out.

My Greek to Me Mystery Series is set in the Thousand Islands region of New York State. The area is distinctive, with its own natural beauty and cultural dynamic. I grew up there, so I know it well. It was a no-brainer for me to set my series there. But now that I’m examining the series more closely, mining it for material for my presentation, I’ve decided that anybody in my fictional town of Bonaparte Bay could solve a mystery, if I let her/him. There’s nothing so unique or special about my heroine, Georgie, that she’s the only person who could get to the bottom of whatever’s going on. This is fascinating to me. Georgie’s the sleuth we read about, and hopefully connect with, and yet, she’s sort of dispensible. I hope she’s interesting and well-drawn enough that readers want to learn more about her and follow her on her adventures through the series.

But the truth is, she can’t do her sleuthing without the foundation, the setting, propping her up. Take her out of Bonaparte Bay and put her in New York City, for example, and she’d have a tough time figuring out which subway line to take, let alone figuring out who killed that guy on the train and why. She can solve mysteries in Bonaparte Bay because she understands the community she lives in–her setting.

Likewise, the plot, which you might think would also be a candidate for Most Important Element of a Mystery, is also secondary to the setting. Because cozy mystery plots all hinge on one thing: they happen in the setting they do, because that’s the only place they can happen. That sounds like circuitous logic, but the fact is, in a cozy mystery, it’s almost always a character residing in the community who commits the crime. Often, it’s a member of the community who is the victim, though there’s more flexibility there to bring in an outsider. This is no accident. When the killer is revealed to be a member of the community to which the reader has grown attached, our sense of outrage, of betrayal, is heightened. But take those two characters, victim and killer, and move them to a different stage, and you have a completely different story.

How about another example? Think of the book Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier (and if you have not read it–do so immediately!). That plot, that unnamed heroine, can only exist as they do because they are superimposed on the framework of Manderley, Max de Winter’s English estate. What about Wuthering Heights? Would that have been the same story if it had been set in London instead of the remote English moors?

Do you agree with me? Do you have to start with setting and build from there? Or can you create a cozy mystery sleuth and then place her in a setting?


19 Thoughts

  1. Great post, Susannah. Setting and protagonist are so intertwined – my organic farmer would have a completely different life if she was growing vegetables on a city rooftop or in a vacant lot rather than in a small town. Same with my small-town Indiana restaurant/country store owner.

  2. great post, thanks. I put together the main characters and setting simultaneously. In three short stories, I’ve taken the MC’s on a road trip to Louisiana, drawing on a new setting for location-based crimes. Just as a try-out for a future book in the series.

  3. The Mark Twain house is so gorgeous! I’m jealous.

    I agree altogether about the importance of setting. All of my series have started with a place, and only then do I start adding people. Say what you will about regional (or even national) differences, but where people live colors how they interact with each other.

    1. I want to move in to the Mark Twain House. I really do. I KNOW there are rooms they don’t show us that would be perfect for me 🙂 You are a master of setting, Sheila, and I learned a lot about it from you! I always feel like I’m a resident of Ireland, or Philadelphia, or Granford (actually my town is very like Granford, just bigger) when I read your stories.

  4. Fascinating post! An article I read a long time ago compared mystery novels to travelogues. People may shape the land, but the land and culture arising there both shape the people, too.

  5. Interesting thoughts. I would argue that when an author is doing it right/well, all three are equally important, but you make a compelling argument for setting.

    1. Thanks, Mark! The revelation surprised me, as I said. I would have that character, plot, and setting were all equally important, and yet I now believe that setting edges out the other two elements. All three are necessary, but not equally important.

  6. I believe each component is important. How the author integrates the three makes the work either superb or an abysmal failure. Several of my favorite authors have quite successfully had well developed characters visiting other settings. In each case those works added the potential of having the work as both a stand alone and part of a series and or relocating the primary characters to keep the series fresh and growing.

    1. There is no story if all elements are not in place, that goes without saying. And I have read stories where the MCs occasionally goes somewhere else, and you’re right, it does freshen things up. But they came back to town in the next book, right? Unless these weren’t cozy mysteries? Thanks for discussing this with me. It’s helping me refine my presentation, LOL!

  7. A very thoughtful post. To me, setting is most important, though perhaps my husband, a fan of action might not agree. My favorite mystery stories are those where the author describes details of homes, towns, and surrounding area, featuring them prominently in the plot. As you mentioned, most people might solve mysteries if they were so inclined. Characterization is obviously important, but setting can make a story. I’ve actually been agonizing over this recently, thinking I focus too much on my descriptions of surroundings for the genre expectations.
    I must visit “Bonaparte Bay” one of these days.
    Wish I could make it to The Mark Twain House this weekend for the events, but I’m stuck in the Mid-west. I was at the house years ago and loved it.

    1. Oop!, if anyone clicks on the link above, it goes to the wrong wordpress site.
      If you choose to visit, my active one is:
      The Penny Mason Post. Thank you. My apologies.

  8. There are certain settings that I seem to enjoy more than others. I may even choose some books to read without thinking for that reason. But when I look over all the books I’ve read in the last few years there are many different settings for the books I’ve enjoyed. Relationships I think are most important to me. And I love a good mystery, of course!

  9. I have never really considered the issue of setting first or story first…..I think setting would have to be very important!

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