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.
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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In creating the setting within a setting for your story, it’s helpful if you can model your site after one in existence. Then you can transplant the real place into your larger story and alter the details to suit your novel. Writers may find this easier than making up a site from scratch. It doesn’t work all the time but can be helpful when you find just the right place. Or sometimes, it’s a real place that inspires you to write the story.
This happened to me with EASTER HAIR HUNT, #16 in the Bad Hair Day Mysteries. The overall setting is Broward County, Florida. But the mystery itself takes place at Tremayne Manor, a historic mansion privately owned but open to the public for special events and guided tours.
I modeled this estate after Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens in Washington D.C. I’d been entranced by this former home to heiress Marjorie Post when we visited a number of years ago. We had delighted in having lunch at the café out by the formal gardens, strolling the manicured lanes and touring the historic house with its Russian treasures. I love this place, and so I transformed it into Tremayne Manor for purposes of my story. It helped that I had bought a booklet there describing the house and its contents.
Here’s an excerpt from my story:
Marla had only gotten a quick glimpse of the interior at her arrival. The entry hall at the front had faux stone walls, a crystal chandelier, and a grand staircase leading to the second level. Portraits of famous Russian royalty adorned the walls. Marla had gotten a kick out of it, since her own heritage went back to Russian aristocracy before the Revolution.
Voices rose in laughter from the dining room as Marla followed Lacey through a series of rooms. The guests appeared to be ignoring the turmoil outside. Then again, the action was happening back toward the tree line, so it might not be visible from their window view.
“I wish I’d taken the guided tour of your house,” Marla said as they passed into a room containing built-in, lighted display cases holding fancy porcelain dinnerware.
Lacey halted to regard her with a proud smile. “My husband’s grandmother became interested in Imperial art when she visited Moscow and St. Petersburg. Many of these pieces come from dessert services used by Catherine the Great. They bear the insignia of Russia’s most elite orders. The Queen would give dinners each year to honor the people who’d earned knighthoods.”
“These little cups are cute,” Marla said, examining a set emblazoned with silver stars.
“Those are my favorites. The ice cups were used for sorbets and custards, and I have a fondness for gelato. But come, I must see if this egg is truly from our collection.”
They passed through several rooms that would befit a palace with their ornate furnishings and valuable artifacts. Marla wondered why more security measures weren’t evident. She’d noticed the guard patrolling the interior, and each room had video monitors, but what about motion detectors and infrared lasers like she’d seen in movies?
Lacey headed directly to a tabletop display case in the center of one room. “Oh, my Lord,” she said, staring in disbelief.
“What is it?” Marla peered at a label that said the items in the case were made by Carl Fabergé, the famous jeweler commissioned by Russian royalty to make precious works of art. Three jeweled eggs rested on individual stands inside the glass case.
Uh-oh. One of them didn’t look right.
For SHEAR MURDER, I took one of our favorite places in Orlando named Harry P. Leu Gardens and transplanted it to fictional Orchid Isle as the site for a wedding. We’d strolled the lovely grounds at this fifty-acre botanical park and I used my memory, as well as a site map, to describe the intimate details in the story.
Reaching an intersection, Marla examined the signposts. Even though she had been here last night, she couldn’t remember which way to go. She aimed to find the Bride’s Cottage, where Jill was getting dressed.
Lugging her bag full of supplies, she swiped at her forehead, beaded with sweat. Her lavender gown swished about her ankles as she swatted an insect, cursing the humidity. She’d left behind the other bridal attendants, still primping in a private room across from the banquet hall. They had the benefit of air-conditioning, while she sweltered in the afternoon heat.
An evergreen scent pervaded the moist air, likely from the pine needles used as mulch. Colorful orchids mingled among the tropical foliage along with red crotons, pink pentas, and Chinese fringe flowers. Dense growth peppered the area, broken by a trickling stream. Alongside the path, green liriope acted as ground cover while moss-draped live oaks and laurel fig trees provided shade. Ferns, palms, and bromeliads competed for space.
The wedding would take place in the gazebo by the Rose Garden. Should she go left or right? She couldn’t remember if the wedding site was by the Floral Clock or the House Museum. Listening to birds twittering in the branches, she discerned voices coming closer.
“Chill out, babe. The ceremony hasn’t started yet. And anyway, I’m not the danged wedding photographer. My job is to cover the event in conjunction with the park’s debut, remember?”
“So why are you in such a hurry?” a sharp female voice replied. “It can’t be because you want to see the matron of honor, is it? Her husband is here somewhere. You wouldn’t want him to see you having an intimate tête-à-tête.”
“Get off my case, Hally. Focus on what you do best: observing other people and criticizing them.”
The couple rounded a corner and fell silent when they spotted Marla. Her quick glance detected the man’s scowl and the woman’s taut expression.
In my Drift Lords tale, WARRIOR ROGUE, I used Himeji Castle in Japan as a model for the enemy fortress in the story. I’d never visited, but I got the information I needed from the Internet. This castle fascinated me with its complexity. Short of visiting in person, I scoured online for layouts and details and then set my characters at the fictional Shirajo Manor.
At the top of the stairs, she spotted the manor, rising in the near distance. Multiple towers surrounded it. She assumed that site to be their destination.
Prodded in the back with a painful jolt, she stumbled forward toward another gate. Instead of opening to a path again, this door led inside a building.
“Leave the Drift Lord here.” Their commander indicated the wood plank floor in an empty room. The soldiers dumped him on the ground. “You four stay here and guard him until we get further orders. I’ll take the woman to General Morar.”
“What if she has the same power as the other one of her kind?” Gwarp said. He was the shortest among them with tufts of dark, spiked hair on his head. “We’ve heard rumors, Leytnant Bosk. If they’re true—”
“She would have already killed us. See for yourself.” Bosk squeezed her arm, making her wince in pain. “She’s nothing but a puny female.” The officer leered at her, his whiskers nearly poking her in the face. “Maybe the general will give her to me after he’s done questioning her.”
“Not if his wife has any say. Dr. Morar is likely to want this one for her experiments.”
“Too bad, then there won’t be anything left to enjoy.” Grasping Jen’s arm, Leytnant Bosk dragged her toward a spiral stone stairway. “Come, we have to get through this maug building before we can access the citadel.”
TRIMMED TO DEATH has a fall festival with a bake-off contest at a local farm. This was modeled after Bedner’s Farm in Boynton Beach. We’d explored this farmer’s market as well as the U-pick sites and this became Kinsdale Farms in the story.
The sun beat down on her head as she traipsed from one site to another without spotting her quarry. Francine didn’t seem to be anywhere around the main buildings or vendors’ alley. Marla had even sped through the petting zoo and kiddie area, peeking inside the bounce house.
Maybe Francine had taken refuge in the sparsely populated fields. The crowd tended to congregate near the festival tents. Soon the judges would gather on the makeshift stage to announce the winners from the day’s competitions. Country music from the band was still going strong, but the musicians should be winding down soon.
Wait, what about the open shacks behind the marketplace building? Marla had passed various sheds on her way in from the parking lot. They held empty crates, farm equipment, and a variety of tractors. Francine could be hiding in their vicinity. But when Marla tromped over, she didn’t see any sign of her target.
Had anyone else finished the game? Marla meandered over to the registration desk and asked the lady in charge. Nobody had turned in a finished card, the woman told her with a puzzled frown. Usually they had a winner by now.
A pit of worry gnawed at Marla’s stomach. Where could Francine have gone?
These are only a few examples. As you see, if you need to visualize a place where you will set a scene, it’s a lot easier when you have a real site in mind. Then you can alter the details to suit your story’s needs.
Starting a new novel can either be an exhilarating prospect or a daunting one. No matter how many books you’ve written, this reaction still holds true. If you’re a pantser regarding plot, you might begin with a concept, a character, or a setting. You wing it from there with a general idea of where you want to go. But if you are a plotter like me, you need a roadmap. So how to begin?
Characters Come First
Get to know your main characters. Who are they? What do they want in life? Why do they want it? What stands in their path? Give them internal and external goals. Have them deal with an inner emotional struggle that inhibits them from moving forward. What caused this conflict? How does it relate to the main plot? Let’s say your heroine meets a firefighter that she really likes. But she has an insane fear of fires because her parents died in one when she was little. How can she have a relationship with a guy who’s life is always at risk? Meanwhile, the external plot involves an arsonist. For some reason, he’s targeted her. She has to rely on the hunky firefighter to keep her safe. And so on. But don’t leave the hero out, either. He should have his own reasons for not pursuing a commitment. As for the villain, give him a plausible motivation so the reader can understand his actions if not approve of them.
Determine the path of character growth so you know how things will end. How will your characters change by the end of the story? In this example, the heroine might have to overcome her fear of fires to rescue someone in a blaze—perhaps herself, or the hero who’s been disabled by the villain. She realizes her own inner strength will get her through any adversity. She’s a survivor. And so she can let down her barriers and give her heart to the man she has come to love.
It’s no different when you’re writing a series. In each book, your protagonist must change in some way or realize a truth about herself. Yet her emotional growth can involve a bigger arc that encompasses a number of books. Always solve the external conflict first in a story, and then wrap up the resolution with the insights your character has learned.
Build Your Setting
You’ve done your character development. Now where does your story take place? What is unique about this setting? How can you bring it to life for readers? This is where your world building takes place. Where does your character live? Why did she choose this place? What are its architectural and design elements? How is the setting a character in itself? Describe the sensory impressions you might note if you visited this area. How can you get its flavor across to readers? Why is this setting important to your plot?
Do Your Research
Make sure you get your facts straight about the locale and any issues involved in your story. This can be preliminary research until you begin your story. Then you’ll know what details to pursue. Is there an interesting news article that caught your fancy? Look up more information on the subject and figure out how it relates to your plot. Or perhaps your story is based on something you read or saw on television. You’ll know what avenues to explore. Just be sure you’re as authentic as possible. That goes for your protagonist’s career as well. Use metaphors and similes from her viewpoint. Get familiar with her work lingo and research her occupation.
Plot Your Story
If you like to use the storyboard method, grab a big poster and divide it into squares that represent your chapters. Brainstorm plot points and put them on sticky notes. Plaster these sticky notes around the poster approximate to their timing in the story. Or you can do a chapter by chapter outline instead. Either way, keep track of emotional as well as external plot points. Don’t worry if gaps show in your planning; they’ll fill in later if you lay the groundwork properly.
Keep in mind that each scene must have a purpose and hold tension. Each action is followed by a reaction and a decision. Start with a crisis or “call to action” for your character. Build the complications, layer in the secrets and suspense, determine the plot twists, and aim for an exciting resolution.
Many writers utilize the three act structure in their story plotting:
I. Inciting Incident and Introduction of Characters, Conflicts build to First Turning Point
II. Secrets, Subplots, and Complications, Rising Stakes, Second Turning Point
III: Black Moment for Sleuth, Villain Exposed, Resolution, Character Growth
Hook the Reader
How can you grab the reader at the start? Begin with action or dialogue and move the story swiftly forward. This is not the place for flashbacks or background information. Make sure your protagonist is likable to gain reader sympathy. Make the stakes personal. Consider that you only have the first few pages to make an impression. And just as importantly, end each chapter with a hook. You want to create a page-turner, so keep that tension ramped up.
Why is a thing I do, that some readers say they like, so hard for me? Descriptions of landscape and setting, I do those passages over and over before I can get them even close to being right. And what I mean by “right” starts with, “Is it clear? Can it be interpreted any other way? Could a reader really visualize what you’re describing?” – even before I get to “Is it interesting prose?”
Part of my difficulty probably comes from having an overactive visual memory that demands unattainable perfection. For instance: I can still see a tiny arched wooden bridge over a miniscule shivery stream edged with wild watercress, beside a dark forest, in front of a wood-beamed cottage in Connecticut I haven’t seen since I was four (and only saw five or six times then) – and I rewrote that description more times than I’ll admit, even though it’s nothing special now.
And when settings hand you your stories, you can’t just blow by. Several Ben Reese mysteries popped into my head because of a particular place – in Scotland, England, Tuscany, Georgia and the Carolinas, Ben’s small-town Ohio home – and I’ve spent countless days revising and polishing and choosing details to try to describe them well.
Breeding Ground, the first Jo Grant mystery, got into my blood years ago when I spent time in Lexington, Kentucky researching a Ben book. I stayed in beautiful old farmhouse B&Bs, surrounded by pastureland and fast running creeks, and as I grilled the owners about the houses’ history, and local characters as well, it made me want to write a new series immersed in that lush green world where Thoroughbreds graze the hills.
If I’m working at a real place, I take a ridiculous number of photographs. I use travel books, novels, reference books and magazines, even biographies and journals, if the scene takes place at an earlier date. Movies too, if they exist. If I wanted to place a book in Kenya, I’d certainly watch “Out Of Africa,” once I’d read the book.
I use maps, real and imagined by me, depending on whether the setting exists, or I’ve altered something real, or made it up entirely. I draw floor plans and elevations and arrange furniture on the plans, because unless I can see it myself in incredible detail I’m not going to describe anything so someone else can picture it.
That’s a big part of why we write – right? To draw people in to our created worlds – in, on so many levels, and to such a degree that they can see and feel and care about what happens to the people they meet.
And when we’re writing, caught up in that world ourselves, it’s one of the great pleasures in life – at least for me (even if I write the blasted description another hundred times).
Sally Wright is the Edgar Allan Poe Award nominated author of six Ben Reese mysteries, as well as Breeding Ground , the first Jo Grant mystery. Sally lives with her husband in rural northwestern Ohio.
“To borrow a beautiful phrase from her own work, Sally Wright’s Breeding Ground is a story that is as small as a wren’s nest and as wide as the world. There’s murder along the way, but Breeding Ground aims at a larger target and hits home remarkably well. It’s a tale of families and the ghosts that haunt them, of heroes and horses, of the age-old battle between those who value honor and those who do not. The prose is gorgeous, and the setting—the stunning horse country of Kentucky—has never been more beautifully rendered. This is a book you will absolutely be glad you’ve read.” — Kent Kreuger
Observing a place with a writer’s eye is totally different than going as a tourist. In the latter capacity, you notice the bigger picture. For example, while on a movie studio tour, you might be hunting celebrities or be excited about seeing the costume department. But do you notice the trash bin labeled with a show’s name, the color of the tram that takes you around, or the signs on the soundstage walls?
As a writer, these are the sensory details that make a scene come alive. For Warrior Lord, where my heroes investigate the dire goings-on at a studio where guests go in and don’t come out, I watched an online video of an actual tour and searched my memory of studio visits I’ve made. These gave me the details I needed.
In a similar fashion, Warrior Rogue has a scene set in Hong Kong. How did I do this when I’d been there years ago? I kept travel diaries of everywhere I went, so first I combed through my journal for descriptions of places that might remain. Then I looked on the Internet to verify they still existed, like the tram ride going to Victoria Peak. I remembered Tiger Balm Gardens, and this became an important—albeit renamed and reimagined—scene in the story as well.
The wedding in Shear Murder takes place at an orchid park, but it’s based on Harry P. Leu Gardens in Orlando. On site, I strode through while taking notes of the plants, the layout, and any unusual observations. Did you know there’s a cemetery inside this oasis? It’s exciting what you’ll discover when you search for unusual and different details to spice your tale.
Next time you are out and about, try to notice these little details and think about how you’d describe them. It will enhance your experience and solidify your memory. And remember to include your five senses: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch.
Writers, what scenes have you used based on personal observations?
Readers, what scenes have you read that stick in your mind due to the descriptive detail?