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!

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