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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Tying Up Those Pesky Loose Ends

When writing a mystery, it’s crucial to tie up any loose ends by the end of the story. You don’t want to leave readers hanging on what some incident or snatch of dialogue might have meant when they finish the book. There are several ways for you to keep track of these plot threads.

You might make a list of all the questions that will arise in a reader’s mind as you write the story. Or you can create this list as you do your first read-through revision. If you write a synopsis, that’s another way to keep tabs of what’s going on. Once you’ve finished the first draft, read through your synopsis and make sure you’ve resolved all the plot points. If not, fix them during the revision process.

Here’s an example of some loose ends from Easter Hair Hunt. A brief story blurb will fill you in so you can follow these questions.

When hairstylist Marla Vail attends an Easter egg hunt at historic Tremayne Manor, she’s only there to fix hair for a client, Bonnie “Blinky” Morris. But when she’s asked to comb the grounds for leftover goodies, Marla discovers more than just a few dyed eggs. The dead body in the bunny costume is definitely not having a good hare day. And Blinky seems to have disappeared down a rabbit hole.

LOOSE ENDS – Spoiler Alert!

Where is Blinky?
Why did Blinky give her costume to the dead guy?
Who stabbed the victim and why?
Where and what is the murder weapon?
What does the autopsy report say?
How did the Faberge egg end up in the grass next to the body?
Who is stealing artifacts from the house? Is the motive money or spite?
Why did Connor Tremaine deed his property to his wife and leave nothing to his son?

I write a synopsis up front as a writing guide. I’ve just gone through the one for Styled for Murder, my next Bad Hair Day mystery, to make sure it matches the story changes I made along the way. Whoops. It appears I’ve left too very obvious loose ends and forgot all about them. One factor is part of the killer’s confession, and another relates to a subplot with a secondary character.

Re the subplot, I left a hint in a conversation but have no idea what it meant. I can’t find an explanation for this statement anywhere in my character profiles or plotting notes. Do I eliminate this snatch of dialogue, or do I come up with a reasonable explanation? I chose to leave it in and explain what this character meant later on. That’s what I get for not keeping better track of each detail. I didn’t keep my list of loose ends for this story like I usually do, and that would have helped. All is not lost, though. I can write them out during my next revision pass to make sure everything is solved.

This is also why a story needs multiple views. We need to make sure all the questions have been answered by the end. Even our editors and beta readers sometimes miss things that our fans will point out later.

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Do you have lapses like this? How do you catch them?

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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.

Next comes Writing the Cozy Mystery – Howdunit.

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Writing the Cozy Mystery: Expanded Second Edition

I’m excited to announce the release of Writing the Cozy Mystery: Expanded Second Edition.
CSB2
Do you want to write a cozy mystery but don’t have a clue where to start? Or are you in the middle of a story and stuck on the plot? Perhaps you’re already writing a series, and you need tips on keeping your material fresh. Writing the Cozy Mystery will help you develop your characters, establish the setting, plot the story, add suspense, plant clues and solve the crime.
This Second Edition contains more examples; additional writing exercises; expanded sections; and seven new chapters including The Muddle in the Middle, Romance and Murder, Special Considerations for Cozy Writers, Keeping a Series Fresh, Writing the Smart Synopsis, Mystery Movies, and Marketing Tips. You’ll find everything you need to know in an easy-to-read, clear manner to write your own mystery and maintain a long-running series. Recommended for cozy writers, mystery fans, and creative writing classes. Just in time for your holiday gift bags!
“Too many writer’s guides focus on style and how to write; but Nancy J. Cohen’s Writing the Cozy Mystery: Expanded Second Edition doesn’t limit itself to literary mechanics alone. This makes it a highly recommended pick for all levels of writers; from those who enjoy mysteries and need a clearer definition of ‘cozy’ and its applications; to writers already well aware of the genre, but who need tips on how to sustain suspense or sprinkle believable clues throughout a cozy production.” D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
If you are thinking about writing a cozy mystery, read this book first! Nancy lays out all the necessary steps in an interesting and informative way that is easy to follow. This book was an invaluable tool when I wrote my first cozy. Highly recommended.” Catherine Bruns, USA Today Bestselling Author
“Nancy J. Cohen offers clear examples, practical writing exercises, and friendly advice designed to help the beginning cozy author start—and finish!—a saleable book. Even seasoned cozy writers can find helpful hints for building better characters and story.” Diane A.S. Stuckart, aka Ali Brandon, NY Times Bestselling Author of the Tarot Cats Mysteries
“If you want to write a cozy mystery—or really, any kind of mystery—this is the book for you! Everything you need to know in one handy volume.” Victoria Thompson, Bestselling Author of the Gaslight Mystery Series
Digital Edition: ISBN 978-0-9985317-2-4, $3.99, Orange Grove Press
Print Edition: ISBN 978-0-9985317-3-1, $9.99, Orange Grove Press
Cover Design and Graphic Illustrations by
Boulevard Photografica
Print Pages: 130 pages. Word Count: 28,000 words
Nonfiction – Reference – Writing Guide

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Writing the Cozy Mystery: Expanded Second Edition

Publisher: Orange Grove Press
Release Date: Nov. 12, 2018
Genre: Nonfiction
Available Formats: eBook and Paperback
Digital: ISBN 9780998531724
Paperback: ISBN 9780998531731

Do you want to write a cozy mystery but don’t have a clue where to start? Or are you in the middle of a story and stuck on the plot? Perhaps you’re already writing a series, and you need tips on keeping your material fresh. Writing the Cozy Mystery: Expanded Second Edition is a precise reference guide that will help you develop your characters, establish the setting, plot the story, add suspense, plant clues and solve the crime.

This Agatha Award-nominated Second Edition contains more examples; additional writing exercises; expanded sections; and seven new chapters including The Muddle in the Middle, Romance and Murder, Special Considerations for Cozy Writers, Keeping a Series Fresh, Writing the Smart Synopsis, Mystery Movies, and Marketing Tips. You’ll find everything you need to know in an easy-to-read, clear manner to write your own mystery and maintain a long-running series. Recommended for cozy writers, mystery fans, and fiction writing classes.

 

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Reviews | Excerpt

Reviews

“If you are thinking about writing a cozy mystery, read this book first! Nancy lays out all the necessary steps in an interesting and informative way that is easy to follow. This book was an invaluable tool when I wrote my first cozy. Highly recommended.” Catherine Bruns, USA Today Bestselling Author

“Nancy J. Cohen offers clear examples, practical writing exercises, and friendly advice designed to help the beginning cozy author start—and finish!—a saleable book. Even seasoned cozy writers can find helpful hints for building better characters and story. I wish I’d had Cohen’s book before I started writing my own first cozy mystery. Highly recommended!” Diane A.S. Stuckart, aka Ali Brandon, NY Times Bestselling author of the Black Cat Bookshop Mysteries

“If you want to write a cozy mystery—or really, any kind of mystery—this is the book for you! Everything you need to know in one handy volume.” Victoria Thompson, Bestselling author of the Gaslight Mystery Series

“Too many writer’s guides focus on style and how to write; but Nancy J. Cohen’s Writing the Cozy Mystery: Expanded Second Edition doesn’t limit itself to literary mechanics alone. This makes it a highly recommended pick for all levels of writers; from those who enjoy mysteries and need a clearer definition of ‘cozy’ and its applications to writers already well aware of the genre, but who need tips on how to sustain suspense or sprinkle believable clues throughout a cozy production.” D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

 

Excerpt