Saturday, August 22, 2009

Where in the World????

One of the nice things about being a mystery author is that I get to choose where my mysteries will take place. The setting for a mystery or series of mysteries can almost take on a personality of its own, so it's an important part of the novel. Some mystery authors create fictional settings. That's what I've done. Lilian Jackson Braun's Moose County (400 miles north of nowhere) is a prime example of an enchanting fictional setting that has as much psersonality as any of the characters does. Moose County, home to many of Braun's Cat Who... mysteries, is a rural county with two population centers: Pickax and Lockminster. Braun uses this setting and the characters who live there (I'll talk about characters in another blog) to provide a backdrop for the stories she tells. The weather is a frequent character in the novels; so are the various lakes, mountains, forests and rivers. A close friend of mine has said she reads Braun novels almost as much to catch up with the local characters and what's been happening in Moose County as she does to find out about the mystery. I see her point. Braun uses the rural and small-town Northern Tier setting brilliantly to give the reader a sense of really being in the story.

Rita Mae Brown has a similar talent. Her Mrs Murphy mysteries take place in and around Crozet Virginia. Brown uses skillfully the beautiful scenery of Central Virgina and the Southern culture of Crozet to draw the reader into the stories. I'm also an admirer of Robin Cook's skill at sharing New York City with readers of his Laurie Montgomery/Jack Stapleton novels(Contagion, Marker, and Vector are three examples). Cook has done the same with Boston in other novels (Godplayer, Shock, and Crisis, for instance). K.C. Constantine's Rocksburg series takes the reader to Western Pennsylvania. There again, the culture and lifestyle of that part of Pennsylvania play a very important part in Constantine's novels.

It's not just American novelists who evoke such a sense of place. Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse series is made all the richer for his effective use of Oxford and surrounding towns. Agatha Christie introduced us all to St. Mary Mead in her Miss Marple series. Dicey Deere has done the same with the village of Ballynagh, Ireland in her Torrey Tunet series.

This sense of place is, I think, much stronger in series than it is in mysteries that aren't part of a series. That's one advantage to writing a series of mysteries that features the same setting. You can share a place with readers much more easily than you can in just one novel. That's why my Joel Williams stories will be a series. My novels (Publish or Perish is the first) take place in Tilton, Pennsylvania. It's a small college town in rural Pennsylvania, about two hours from Philadelphia. I have to admit, I've got an advantage in having created a town, rather than set my stories in an city that exists. I've been able to visualize the town as I'd like it to be, and share that with readers, rather than feel the need to stay true to the realities of an existing place. It's a dirty little secret of mine, perhaps, that it's a lot of fun to create and people a town. I wanted a small college town as the backdrop for my Joel Williams series because I've always loved college towns. They're often full of rich history (Oxford is an example) and interesting places; they have real character.

What kinds of settings do you like? Do you have a favorite series that you return to because of the setting?

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