Find Settings that Help Your Mystery

Many articles and books describe how to create characters and plots for mysteries. But settings are just as important. If you’re writing in this genre, you need to find settings that help your mystery.

Settings to Meet People

In a mystery, the detective meets people, observes them, questions them. The plot can’t move forward without the detective performing these activities. In a novel where the detective is part of law enforcement, the author has an easy time getting his detective to the characters he needs to meet. In a cozy mystery with an amateur detective, the author has to invent opportunities.

My teen detective Rae Riley works in a library in a rural county in Ohio. As a check-out clerk, she can meet anyone I want to push through the front doors of the library. Rae works mostly at the main branch in the county seat, so she’s in the biggest town in the county, where locals would have any number of reasons to visit.

In a rural community, holiday and civic events provide Rae a chance to meet people. These events also allow me to make people who are unlikely to bump into each other otherwise to rub shoulders with one another.

Of course, Rae can meet just about anyone online, but if that person is going to be a significant character, he or she will have to make a physical appearance. A soley online presence limits character development. But to get the characters to meet, I’m faced with obstacles of how to plausibly introduce this character into Rae’s physical world. If Rae’s supposed to be smart, she wouldn’t just tell the person online where she lives.

Settings that Add Suspense

Isolating the detective is the best way to create suspense in a mystery, but these day, when it seems like help is just a phone call away, mystery writers have to work harder to create suspenseful scenes. And a writer can only use the phone battery dying so often. Finding settings that isolate the detective in a plausible way is crucial to adding suspense.

I have the advantage of using a rural county as my main setting. I’ve lived and traveled in enough rural locations to know that reception can disappear at any time. That’s perfect if I want to throw my detective into a dangerous situation in which he can only count on his wits.

Othering settings that add suspense are ones with a time element. The detective is trapped in a car that’s slowly sinking into a lake. Or she is being chased through a deserted part of an unfamiliar city, so that when she calls 911, she can’t tell them exactly where she is.

Any setting that’s been abandoned automatically adds an ominous mood to a story, whether it’s a quarry, a hospital, a school, or a farm.

Also any setting that is unfamiliar to your detective can add suspense. Hoping to find her missing sister, a woman who has lived her whole life in L.A. follows clues to a remote town in the Appalachian mountains. Or hoping to find her missing sister, a woman who has lived her whole life in the Appalachian mountains follows clues to L.A.

For more posts on writing mysteries, click here.

Which authors have found settings that help their mysteries?

Working Out the Logistics in a Mystery

Having been inspired by V.L. Adams’ guest post, “Start with the End: Leaving Clues in a Mystery“, I decided to write a post on working out the logistics in a mystery. As I tackled the next novel in my Rae Riley series, I hit upon a way to keep the action straight.

Get a Calendar

Preferably an old calendar. I’m using my calendar for this year but in months that have already passed. My novels are set during definite seasons of the year. A Shadow on the Snow starts in late January and ends on Good Friday. My current work-in-progress A Storm in Summer opens on Memorial Day and covers roughly two weeks with a wrap-up on Father’s Day.

On a day that action takes place, I draw a line down the middle of it. On the left side, I write action that will appear in the book. Since I write in first person, this is also what my main character is doing. On the right side, I write what other characters are up to during that same day. Their actions may or may not appear in the book. Keeping track of where all the characters are at certain points of the day prevents holes from appearing in my plot and makes it easier to fix holes when they do show up.

For example, let’s say I need my teen detective Rae Riley to see a certain car. The most plausible way for her to see it is town where she works. So I write a scene where she goes to work at the library and has lunch with a friend and spots the car

But how did the car get there? On the right, I write what the other characters have done so Rae can see the convertible in town. Those reasons may not have to appear in the book for readers to make sense of the mystery, but it helps me understand my plot and the motivation of my characters.

You can break this technique down to hours or even minutes if you’re plotting requires it.

Let’s say you’re writing a mystery in which someone had to have been murdered between 11 and 11:30 p.m. Select your day and then the times to schedule what the detective, victim, guilty part and suspects were doing.

Plotter or Pantser

This method works for a plotter or a pantser. If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, a plotter is someone who maps out her entire book, writes from an outline, and doesn’t deviate from it much. A pantser usually has a rough idea of characters, settings, and plot but explores all those aspects as he writes. While my calendar plotting obviously appeals to a plotter, it can also help a pantser when she needs to smooth out rough spots and fill in the holes in her story.

If you write crime fiction, what method do you use for working out the logistics in a mystery? I’d love to learn about it!

Mysteries are a Mystery!

After bringing to you several new authors over the last few months, I’m glad to welcome back an old friend, Carole Brown. Carole relates how mysteries are a mystery to write until you dig into understanding the genre. Welcome back, Carole!

It was a dark and stormy night.

Uh, huh. We’ve heard this one before. But what if you start your novel like this…

Lightning split the coal-black heavens into multiple pieces as the bullet-sized raindrops pounded Jason’s hood-covered head, encouraging a mammoth headache to split his head into confusion. 

Mysteries are said to be the hardest genre to write. I believe it, but I also find it fascinating to attempt it.   A few things you have to remember when attempting this genre are simple enough to explain but harder to do. But effort, study and a determination to succeed will put you in a good place to get that mystery book written. 

Investigate the different sub-genres of mystery diligently. Know what will resound with your writing before you begin, or write a few short stories as practice until you recognize which one fits you– classic/traditional, crime, police procedurals/hard-boiled, noir, gumshoe/private detective, cozies, and capers. 

Remember, you don’t want too write like so and so. You want to stand out on your own merits. Add a new element, that coincides with the mystery genre, but makes readers straighten in their seat. Do your diligent homework, study the genre and what is necessary, find that element that will cause you to stand out from the rest, then proceed (again and again) to write your mystery. 

Here are a few thoughts on what helps:

  • Pose your mystery question at the beginning as quickly as possible.
  • Choose an ordinary character who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances OR an extraordinary character who finds himself in ordinary circumstances. Create your characters to stand out, to be ordinary or not, abled to be labeled as: 
    • a reflection of society
    • someone with a bit of sassiness
    • serious with a bent to boredom and over-thinking
    • one who is callous to murder
  • Research and pick your setting with purpose.
  • Red herrings
  • Suspenseful dialogue
  • Set the mood with descriptive language
  • Chapters that keep your reader turning pages, trying to figure out who is the antagonist, what will happen next..

I have two mystery series I’m working on, although one of them is on hold for awhile:  

  • The Denton and Alex Davies series (cozy). A fun, adventurous married couple (even if Denton is a bit grumpy) who travel the U.S. and constantly find mysteries that seem to pop up everywhere. 
  • The Appleton, WV Romantic Cozies series. (A town filled with colorful characters who find their own mystery in each book.)

There is lots more to learn about mysteries, all of it fascinating and helpful. Do your due diligence in studying about mysteries. And if you proceed, you’ll find it’s one of the hardest but most rewarding genres to write in. 

Wishes for great success to you mystery book authors! 

To read more posts on writing mysteries, click here.

*****

BUY AT AMAZON

Toni DeLuca, the Italian owner of DeLuca Construction, finds herself confronted with doubts about her father and his possible deceptions—all because of the mysterious pink notes she’s been receiving.

Relations with Perrin Douglas who has a troubling history—but the first man in years who’s interested her—is building to a peak. Yet Perrin’s own personal problems and his doubts about women and God, keep getting in the way.

Gossip, a Spanish proposal, an inheritance, and a sabotaged construction business may ruin Christmas for Toni’s employees as well as her own happiness.

Will a mysterious person succeed in pulling off the biggest scam Appleton, West Virginia has ever seen? And will this culprit destroy Toni’s last chance at happiness with the man of her dreams?

*****

Besides being a member and active participant of many writing groups, Carole Brown enjoys mentoring beginning writers. An author of fourteen, best selling, award-winning books, she loves to weave suspense, mystery and tough topics into her books, along with a touch of romance and whimsy, and is always on the lookout for outstanding titles and catchy ideas. She’s also published one children’s book and is in two anthologies. She and her husband reside in SE Ohio but have ministered and counseled nationally and internationally. She has found that the traveling and ministering has served her well in writing her novels. Together, they enjoy their grandsons, traveling, gardening, good food, the simple life, and did she mention their grandsons?  Connect with Carole on her personal blog, Facebook, FB fan page, Amazon, Bookbub, IG, Pinterest, Twitter, Goodreads, and LinkedIn.

What Is Christian Fiction?

Since Christian fiction is my theme for the month, I should provide a definition for what is Christian fiction. To prepare for this post, I tried to find a very helpful blog post I read awhile back. In the process, I found a variety of definitions for the genre, not all of which I agreed with. So the definition I provide here is based on my own writing process and thinking and the definition used by many professionals in the Christian fiction industry.

Christian Worldview

Many times when I visit a page for a Christian writers group or publisher, they post a list of what they publish or represent. Often this includes they are looking for stories that demonstrate “a Christian worldview.” One publisher I found puts “Evangelical Christian worldview.” Since the Bible is a big book, what does that mean? Below are the basics of that worldview.

  • Theres is a God and He created the universe and all the people in it.
  • Sin is to disobey God, and it cuts us off from Him.
  • Jesus is God’s son and God himself. His choice to take the punishment for our sins gives us a chance to reconcile with God.
  • When we accept the gift of forgiveness, we spend the rest of our lives learning about God and growing closer to him as well as telling other about the gift.
  • When we die, we go to live with Him forever.

Christian fiction publishers will likely expect more from a manuscript, such as no graphic content, but if at some point, it deviates from the above list, it’s not a Christian worldview.

Two Approaches

As I’ve written in the genre, I’ve discovered two approaches to writing Christian fiction. One is deciding at the outset to that you’re going to write about a Christian theme. Author Francine Rivers took the book of Hosea and moved it to the American West in Redeeming Love. Someone else might want to put a modern spin on the story of Paul. Or construct a plot to demonstrate God’s love or mercy in any genre, whether it’s historical, speculative fiction, or thriller.

The second approach is to write a story with Christian characters, or characters who will become Christian, and see how they handle the situation they are in. This is how I write. I’m a character writer first. I build my main characters and then concoct plots that will test them, develop them, and are a ton of fun to write. My teen detective, Rae Riley, is a Christian because I am and it’s easier for me to imagine how she does life. As I write, a Christian theme may emerge. Or I may start with a theme in mind but it has to work naturally with the story. When I wrote “A Rose from the Ashes,” I’d thought the theme was mercy and forgiveness. That’s there, but about 18 months after I wrote it, I realized it was also a spin on the parable of the Prodigal Son.

Clean Reads

Clean reads are not Christian fiction, although most Christian fiction would qualify as clean reads. What are clean reads? These are stories without graphic sex or violence and little to no bad language, but they don’t have Christian themes or characters. Most cozy mysteries in the secular market could be called clean reads because readers expect the violence and any sex to take place off stage and not described in nitty gritty detail. Sweet romance stories fall into this category too.

If you read or write Christian fiction, how do you define it?

What Makes Speculative Fiction Unique?

I’ve followed Jennifer Hallmark for years, but this is the first time she’s been a guest blogger on my site. Her first novel, Jessie’s Hope, is women’s fiction, but now she’s taken off down the yellow brick road into the world of speculative fiction. What makes speculative fiction unique? Jennifer tells us below.

Jurassic Park. Star Wars. The Lord of the Rings. A Game of Thrones. The Martian. The Handmaid’s Tale. Books and movies we love or hate.

What is speculative fiction and why the controversy?

Speculative fiction is a genre of books or movies not based on reality. Unlike most romance, general fiction, and historical fiction, speculative books aren’t rooted in our world. Not as we know it.

This world is created in the mind of the author. But it’s still anchored to planet Earth if it’s relatable. This is the draw and beauty of speculative fiction. We might not own a golden droid programmed for etiquette and protocol like C-3PO of Star Wars fame. But we all have at least one friend or relative who doesn’t know when to stop talking. 

Rangers of the North like Strider/Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings don’t live nearby but we know people who will fight for us while struggling at the same time with insecurity.

Dictionary.com mentions the speculative genre as one encompassing any fiction with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements. My first novel, Jessie’s Hope, is the story of one family’s struggles in modern-day rural Alabama. Nothing about it is speculative.

However, I have two publishers looking at my time-shifting YA novel set in 1978. While it’s the most entertaining work I’ve ever penned, it has easily been the hardest. Why?

World-building.

If an author is creating something supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic, they have to maintain a believable world with made-up elements. This could consist of a language, a culture, species, or time elements that differ from the norm. Personally, I find working out the specifics of time-shifting tedious. It’s one thing to write a story, but a different task to have readers buy-in and find your characters and settings both believable and relatable.

Questions I ask:

  • Can the reader relate to the personality of my character? Whether I’m creating a robot, lizard creature, or child, I pattern their personality after real people.
  • Can the reader relate to my character’s problems? To their victories? I try to maintain a balance with problems to keep my characters humble and victories so I don’t destroy the arc of external and internal growth I’m striving to create.
  • Does the setting have enough reality to ground the reader in the world I’ve built? I want them to see the Orna trees, my creation of trees that absorb light in the daytime and glow at night. In my mind, the trees are larger versions of the solar lights that line my sidewalk.
  • Does the setting’s laws of nature work for the world? I love how Star Wars set the planet Tatooine orbiting around two suns, making it a desert planet because of their scorching intensity.

Speculative authors and screenwriters combine otherworldly elements with relatable believability and construct books and movies that can boggle the imagination, yet entertain.

My ten favorite speculative books:

  1. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  2. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
  3. Star Wars by George Lucas
  4. Watership Down by Richard Adams
  5. Rooms by James L. Rubart
  6. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  7. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  8. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  9. The Day the Angels Fell by Shawn Smucker
  10. The Wizard of Oz

Yes, I have weird—I mean—eclectic taste in literature but I know what I like. Spot-on world building, courageous yet flawed characters, and a story I can’t put down. We can find this in the unique and entertaining genre of speculative fiction.

What are your favorite speculative novels and movies? 

To learn more about her novel and how to connect with Jennifer, read on!

*****

Years ago, an accident robbed Jessie Smith’s mobility. It also stole her mom and alienated her from her father. When Jessie’s high school sweetheart Matt Jansen proposes, her parents’ absence intensifies her worry that she cannot hold on to those she loves.

With a wedding fast approaching, Jessie’s grandfather Homer Smith, has a goal to find the perfect dress for “his Jessie,” one that would allow her to forget, even if for a moment, the boundaries of her wheelchair. But financial setbacks and unexpected sabotage hinder his plans.

Determined to heal from her past, Jessie initiates a search for her father. Can a sliver of hope lead to everlasting love when additional obstacles–including a spurned woman and unpredictable weather–highjack Jessie’s dream wedding?

*****

Jennifer Hallmark writes Southern fiction with a twist and her website and monthly newsletter focus on her books, love of the South, and favorite fiction.  Jessie’s Hope, her novel published by Firefly Southern Fiction, was a 2019 Selah Award nominee for First Novel. You can subscribe to her newsletter here and visit her on Facebook, Facebook author page, Twitter, and Pinterest.

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