Maximize a Setting

This is a repost from 2019. I’ve made a few changes. I hope you can learn something from it whether it’s the first or second time you’ve read it.

If there was one Hollywood director who knew how to maximize a setting, it was Alfred Hitchcock.

I hadn’t realized this until I came across a quote in Halliwell’s Harvest. The author Leslie Halliwell stated that Hitchcock believed “the location must be put to work”. That’s why so many of his scenes are still remembered.

  • North By Northwest: The hero is pursued by enemy spies. When he finds himself on a lonely road out in the country, a crop dusting plane tries to kill him. At the end of this movie, the villain owns a house near Mount Rushmore. The hero and heroine almost fall off the famous faces, trying to escape.
  • Foreign CorrespondentThis movie from 1940 races around Europe with the hero trying to figure out what Nazi agents are up to before WWII. While sneaking up on spies in a windmill in Holland, the hero’s sleeve gets caught in the gears, and he must free himself, silently, before his arm gets crushed.
  • PyschoHitchcock used the Bates’s home so well that it has become the symbol in America for the kind of rundown, creepy house you don’t linger in front of if you walk past it.

Hitchcock wasn’t the only director to work a location to maximum effect. The movie Niagara from 1953. A young couple, taking a much-delayed honeymoon at the Falls, become involved with another couple, an older man married to a much younger, adulterous wife. The director had scenes shot on the boat Maid of the Mist. Two key scenes occur during the walking tour on the Falls. The Carillon Bell Tower, overlooking the Falls, is the setting for a plot point and a murder. After viewing this movie, I felt like I had traveled back in time to 1953 and was taking a vacation with the characters.

Feel the Heat

Two murder mysteries maximize their settings. I recently rewatched Murder on the Orient Express from 1974, directed by Sidney Lumet. Mr. Lumet did a superb job of making the audience feel the opulence and claustrophobia of traveling on the Express. Another murder mystery movie that uses settings brilliantly is Death on the Nile from 1978. All the outside locations were filmed in Egypt, and director John Guillermin makes the most of them. Set in the 1930’s, rich, young honeymooners climb to the top of the one of the Giza pyramids, a murder is barely thwarted in the temple at Luxor, and a key character returns at the tempe of Abu Simbel. I felt the dust and heat in every scene.

Writers don’t have a camera to paint a setting but we can still get the maximum effect by examining a setting for all its potential to add conflict and tension to our stories. In my upcoming release, A Shadow on the Snow, I have a chase scene set during a snowstorm at night. What advantages does that give me? Well, I can islolate my main character Rae because it’s late and few people are out in the rural county seat because there’s been icy rain and snow for over two hours. The ice makes surfaces slippery, so that can make it difficult for Rae to get away from her pursuer. The heavily falling snow makes it hard for her to keep track of pursuer.

What’s a memorable setting from a movie or book? Or have you written about a unique setting?

Writing Tip — Favorite Author

PoirotThe opening of Murder on the Orient Express in theaters tomorrow reminded me of a time when I inhaled Agatha Christie mysteries. In high school, I read almost all of them. Over the years, when I wanted a comfort food book, I often returned to my favorite novels and short stories. As I’ve grown older, I find more flaws in the storytelling than I did as a teenager, but some of the novels still can’t be beat for plotting in a mystery.

That was Mrs. Christie’s strength, mystery plots. Her characters were often one-dimensional but characters, unless they were the detectives, were not why people made Mrs. Christie the best-selling author after Shakespeare. They loved her plot twists and the opportunity to solve a puzzle along with her detectives.

Of her two main detectives, I like Miss Marple better. I like the idea of this elderly spinster being so good at reading people from her experiences in a small English village that she could apply her knowledge to just about any person she met. Like in Pocket Full Of Rye, she becomes suspicious of woman’s husband when she realizes the woman is the nice kind who always falls for troubled men.

If you want to write cozy mysteries, you must read some of Mrs. Christie’s novels and short stories. If she didn’t invent many of the conventions for cozies, she at least made them popular, such as the nosy amateur detective and gathering all the suspects together so the detective can reveal the identity of the murderer.

Recommended Reading

Breaking with conventions. In the 1930’s, certain rules had been developed about how to write crime fiction. Mrs. Christie “murdered” those in Murder on the Orient ExpressThe Murder of Roger Ackroydand And Then There Were None.

Hercule Poirot. Two of my favorite novels with the Belgian detective, Christie’s busiest creation, are Death on the Nilewhich was turned into a very good movie, and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, which is my favorite Christmas murder mystery. It has everything you expect: a large country house, a toxic family, and a clever murder with a murderer, who also breaks with conventions.

Miss Marple. Even though I like this character, I think  her novels aren’t as successful as Poirot’s. But try The Body in the Library and The Moving Finger.

Short Stories. If you like short stories, like me, read Thirteen Problems with Miss Marple and The Mysterious Mr. Quinn, who certainly lives up to his adjective.

If you like cozy mysteries, what are your favorites?

 

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