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