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.
Which authors have found settings that help their mysteries?