Setting is always an important element of fiction. Marlys Millhiser chooses settings before her characters. She once said that she spotted an old Victorian house and thought it needed a ghost, so she wrote a novel about it. Phyllis Whitney also planned her novels around a setting. She wanted a place that gave her fresh and interesting material, although it may have been in her own backyard. For her first mystery novel, Red is for Murder, she went to Chicago’s loop to get behind-the-scenes background on the window decorating business. But, because the book only sold 3,000 copies, she returned to writing for children. Years later, the book was reprinted in a number of paperback editions as The Red Carnelian.
For my own first mystery novel, A Village Shattered, I decided to set my story of a serial killer’s revenge in a San Joaquin Valley retirement village where retirees were dropping dead in the Tule fog. I lived in the valley for more than a dozen years and thought it was a great place to hide a murderer, although an unlikely place for a retirement village. However, I’ve since discovered several.
Diary of Murder, the second novel in my Logan and Cafferty series, is set in Wyoming, where I now reside. The state’s severe winter weather and isolated areas make it fertile ground for mystery novels. Unfortunately, it’s becoming one of the methamphetamine capitals of the nation and that serves as the background for my book.
Murder on the Interstate begins along I-40 in northern Arizona, where my protagonists, Dana Logan and Sarah Cafferty, discover the body of a young woman in her Mercedes convertible. The plot takes them to the Phoenix-Scottsdale area and the Pima-Maricopa Indian Reservation, where a chemical spill contaminates the Arizona Canal as far west as Sun City. I set the novel in Arizona because of the state’s problems with illegal emigrants, murders, home invasions, kidnappings and the ever present drug problem. Again, fertile ground for mystery/suspense novels.
I write about areas where I’ve lived or visited and later Google them to ensure accuracy although I may be familiar with the setting. I’m currently working on an historical mystery based on an actual event, which took place here in Wyoming in 1889. I’ve visited the area often and have taken copious pictures, but will return again before I write the conclusion. It’s a breathtaking setting not far from Independence Rock, where hundreds of thousands of travelers stopped to carve their names along the Oregon Trail. A great many of them died along the way, which lends the area an eerie feeling—at least for me. I hope I’ll be able to convey that feeling to my readers.
In some novels, settings hold an equal footing with characters and subject matter. What would Hemingway’s Old Man have done without the Sea? Or Sherlock Holmes without Baker Street? A mystery set in a New York tenement has an entirely different tone than one set in a Beverly Hills mansion. So, when plotting a novel, consider where best to place your protagonist in order to produce maximum mystery, emotion, conflict and suspense.