The Setting Within a Setting

Creating a setting within a setting is an important tool for fiction writers. In the mystery genre, we place our sleuths within a distinctive milieu that becomes a character in itself. Whether it’s a small town, a neighborhood in a big city, or a regional locale, this setting imbues our stories with a unique flavor. Then we assign an occupation to our sleuth that further extends this world. We bring it to life using the five senses and determine how our protagonist fits into this environment.

Setting within a Setting

However, we can’t stop there. For each story, we need to add layers that become the setting within the setting. This is often where the murder takes place in a cozy mystery. It can also give you a built-in cast of suspects. Think of the stories that take place at a mystery book club, a winery competition, a bake-off contest, a trade show, or a sewing circle. Someone within this group of people dies. Even if your general setting is a southern town, within that town your sleuth may manage a Bed & Breakfast inn. Then a group books rooms at this lodging. They stay there while participating in a work conference, town festival, local fair or stage show. This proves deadly for one of the guests.

In my Bad Hair Day series, the settings go beyond South Florida and hairstylist Marla Vail’s beauty salon. For example, stories have centered around a coastal preservation society, sports club, farm festival, haunted hotel, day spa and historic mansion. I’ve gone astray a couple of times and had mysteries on a cruise ship and an Arizona dude ranch. Those were fun but you can’t wander too often from your general milieu or readers might protest.

My latest title, Styled for Murder, involves a design center company that does home renovations. Marla’s mother is doing a bathroom remodel when she finds a dead body in her shower. It’s the design firm’s job foreman. Who are the suspects? The company’s staff, suppliers and former customers. Once you pick the setting within a setting, you get a related set of potential suspects.

Varying the setting within the setting helps to keep your series fresh. Each new place gives readers an interesting locale or special interest to explore along with the sleuth (and the author!). The narrower the group of suspects, the better. They should all be connected to the victim so that readers keep guessing at their secrets.

Are there any particular tropes that appeal to you in terms of settings within a setting? i.e. Maybe you like mysteries set in the mountains, but where in particular? A ski chalet in the winter? A working cattle ranch? A family restaurant in a tourist town? Or a river rafting company? See how easy it is to narrow the setting. Now tell us where you’ve set your latest novel or where you might like to see one take place.

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Writing the Cozy Mystery – Howdunit

When writing a cozy mystery, you need to decide upon crime scene details even though interpersonal relations, and not forensics, are your story’s focus. The murder might even be off scene, but you’ll still have to determine how it happened.

Writing the Cozy Mystery - Howdunit

In Trimmed to Death, the story begins at a farm festival bake-off contest, which my hairstylist sleuth Marla Vail enters as a contestant. But I was stymied regarding the setting because our city’s fairs were held at athletic fields or local parks. I was telling this to my manicurist when she suggested Bedner’s Farm as a possible model for my story. The next day, my husband and I drove north to visit this farm in Boynton Beach. See my post for a report on this visit. The varied structures and grounds were ideal for my purposes, but I’d move my fictional site nearer to Marla’s hometown.

Now what? I had to select a victim. Spoiler alert!

After looking up farm festivals online, I decided my story would include a live scavenger hunt with the prize going to the guest who collected all of the stamps. Francine Dodger is the final target of the festival’s Find Franny game. Unfortunately, she is slated to die.

Next, consider the five Ws to expand the details.

Who ends up dead? Francine is the victim.

Where is she killed? In the strawberry field. How does she arrive there? Is she lured on purpose, or it is a crime of opportunity? Did the killer follow her? Determine Where-dunit.

 

strawberry plants

How does she die? Will it look like an accident or right away be clear it’s a homicide? Water-filled canals line the U-pick rows. She could be drowned in a ditch. Or she can fall down a silo and smother in the grain. But what would make her climb up there in the first place? Or maybe we should run her over by a tractor.

What knowledge does the killer need? If the murder involves an equipment accident, it’ll have to be someone who knows how to operate the machinery. Ditto the hazards inside a silo. You don’t want to point the finger at a particular suspect like the farmer, because it’s too obvious. Maybe give one of the other characters a secret history of working on a farm or of selling agricultural machinery if you go this route.

If you poison a victim, who has knowledge about the type of poison plus has access to it? Is it fast-acting enough for the circumstances, or do you need a slower more insidious death? What are the particular symptoms? In a cozy mystery, we want to avoid anything messy or too graphic. 

When does it happen? Think about not only about the time of death, but also why not a week or a month ago? Why NOW? What happened to trigger the killer at this point in time?

How does the killer get away? Does he have blood on his clothes? Are his shoes wet or muddy? Is he able to blend back into the crowd at the farm festival?

Now let’s throw a wrench into the works. What if it’s a case of mistaken identity? The murderer thought he had killed one woman, but he got somebody else who was similarly attired. How will he react upon seeing his intended victim alive and well? This leads to another set of problems. It means he can’t see the victim’s face before he kills her, or he’ll realize it’s the wrong person. So again, we go back to Howdunit?

Once you figure out these details, you’ll have to determine how your amateur sleuth stumbles across the dead body. And this is when the story actually begins.

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Previous posts on this topic:

Writing the Cozy Mystery – Whodunit
Writing the Cozy Mystery – Whydunit

Note: This post topic originally appeared in Feb. 2017.

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Writing the Cozy Mystery – Whydunit

When writing a cozy mystery, you need to identify the victim and then figure out who has something to gain from this person’s death. It can be friends, relatives, or colleagues. Give each person a secret that may or may not provide a motive for murder.

Writing the Cozy Mystery - Whydunit

Next figure out how these people relate to each other. Imagine a spider web. Put the murder victim in the center circle. The spokes coming from the center are the suspects. These spokes have branches that are their motives. Then connect these people to each other like a web. If you want to see this web of deceit illustrated, pick up a copy of my book, Writing the Cozy Mystery.

Here are examples from Trimmed to Death to show you how it’s done. Hairstylist Marla Vail enters a bake-off contest at a local farm during a fall festival. She finds a dead body face-down in the u-pick strawberry field. Spoiler Alert!

Tally Riggs, Marla’s best friend, met Becky Forest at a local historical museum. Becky told Tally about the bake-off, who invited Marla to participate with her. Here is Becky in her office.

Becky Forest in Trimmed to Death

Becky, a scientist, is a cookbook author and curator of the museum. She studies plant remains of ancient peoples, including early Florida food practices. Every time Becky has a new cookbook out, she’s a guest on Chef Raquel Hayes’ TV show.

Raquel Hayes in Trimmed to Death

Raquel, a judge at the bake-off contest and a TV chef, did something in the past that could cause a scandal. Francine Dodger recognizes her on TV and threatens to spill her secret.

Francine, a contestant at the bake-off, is a food magazine editor. While researching an article on the farm, she uncovers something that could ruin the owners’ reputation.

Zach Kinsdale, eldest brother of four siblings who run the family farm, hasn’t told his two brothers and sister Janet about this looming disaster.

Janet is married to Tony, who runs an import-export business. He sells his imported olive oils to Zach for the farm’s marketplace. But Janet suspects something is unethical about her husband’s business. She organized the bake-off since her husband’s company is a festival sponsor.

Tony Winters in Trimmed to Death

Tony, Janet’s husband, is worried about an exposé that Francine has mentioned. He’s also concerned about Tristan Marsh, pastry chef at The Royal Palate and a judge at the show. Tristan has been making inquiries that concern him. Then there’s Alyce Greene, a blogger who supports the farm-to-table movement. She has been troublesome as well.

Alyce is a contestant at the bake-off. She’s married to Jon, a food truck operator. Jon got a loan to start his business from Alyce’s brother, Steve Madison. Steve, an investment advisor, manages Tony’s accounts.

And so on. You see how these people are interrelated. It helps when the puzzle pieces fit together as a whole, but this process may take a while. In the meantime, allow your subconscious to stew on your characters until story magic happens. The connections will pop into your brain. It’s a joyful moment when this occurs.

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If you missed my previous post on this topic, go here: Writing the Cozy Mystery – Whodunit

NOTE: This post topic originally appeared in Feb. 2017.

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Security Tips from an Expert

Situational Awareness

Research for crime writing often includes advice we can use in our daily lives. Recently, we heard retired police Sergeant Al Hallonquist from http://www.securityconsultants.com speak at a meeting of Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Here are his safety tips.

Al Hallonquist2

Use common sense and be aware of your surroundings.

In a restaurant, sit with your back to the wall. Watch the doorway and the cash register.

Before getting into your car, look in the back seat to make sure nobody is lying there. My note: Also be wary if there’s a van or large vehicle parked alongside your driver’s side. Somebody could slide their door open and grab you.

Look inside before entering convenience stores, banks, or other businesses.

Think about where you’re going when you are walking or driving. Pay attention to your surroundings. Is anyone following you?

Don’t go down a dark alley or dead-end street.

Think three steps ahead of everything you’re doing.

When in a room, note where everything is located, including exits. Observe who enters. Do a “threat scan.” Note where to hide and where to escape.

Re Schools: Schools today have codes they can use over the PA system. Teachers may be allowed to lock doors to keep intruders out.

Active Shooter Situation

Be aware of your surroundings prior to, during, and after an event.

Don’t get fooled by “NIMBY”—Not In My Backyard. This can happen anywhere.

Flee if you can. Use all available exits, not just the place where you entered. Follow the exit signs. This also applies to a fire.

Before the shooter takes control of the room, consider throwing anything handy to distract him or tackle him with intent to disarm. Do what feels right and comfortable to you, but don’t try to be an untrained hero. It’s better to be an excellent witness than a dead hero. Also, don’t get in the way by running at the bad guy. You might be blocking another person who is armed and who can fire a clear shot at the shooter until you block his aim.

Obtain cover when possible rather than concealment. Taking cover, like crouching behind a table that you’ve flipped over, may stop a bullet. Concealment will hide you but will not stop a bullet.

Be wary for a lookout or accomplice.

If you’re in a hostage situation, don’t look a shooter in the eye or you might set him off. Better to be a nobody.

When the police come, assume a non-threatening pose. Preferably lie down with arms spread out on floor or hands behind head. Don’t make any threatening moves. Don’t jump up and yell.

Tear gas: Pull clothing over your face.

Flash/Bang grenade: Super bright flash and concussive hearing loss. It’s a “ball-like” grenade. It flashes upward so be on the floor and cover your ears if possible.

Taser range is up to 20 feet. You shoot a wire from a distance. This wire has sharp barbs. In contrast, a stun gun needs physical contact.

Q: Re a taser, if you’ve been shot with one, is it all over? Is there anything you can do?
A: Pretty much.  It’s pretty brutal in that your nervous system contracts and shuts down. For a short time afterward, you’re disorientated as well.

Q: How about if someone is following you? Is it better to make eye contact to let them know they’ve been noticed?
A: Again, that’s a situation by situation decision. Sometimes confronting them (even something as simple as eye contact) makes them re-evaluate their goal.

“While I hope this helps someone with their writing, I also hope it helps people become more aware, and less victimized.” 

Disclaimer: Any errors in interpretation are my own.

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Young Adult Mysteries

This panel at Bouchercon was titled “Importance of Book Clubs and Young Adult Literacy.” Speakers included Destiny Geddis, Matthew McGrath, B.K. Stevens, and Kaley Whittle, with Tina Whittle moderating.

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Disclaimer: These notes are based on my interpretation and any errors are mine.

· This panel included YA readers. They do reviews and have a book club at their charter school. Here is what they wish writers and editors knew about YA.

· YA mysteries have a teenage sleuth. The crime doesn’t have to be a murder. These stories often include elements of self-discovery and current issues for teens.

· Panelists advised authors to talk to young people to see how they speak. TV teens are as accurate as CSI teams on TV. Know your audience. Do the research. Talk to young adults to see what they do and what their friends do. “We don’t use certain words that have become antiques. We talk differently.” They also use different languages between texting, e-mail, talking in person to friends and to adults.

· Not all teen protagonists need a tragic backstory. They don’t have to be misunderstood. They don’t have to be loners, either. There’s lots of diversity in high school.

· Adults are not always evil, mean, unlikable, or uncaring. Avoid clichés like “I’m a teenager and I hate my parents.” Teens don’t rebel against authority in high school. They have to be respectful to teachers. Parents don’t always have to be divorced or dead. Nor does the family dog have to die. Most parents love their kids and try to be good parents and sometimes make mistakes.

· Don’t force the romantic elements. Have your characters be strong on their own, and then they can fall in love. You don’t need a lot of angst. The romance doesn’t always mean boy/girl, or white guy/white girl. Platonic relationships work too. Friendships are also desirable. The romance can lead to character growth when the protagonist has to make a choice.

· Don’t kill off a pet just to elicit an emotional response. Make the emotion natural and realistic to a character who’s connected to readers. Don’t throw in a baby either for the emotional response. Look at http://doesthedogdie.com for a guide to movies.

· Create a diverse cast of characters.

· Treat YA mysteries as seriously as adult mysteries. Readers should have access to clues, and the protagonist should solve the mystery on her own. “We figure things out really quickly and we want surprises. Don’t dumb down the mystery. Give us challenges. Develop the villains as fully as other characters.” Avoid dialogue such as “as you know…”

· Strong female characters do not act like stereotypical men. They can be feminine but strong. Males will read books with a female lead. Don’t follow gender clichés. Guys can be sensitive, and girls can like sports.

· Leave your moral soapbox at home. Subtlety is appreciated. Talk to the reader, not at the reader, otherwise it feels preachy.

· It’s okay to be both serious and funny.

YA writers or readers, what would you add?

Crime in the Keys

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The last panel of the day at Mystery Writers Key West Fest was on Crime in the Florida Keys. Panelists included Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsey, Key West PD Chief Donie Lee, U.S. Coast Guard Captain (ret.) Jim Filton, true crime writer and journalist Terry Schmida, and Jim Linder from the Joint Interagency Task Force (ret.). Moderator was radio news director Bill Becker.

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The report that follows is based on my interpretation of what I heard. Any errors are mine alone.

In the 80’s and 90’s, most crimes involved drug smuggling of cocaine and marijuana via boats. Now it’s alien smuggling. Often the instigators will steal a “go-fast” boat and charge the migrants $10,000 per head to smuggle them ashore. Once a Cuban refugee touches U.S. soil, they can stay. Today there’s also an influx of Miami-based crime such as burglaries and prescription drug abuse plus related crimes by addicts who need to buy their fix. There are more online crimes with credit card fraud and sexual predators.

Another panelist spoke about “amusing” crimes in Key West, such as the case of a cat abduction and custody battle over the animal. “The Keys have crimes that you can’t make up.” But serious crime is rare. It’s normal for law enforcers to greet crooks at the bar. He told more illegal migrant stories. Other crimes might involve animals or a piece of machinery being used in an unexpected manner.

Fantasy Fest is ten days long and about 80,000 people come down to Key West for this event. It’s difficult to police. People have sex in the streets, roam without their clothes on, do stuff here they’d never do at home. For example, there was the airline pilot who stole a pizza car because he was hungry. A bank robber was caught because he gave away $2 bills at a strip bar.

We heard about the ingenious vehicles that migrant smugglers used to cross the water from Cuba, like cars and trucks. When the Coast Guard approached one car plying the waves, the miscreants rolled up the windows so there wasn’t any way to board. The Coast Guard guy opened the gas cap and poured in sugar. When the vehicle stalled, the occupants surrendered.

Then there was the airplane modified with a bed in back for a “Mile High” club. Two customers tried to hijack the airplane to Cuba. A struggle with the pilot ensued, and he ditched in the ocean. You can read about it here: http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=92667 Since the customers didn’t survive and there wasn’t any paper trail, the speaker questioned the truth of the story. Was it for real or a case of insurance fraud?

Then there’s the “Yamaha Drift.” These are people who claim their boat drifted south toward Cuba. They should know the current doesn’t run south.

Crocodile poaching is another crime in the Keys. The Russian mob may also be an influence. The speakers told about the “gray-haired” burglar and the air smuggler who kept a parrot on his shoulder. Certainly the Keys are home to colorful characters.

We heard many more interesting stories from this panel of experts. After the panel concluded, we trooped to a room near the pool bar for a group book signing.

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Rather than attend the noir film at Tropic Cinema, my husband and I opted for dinner at La Trattoria, an Italian restaurant with a water view just down the street from the Doubletree Grand Key Resort.

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Coming next: Key West

 

Fact or Fiction?

Do you write about real life events in your fictional story? As a reader, how can you tell fact from fiction? Are some ideas so far out that they should be relegated to science fiction, or is there a kernel of truth in them? Where do the lines blur?

At Saturday’s meeting of the Florida chapter of MWA, we heard speaker Jim Linder, former Navy aviator and intelligence agent. This man—tall, dark, and handsome—lived a life you’d only find in books. A self-professed fan of Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum novels, as a youth he aspired to adventure. He found it in the work he did. A romance hero come alive, Linder said “the fictional and the real world blend together. Whatever story you want to tell, it’s probably already out there.”

He told stories of notorious Russian smuggler Victor Bout, of how pirates smuggle diesel fuel to diamond mines in South Africa, and of how there’s a market among drug runners for mini-submarines made in the States. “There are bad guys out there who are richer and more powerful than anyone in fiction,” he says. The upsurge in social media has made a difference in his current consulting position. “We use social media a lot. Finding information isn’t the problem. Connecting with the person who has the info is harder.”

As for myself, I use personal experiences and composites of people I meet in my stories.

For example, the Countess in Killer Knots was based on a white-haired lady I noticed on a cruise. She always wore the most fabulous outfits. When I got up the nerve to ask where she shopped, “Paris” was her answer. Why was I not surprised?

In Perish by Pedicure, I visited the North Miami shvitz where Marla goes to interview a suspect. Now, that was an experience!

And the setting in Shear Murder was inspired by Harry P. Leu Gardens in Winter Park, where I’ve been many times. Marla journeys to Coral Gables and the Venetian Pool, another local gem I’d discovered. Visits to the dermatologist and dentist show up in some of my books—in Marla’s viewpoint, of course. Plus a reading from a psychic that I’d experienced shows up in Died Blonde.

Even in Warrior Prince, my upcoming paranormal release, the action starts out in Orlando, Florida on International Drive. The sinister theme park in this story is partially based on an attraction that used to be in the Fort Lauderdale area and designed with other theme parks in mind. I’ll have to admit, though, the action that follows is purely imaginary. Well, almost.

One of the bad guys uses what I call an EM (electromagnetic) grenade in Warrior Rogue: Book Two in the Drift Lords Series. “Are EM weapons real or the stuff of sci-fi?” I asked our speaker. He gave a broad grin. “Many of the things you’d relegate to science fiction are already here.”

MYSTERY PLOT POINTS

What are the turning points in a mystery? When we plot romances, we have certain emotional plot points, like first kiss and big dark moment. What about the traditional whodunit mystery? For example, is it necessary to have a dead body in chapter one? Does the crime always have to be a murder? How many suspects is too many? How can the sagging middle be avoided?

Each author will have a different answer, and they’re all right. I’ve read mysteries where no one gets killed for the first hundred pages. You can guess who might get the axe and are often right, but everyone you meet until that point becomes a suspect. This works if the sleuth leads such an interesting life that you don’t care about when the body shows up, or the author’s voice is so catchy and engaging that you’ll read along just for pleasure. But for beginning mystery authors, placing the body up front is often the best bet.

After writing ten mysteries in my Bad Hair Day series, I found a pattern that I find comfortable. This isn’t to say I follow it every single time. But my loose structure might help others who are wondering how to plot those turning points. Keep in mind that other writers might reverse the order, jumble it up, or not include these items at all. The crime might be a stolen object of value, a missing person, a kidnap victim. It doesn’t always have to be a murder. But for a mystery in the traditional sense, the story usually involves a murder with an amateur sleuth in a confined setting, which may be a small town that has its own unique flavor. So these are the plot points I might employ:

Dead Body

Introduction of Suspects

Secrets: Every suspect has something to hide

Second dead body

Attempts on sleuth’s life as he/she gets closer to truth

One suspect turns out to be a red herring and has led sleuth down the wrong path

Secrets are exposed and suspects are eliminated

Final clue leading to killer

Through all of this is the personal subplot, often a romance or other relationship, that leads the sleuth to experience a revelation about herself thus providing character growth by the end of the story. This is the hook to make your reader buy your next book. She has to care what happens to your sleuth, and it’s the personal relationships, the sleuth’s quirky outlook on life, and the distinctive setting that will draw readers back for more.

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CRIME REPORTS

How many of you read the police reports for your town? Our local newspaper lists the complaints filed in our community. Many of them are more amusing than serious. Here are some examples:

Trespass Warning: A man was issued a trespass warning after becoming upset that store employees wouldn’t give him a refund on a can of soda he’d purchased a month ago.

Suspicious Vehicle: A man became belligerent when a police officer asked him if the car with a sounding alarm was his.

Burglary: Candy was stolen from a candy machine.

Suspicious Incident: A man found a threatening letter written in Spanish on his doorstep.

Animal Complaint: A man reported that nine wild pigs were uprooting his lawn.

There were a number of more serious thefts, like a laptop in a stolen backpack, appliances by a tenant who moved out, wheels off a car, and unauthorized purchases by an office manager, but no violent crimes. Keep in mind that we’re just west of greater Fort Lauderdale, but still it’s nice to know no rapes or murders have occurred recently in the immediate vicinity.

So let’s do a creative exercise and combine some of the above. Can you get a plot out of them? How would you continue these stories?

A man became belligerent when a police officer asked him if the car with a sounding alarm was his. It was then the policeman noticed the trunk ful of empty candy wrappers. The driver fits the description of a thief who stole candy from a candy machine. Is it the same man? Who ate it? And what had set off the car alarm?

A man found a threatening letter written in Spanish on his doorstep. Noting the letterhead was from a local store, he entered the store on the pretext of returning a can of soda. When an employee noted the soda had expired, the man grew upset. He opened the door and let in the wild pigs chewing up the lawn outside. A stampede ensued. Which store employee wrote the letter and why?