The Setting Within a Setting


September 17, 2021

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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