I love the “cold” mysteries. Those set in the cold regions–Sweden, Iceland, Norway. Why do I love those books? I love the settings. The characters are all excellent as well, but its the settings that keep me coming back time and again. In Henning Mankell’s series the setting, a small town in Sweden, plays as much a role as any character or plot point. The weather punctuates the setting–cold, dreary, wet.
My Jenna Scali mystery series is set in a university town in the South. Some of my readers recognize the town and love reading about places they know.
Setting is as much a work of art as the rest of your book. It takes research and due diligence. If you create a village in England and have never been there and get it all wrong, you readers will notice. When you misrepresent the weather conditions for a place, readers notice.
Here are some tips for making your setting as real as your characters:
Even though I live in the town where my mystery series is set, I still research particular streets. I don’t want one of my readers to come to me later and tell me I used an incorrect street name, and they would. Writers can make up places and in fantasy writing that’s often the case. But they must do it within reason. Good fantasy writers create a “world.” That world even though fictionalized, must ring true.
As writers we often get so hung up in our plots that we forget that action happens in a place. The reader needs to know more about that place to feel the action. New writers often present a lot of events, but they forget about describing the locale. That’s the beauty of the cold mysteries. The authors do an amazing job of putting the reader in the place. The cold wet, dampness seeps from the pages.
By weaving, I mean make it so natural that the reader doesn’t realize you’ve done it. The opposite approach is to describe in many paragraphs the setting and then move into the action. Remember the action happens within the setting. When you spend lots of time writing paragraph after paragraph describing the setting, most readers either go to sleep or forget the description when the action starts. A better approach is to piece setting in and make it part of the story.
Weather includes more than just announcing that it’s a clear crisp day. Weather means sudden downpours during a summer storm or chills running up a character’s arms as the wind picks up or the smell of old socks when a breeze blows in a certain direction. The weather component helps move the story along (or slows it down–depending on the author’s goals).
One of the things I loved about Jojo Moyes book, Me Before You, was the people in the small English town. Not simply the main characters, but the other people who live there. She created people who inhabit that village. The same is true of Ann Cleeves’s books. Her settings are amazing and the people who inhabit those settings equally delightful
For most pantser writers, the key is getting the words on paper. We must know what happens and the only way to do that is to complete the story. Once you’ve written “The End,” go back and fill in the blanks. Imagine the characters and where they are. Allow your mind to take you to that place and then describe what you see, hear, smell.
These are my tips for creating believable settings. What tips do you have? Share your thoughts or share one of your favorite settings in a book you’ve read.
Here’s a book set on a fictitious street in Decatur Georgia. The street isn’t real but everything else around it rings true. See what you think.
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