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The Scene of the Crime: Choosing Your Setting
by Stephen D. Rogers

Return to Writing Mysteries · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Setting, the time and place of a story, is particularly important in the mystery genre. Not only do carefully chosen details enrich the tale, they may very well assist or impede the investigation, even after possibly being an accessory to the crime.

The setting may define the mystery: an Arizona book, a Missouri story, a Cape Cod mystery. In regional mysteries, the setting is more than mere background. The setting influences the characters and plot. It drives the story.

If you intend to write one of these super-setting mysteries, you should know the area inside out. Yes, maps are available at the library and on the Internet but maps and even guidebooks won't show you local customs, won't let you hear the accents and idioms, won't let you see how the environment affects the people living there.

Regionals are not about street and building names. They explore the idea that place is fate.

Real vs. Fictional Settings

You live in the most boring place in the world. Why would you want to write about it? Who would care?

Setting a mystery in your neck of the woods offers a number of benefits.

First, you have a sense of the place because of the time you've spent there. You have actual sense data: smells and sounds, the taste of the drinking water, the heaviness/lightness/stickiness of the afternoon air.

Second, you know the details: the layouts of the cities, the direction of the highways, the current of the rivers. Details are important. Few things will irritate a reader as much as turning the page to find a one-way street going the wrong way or a building placed in an incorrect block.

Third, you have interacted with the people. A mid-west family farmer is not a New York stockbroker. They will talk differently, act differently, and think differently. Part of that is the job as much as the environment but remember that the job is a product of the environment.

So maybe you still live in the most boring place in the world. If researching a real place isn't feasible, make one up.

The benefit of setting your mystery in a fictional place is that you can build the world any way you want. Should there only be two police officers on the midnight shift or would you rather juggle a number of precinct houses? Are there one or more local colleges? Would a museum give your expert a place to work? How close is the nearest hospital? What is the political situation?

The main drawback of a fictional place is that it lacks history. Chicago. Gettysburg. The Grand Canyon. All you have to do is hear the place names and you have a visual picture which is colored by the associations of that place. New Orleans is not just another city. It is New Orleans.

Zooming In

Within your chosen setting you may have sub-settings. A college or police department is a world unto itself. There are certain cloistered environments which have their own rituals and traditions separate from the place that they're situated. A hospital in Texas is more like a hospital in Tennessee than it is like the business down the street. Whether you are writing about real or fictional places, you should visit and research these common sub-settings if you intend to use them.

Moving closer: Your character is sitting in an office, driving a car, eating at Joe's. Make the reader share the experience. These short-term environments illustrate character: why hang those photographs, own that particular car, eat at Joe's of all places?

These settings can also expose character by creating stressors. The person in the next cube listens to obnoxious music too loudly. Traffic went from stop-and-go to stop-and-stall. The food is undercooked and the glass dirty. How does the character react? How would the character like to react?

These micro-environments can also be developed to create signature settings. I, for example, enjoy restaurant scenes and include one in works of any length because it's a world rich in dramatic as well as comedic possibilities. People gotta eat.

Avoiding Lawsuits

If your character is the director of an actual museum, readers might think you're talking about the real person and just changing the name. Can the director sue for defamation and win? Do you really want to find out?

If you want to explore wall-to-wall corruption, use a fictional municipality. If you want to gun down half-a-dozen employees, create a fictional business. If you want to poison an unsuspecting diner, send the person to Joe's.

A Matter of Time

While place gets the most ink, time is just as important.

Does the scene occur in the morning, afternoon, or night? What is the visibility? How many people are possible witnesses? Is traffic heavy? Are the characters tired? When do we eat? Weekend or weekday? Monday or Friday? Is it the end of the month when quotas need to be reached? Is there a holiday approaching with all the usual fanfare and obligation?

Does your character need to find a bathroom? Maybe my period is just late. Can another birthday really be just around the corner? What time was I supposed to pick up Kelly?

In some places more than others, seasons have definite characteristics. They can determine the direction of tourists and the possibility of isolation due to weather. Seasons can change the color and smell of a place, can freeze ground too hard for tire tracks or bog down search parties.

Both hot humid nights and long snowbound days can lead to tension levels far above the norm. What does three weeks of straight rain do the characters and the unprotected crime scene? What does blistering sun do to the body?

Related to season is weather. There is, however, a difference between hurricane season and an actual hurricane striking while your character is trying to rescue a hostage. There is a difference between a drizzle, a rain, and a downpour. There is a difference between snow flurries and a blizzard. There is a difference between partly-sunny and partly-cloudy. Well, I'm not so sure about that last one.

In Closing

Examine your favorite mysteries to see how the authors use setting.

If you plan to base a mystery in your own back yard, try to find a guidebook or local history. You'll be amazed what you never noticed and never knew.

Mystery readers enjoy reading about places they've visited or always wanted to, places they've lived, places they've driven by. That said, they don't like mistakes: birds on the feeder in the wrong season, rotaries called roundabouts (or vice versa), elevation differences ignored because they don't appear on street maps. Use your sense of time and place to convince the reader that everything that follows is real. Make them feel at home. Then let them trip over a body.

Find Out More...

Writing-World.com: Setting & Description

Copyright © 2002 Stephen D. Rogers
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Stephen D. Rogers has published mysteries in magazines ranging from Plots With Guns to Woman's World, multiple anthologies, and several non-mystery markets. He is a graduate of the Framingham Police Department's Citizen Policy Academy and a member of Mystery Writers of America, Private Eye Writers of America, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Visit his website at http://www.stephendrogers.com).


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