Writing Lesson #4—What to think about when you think about your setting.

Your mystery doesn't happen in a vacuum. In fact, the setting is an important and integral part of the story itself, because the significance of a crime can only be seen against the backdrop of what is "normal" for a certain time and place. The crimes that fill our books are outrages against the society in which they happen—intolerable rips in the social fabric. That's why something has to be done about them. The fact that the world and the crime that is committed against its society cannot co-exist provides the basic conflict of your book.

When we speak of setting, we're talking about a whole lot more than the grass or concrete on which your people walk. Think of it instead as the atmosphere of your novel, as the very air your characters breathe.

Therefore, you'll consider the immediate, literal settings—the rooms your character inhabits and the ways in which he's affected them. (And include in that category such things as his office, and what are the contents of the trunk of his car, her pocketbook, their refrigerator and night tables, etc.)

And then think about the general environment. If it's an actual city, have a map of it near at hand so that you don't have your sleuth making impossible connections or traveling from one point to another at the speed of light.

If it's an imagined city, draw yourself a map so as to keep things straight. Where are the main streets, the parks, the highways? What sorts of neighborhoods are there? What sorts of stores?

What's the weather like in your fictional or real part of the world? Think about it and then use it throughout if people are apt to be sweating or freezing, sliding on ice, avoiding thunderstorms or basking in the perfection of a perfect spring day.

What transportation is available? Can your characters easily hail a cab? Take the train? Escape by ferryboat?

What's the population density? A crime in a mega-city might not get the same degree of attention from either the police, press or the neighbors as one that happens in a small town.

What's the economic level of your setting? Is the populace depressed and living in an abandoned mining town or flourishing on dot-coms in Silicon Valley or working hard to bring in business? Any of these things affect your plot and provide motives. It will also help determine whether designer clothing is the stores—or if the stores are boarded over.

What's the ethnic mix of your setting? Again, that might affect what stores and restaurants are spotted, what if any racial tensions exist, and much more.

What's the general crime level? Is an "ordinary mugging" almost overlooked by the police as they go after the truly heinous crimes? Or is this a sleepy little town where people seldom lock their doors? You can see how the same crime would not be the same in these two sites.

And finally, think about the traditions and mores and sense of community of the place. That can dictate what's considered an offense and out of line and that might also dictate how a neighbor views a given suspect, or it might motivate accusations or spite or coverups or even the crime itself. One suspects that what is considered suspiciously outrageous behavior, dress or self-expression in Berkeley, California, is not necessarily precisely the same as what raises eyebrows in Salt Lake City.

Wherever you set your story and whether the place really exists or not—make your setting your own. Don't rely on what you think you remember—or worse, what you assume your reader already knows. Take a fresh look at whatever you want to include, and make it new to you and your readers. What colors are those hills, those buildings? What would be a newcomer's take on the look of the houses and streets? How does the physical setting emotionally affect you—and your protagonist? Do concrete canyons make your character feel cocooned and safe? Or proud of the vitality of "his" city? Or fearful? Diminished? Claustrophobic? The reactions can be anywhere on the map, but think about what the setting means in any given situation as much as what it physically is like.

Try not to simply label the places in your book, as in "I drove to West End, and then up Northstar, passing Lombard." That doesn't convey much to anyone who's unfamiliar with your landscape (and in fact, doesn't convey much to anyone who knows the town, either!) Instead, try to show the reader what's unique or memorable about those places you're passing, even if it's simply that the normal snarl of traffic isn't there, or the cars are still illegally parked in the middle of the street, or that there wasn't a single person out and about at this hour, or that it normally takes fifteen minutes to make the ride and this time, it took an hour and a half. Make it work for your story, by heightening the tension, explaining necessary logistics, or conveying a sense of place.

And what the specifics of the setting don't have any relevance to your story at that point?

Then leave them out. Summarize. Get us from one point to the next. ("It took me an hour and a half of snarled traffic to reach Louie.")

What we want to do is leave out the descriptive passages we all skip in other people's books, and still convey a rich sense of place.

Next lesson: How to use setting so that your readers don't skip the "descriptions."

On to Lesson 5!

Adapted from: You Can Write a Mystery, by Gillian Roberts.


© Gillian Roberts.