Exactly one year ago I offered readers a free chapter from Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. That blog linked to two other free chapters, and I joked that at this rate a reader could get the entire book for free . . . in about twenty years.
So, for the New Year, I’m offering another free chapter, making it four altogether. (To see the other free chapters, click on Minor Gift: A Free Chapter.)
7 Setting, Including Scene of the Crime
Some writers are great at creating setting, others are indifferent to it. Some are great at all three aspects of setting, some at one or perhaps two. This reflects how different we all are. Some of us are very conscious about clothing styles, others aren’t. Some of us are always au courant with the latest slang or buzz words, others aren’t. Some observe architecture, or trees, or house interiors in detail. Others don’t.
But no matter what we’re like in real life, in the world of fiction it’s necessary for a writer to be aware of setting — of creating it and maintaining it. Of making it come alive for the reader. For the fact is, one of the great vicarious pleasures readers get from fiction is the pleasure of setting: people enjoy learning about other places, other times, and other cultures through fiction.
Setting: Place, Time, Culture
Setting consists of the place or spot where a story takes place; the time when it takes place; and the culture in which it takes place. A mystery could take place in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. That’s the spot on Earth where the story is set. (Stories need not be set on Earth, of course.) The story could take place now, in the 21st century. Or it could take place in the 19th century, during the days of the Underground Railroad. Or earlier, during the days of the French and Indian War. Or even earlier, when Indian tribes lived free of Europeans.
The cultural setting could be any of the above-mentioned. It could be Dutch-Americans whose families have lived in the region for over 200 years. It could be about criminals who run meth labs. It could be about amusement park owners.
In mystery novels as in other novels, these three aspects of setting can be equally developed, or one or two can be developed more than the others. But I can’t imagine a novel in which they wouldn’t all be present.
Dirty Proof takes place in the 1970s, in Chicago, in the culture of the newspaper publishing industry: mainly in the composing room, where typesetters worked.
Sound Proof, as you know by now, takes place in the current era (say early 21st century) in Iroquois County, Illinois, on a farm during an old-time music festival called Midwest Music Madness. The culture it takes place in is the culture of folk music or, more specifically, what’s called old-time music (the kind of music played by the Carter Family and by Doc Watson and John Hartford, for example).
As I explained in an earlier chapter, setting is very important to me, and it comes to me at the same time as do plot and character. In the very first page of Sound Proof, the culture aspect of the setting is prominent:
Shelby Stubbs stepped onto a bale of straw and looked down on the group of musicians. I leaned against a porch rail and watched everything in sight. Even Stubbs, though he wasn’t the thief.
Stubbs hooked a thumb through his belt, puffed out his chest, and repeated his announcement. “No sir. Absolutely not.” This was directed at Vance Jurasek, who was balancing a string bass on its endpin. “Only fiddles, guitars, and banjos,” Stubbs lectured. “No other instruments allowed. That’s ‘cause no other instruments belong.”
“You’re kidding.” Jurasek settled his bass against the rail and scowled.
“No sir. You don’t see a bass in old-time music. It’s not traditional. You never saw an old-time player carrying a bass around. No bass in my class.”
In developing setting you might end up doing research in several different ways: travel, internet, library, or others. If your mystery is set in the past you’re probably aware that today there are wonderful web sites through which a visitor can see photos of buildings, rooms, clothing, and many other artifacts of previous eras. Research your setting well before you actually sit down to write — that way, details about the setting will be in your mind and will emerge in your writing. It’s easier to feel yourself inside the setting from the start, rather than to have to “add” setting during the rewrite. The first is organic, the second artificial.
Speaking of setting and research, let me say that a wise and conscientious writer researches any aspect of his novel that he isn’t 100% certain about. Take, for example, the murder weapon. If it’s a gun, you had better be certain what kind of gun it is and how it works. Readers will know instantly if you’ve said something wrong about the gun. The same is true for poisons or any murder method: research it first . . . in books, articles, or online. If you can, interview experts on the subject.
Back to setting. I’ve already told you that Sound Proof sprang out of the fact that I accompanied my husband to many old-time music festivals and observed and absorbed what I saw and heard. As for the farm aspect of the setting, I spent most of my childhood on a dairy farm in Ohio. But Ohio is not Illinois, and so before I began to write Sound Proof I traveled to Iroquois County, Illinois. I drove up and down the rural roads. I drove through the towns. I ate lunch in one of them. I jotted down notes on the town buildings, the railroads, the bus depots, the barns, the silos, the fields, the farmhouses, the drainage ditches. I took photos. I typed notes and printed them out and had them alongside me as I wrote, so that I could incorporate them throughout the book.
There is, however, a great danger in having copious notes on any single aspect of your story. The danger is that because you did the work garnering this information, and because you are excited about it, you will cram it into your novel.
Readers like details. They like a setting to come alive for them. But what they really, really love is dialogue and action. Setting is neither dialogue nor action. So use what you know about your setting sensibly.
Below is a single page from my four single-spaced pages of Iroquois County research notes. The observations in boldfaced type are the ones I used as part of the setting — the others I didn’t use at all. I hope this drives home the point that research results work best when used selectively.
cupolas on barns, even on sheds and on police station
third-floor of a farmhouse has stained glass windows
saloon with Bud Light sign overhead and Old Style sign on side
saloon made of red brick
hip roof with cupola
saloon serves burgers and beer
post office is on Main Street
saloon is on Main Street
pickup trucks, most of them American makes
black-eyed susans everywhere
many, many pole barns in addition to the main barns
grain storage silos
L-shaped porches on many farmhouses
Depot Street, Church Street, Main Street
1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th streets
circle of rocks in ditch, probably thrown out of the field by a farmer
lots of one-and-a-half-lane dirt roads, especially running alongside cornfields
One other thing I did in developing the setting for Sound Proof was to draw a sketch showing me where the buildings were in relationship to one another.
I kept this sketch alongside my desk while I wrote perhaps the first third of the book. Soon I knew Mary’s farm and the festival grounds so well that I didn’t need the sketch: the mental image was imprinted on my brain.
In writing Dirty Proof I had no such sketch. That’s because Dirty Proof took place in a wide variety of places within Chicago, and Chicago is a real place. Mary Ployd’s farm, however, is not real. With an invented setting, the temptation is to write the story and occasionally throw in something about the surroundings. But I felt that method wouldn’t bring the setting to life. Because the story is told in the first-person point of view, I wanted to imagine what Frank Dragovic would see as he walked the grounds.
Here are three examples of how setting appears in Sound Proof.
Mary’s barn brought back these memories. Entering her barn through the south side, I noticed that all six double doors — south, east, and north — were rolled back, the few windows propped open with sticks. The entire bottom floor hosted the old-time ensemble class. Clustered around a pine stage built against the north wall, most of the students perched on rusty folding chairs. Others took a big chance with chairs cobbled together out of branches and twigs. I suspected Mary might host a rustic furniture festival during the winter.
• • •
Like the outbuildings, the barn was aligned with its long sides facing east and west. Along its old stone perimeter I looked for possible hiding places, checking for chinks below, loose boards above. If I were the thief, I’d swipe an instrument and hide it immediately, so I couldn’t be caught with it.
Mary’s barn was in serious need of painting. Its weathered gray wood was probably last painted when Bob Dylan was a teen. Back in Chicago the aged siding would fetch a fortune as ambience in a restaurant or private home. The barn’s east wall faced a small creek, Raccoon Run. No hiding places I could see. And the south wall was unlikely because it could be seen from the dining hall. High above me, below the peak of the gambrel roof, the hayloft door stood open. Music from a guitar class drifted down.
• • •
No time for a shower. I wondered which was more socially unacceptable: showing up late the first day of class, or smelling like a pig sty. Wafting eau de swine in all directions, I hurried toward the pole barn.
Farmers like my Uncle Rudy and whoever had owned Mary’s land before her constructed pole barns quickly and cheaply: one story high, gable roof, round poles as the main structural support, siding hung from two-by-fours. The life expectancy of such barns was thirty or forty years: a one-generation solution to hay and machine storage problems. Mary’s pole barn, its two short sides sagging toward each other, stood at the brink of its life cycle. One long side slumped on its own door, and a lone, dust-covered window blended in with the weathered wood.
Between the pigpen and the pole barn, clumps of butterfly milkweed still bloomed in the blazing sun. I wondered if Mary had considered restoring these few acres to prairie: it could be an additional attraction of her festival.
In each of these paragraphs I as the writer knew where Frank was within the setting and what he saw. Having the sketch helped me.
By the time I got to the storm scene in chapter eighteen (a critical situation that reveals much about the various characters and leads to a partial solution to one of the mysteries), I knew my setting so well that I could feel Frank moving through it.
“Attention, attention!” she continued. “Fonnie Sheffler is missing from the old-time ensemble group.”
There was a general shuffling, people looking left and right and all around, as if the missing person had simply failed to report to the right group. During these few seconds of confusion Fonnie herself staggered in through the southern doors. “Where were you?” demanded Vance. “We were worried about you.”
“Sorry,” she gasped. “I wanted to secure my camper.” She struggled for more breath. “It’s really bad out there.”
“Fonnie has been found!” shouted Mary. “Lafayette Wafer is also missing from the old-time ensemble group. Has anybody seen Lafayette?”
We looked around again, and then we looked toward the south door, as if Lafayette would repeat Fonnie’s trick of appearing out of the blue. In this case the black.
Once it was clear that Lafayette wasn’t there, Mary asked if anybody knew where he was. Voices offered facts, opinions, judgments.
“I saw him around four o’clock,” Cindy called out. “He said a tune was calling him.”
“That’s right,” shouted Vance. “He was heading toward the big tree by the creek.”
“But it was already starting to rain,” Cindy yelled. “He might have gone to the pole barn.”
Mary repeated these remarks to all over the microphone and asked if any of us had seen Lafayette after that time. Hearing her was becoming more and more difficult in the thunder. I walked over to Suzanne and took the flashlight and first-aid kit from her backpack. She had packed our rain jackets and I pulled mine on.
“Where are you going?” she asked, a note of panic in her voice.
“The pole barn.”
“No!” She grabbed my arm. “Frank, don’t go.”
I shook my head. “I’ve got to.”
“For who?” demanded Booker, watching me. “Lafayette?”
I stuffed the first-aid kit in a pocket and gripped the flashlight.
“Don’t do it, man.” Booker placed a hand on my shoulder. “It’s too dangerous.”
I moved to leave but Booker pushed me back. “No! Let the little rat drown! He doesn’t deserve saving.”
Knowing the physical setting well helped me write this scene. And knowing the setting also helped Frank find his way back from the pole barn. Setting is not just something a writer puts into a book: it’s something the book’s characters live in. That’s why it’s important for you to make the setting visible to the reader. And I mean cultural setting as well as physical setting.
Connections with Setting
Setting is connected to the story experience in three different ways. First there’s the connection between the writer and the setting. The writer works to make the setting come alive, especially since readers love learning vicariously.
Second, there’s the connection between the reader and the setting. Readers want to experience the setting of a book, particularly if it’s a world they know little about (as is, for example, the world of old-time music). But readers in general don’t want long descriptions of setting, so writers work to bring the setting to life in ways other than long descriptions. I’ll discuss how this is done in the chapter on description.
Third, there’s the connection between the characters and the setting, particularly between the protagonist and the setting. Is the setting in the protagonist’s wheelhouse, so to speak? Does he know it well, function in it well? Or is he a fish out of water, totally lost in this setting? The connection between the hero and the setting is important for you to consider, because it will determine the hero’s attitude and actions and observations and maybe even success or failure.
In writing Sound Proof I wanted Frank Dragovic to be unfamiliar with old-time music (though Suzanne is familiar with it). In a way, I was giving him a handicap in solving the murder of an old-time musician, probably by an old-time musician. Frank is an outsider with no knowledge of musical terms or traditions or fingerings of stringed instruments. It’s good to give your characters weaknesses, sometimes several kinds of weaknesses. Admittedly, not knowing old-time music isn’t considered much of a weakness by most people, but it does put Frank at a disadvantage, and that makes him more human. It also means that some of the characters who do know old-time music will underestimate Frank’s abilities: humans have a tendency to think that those inside a particular group are better or smarter than those outside it.
At the same time, I didn’t want to make Frank an outsider to everything except detection, so I made him familiar with farms and barns and farm animals. Even though he’s a city person, born and raised in Chicago, I had him spend his summers on his uncle’s farm in Galesburg, Illinois. Because of this Frank moves through the setting confidently and comfortably, and this means he can spend his psychic energy observing what he as a detective needs to observe.
I notice that in my first novel I also made Frank an outsider to typesetting and the composing room. It could be that I like to treat the reader to unusual settings and place my hero in unusual settings — just so that, despite the setting, he can triumph.
Scene of the Crime
In some mysteries the scene of the crime is more important than in others. Police procedurals, for example, often give minute details about the scene of the crime because it’s the job of the crime scene specialists to gather evidence that will help detectives interpret the way the crime was committed and what kind of person did it. If you read police procedurals, you’ll be familiar with how scene-of-the-crime is developed. Many thrillers also show and develop scene-of-the-crime details.
Whether those who write private eye or amateur detective fiction need to develop the scene of the crime depends on the answer to a question I raised earlier in this book: does the crime occur during the course of the novel, or has it already occurred when the book opens? In Dirty Proof the murder of Ralph Blasingame has already occurred before the first page of the novel. But any self-respecting detective would want to investigate the scene of the crime, even if the crime had occurred months or years ago. One of the first things Frank does in Dirty Proof is walk through the scene of the crime. In doing so he reaches certain conclusions about the murder.
In Sound Proof the murder occurs at the end of the first day of the five-day music festival, so in this book I needed to show the scene of the crime. In order to do so I had to know what the physical place of the crime looked like. I had to know (of course!) who the killer was and how he committed the crime. I had to know (and this is visually important) what people who entered the scene of the crime would see. And: I had to plant important clues and/or important misdirections — pieces of the scene that might lead the protagonist and/or the police in the wrong direction.
Here’s how the reader experiences the scene of the crime in Sound Proof, through the eyes of Frank Dragovic.
The moaning came from Bliss.
Shelby Stubbs lay on the couch of his RV, his head smashed in, blood splattered on both couch and wall. I checked his pulse just to make sure. Dead. The body was still warm, but on a night like this that meant little.
Only two places to sit: up front in the driver and passenger compartments, or in the dinette directly across from Stubbs’ body. I moved Bliss toward the front of the vehicle, pulled aside the pleated curtains separating the front from the back, and sat her in the passenger seat. “Stay here,” I said, hooking back the curtains so I could keep an eye on her.
A cell phone rested on the sink counter. I took a kerchief out of my shorts, held the phone with it and dialed 911. Behind me, the microwave clock read 3:30 A.M. Turning away from Bliss I reported the murder, then replaced the phone on the counter. I thought of calling Mary but decided against it for the time being.
“Somebody will be here soon,” I told Bliss. She was shaking. “Can you hold on?”
She stared out the window into the dark. When I arrived, she had been moaning in the doorway.
I returned to the living quarters, if they could still be called that, and looked around. One of the dinette benches held Bliss’s mountain dulcimer case, a couple of small cosmetic bags, and an African drum. One of Kofi’s drums, I was sure. On the other bench lay a bright red fiddle.
The fiddle was in fine fettle — except for its four strings, which somebody had snipped off and twisted round and round the fiddle’s neck, as if strangling it. I looked but didn’t touch. A bow lay on the floor. I squatted to examine it, expecting to find its horsehairs cut through, but the bow looked fine.
The red fiddle wasn’t the one Stubbs’ had played in class. That had been the $20,000 fiddle and the $10,000 bow Mary wanted safe at all costs. I looked around for his black fiddle case. Using the kerchief, I lifted the handles of storage areas, peeking inside. No fiddle case. No $20,000 fiddle. No $10,000 bow. In fact, there was no fiddle case anywhere, not even for the strangled red fiddle.
I rubbed my forehead with both hands. Stolen hurdy-gurdy, stolen fiddle and bow, and a murdered man. I was standing at the plate looking as the strikes blew by me.
And something else was missing.
The murder weapon.
Stubbs’ head was smashed in, his skull cracked wide open. Flecks of brain dotted the couch and the window above it. As far as I could see, no weapon in sight.
I went to sit in the driver seat. “Tell me what happened,” I said.
“Is he dead?” Bliss breathed.
“Yes. Where were you?”
She stared at me without answering.
Complications at the Scene of the Crime
As you can tell from reading this scene, I’m not a techno-type writer (or reader). That is, I don’t concentrate on small technical details or expert technical knowledge for the murders in my mysteries. The murders are somewhat basic. But that doesn’t mean I can’t introduce complications into the scene of the crime.
The scene above contains the following evidence and complications:
(1) Stubbs was murdered with a blunt instrument.
(2) But that instrument is not present at the scene of the crime when Frank arrives.
(3) One of Stubbs’ prized fiddles, a red one, has had its strings cut, and the strings have been wound and twisted around the neck of the fiddle.
(4) Stubbs’ main fiddle and bow, both very expensive, both insured, are missing.
(5) No fiddle cases are present on the scene of the crime.
My purpose in creating these details at the scene of the crime was to complicate matters, specifically to suggest that the person who murdered Stubbs may have been the same person who was stealing stringed instruments — else why would Stubbs’ expensive fiddle and bow be missing?
I used a blunt instrument as the murder weapon in order to throw suspicion on those characters who had been using hammers earlier that day. These include Mary Ployd, Raven Hook, Jeff Glover, Kim Oberfeld, and Frank Dragovic (though I hope the reader does not suspect Frank!)
I used the cut fiddle strings to throw suspicion on those characters who had been using Leatherman tools on Monday. These include Lafayette Wafer and Guy Dufour.
I used the fact that one fiddle was stolen while the other wasn’t stolen (but was mutilated) to throw confusion over what happened and why.
I’lll have more to say about the planting of clues and the casting of suspicion in later chapters.
Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies</em> is available through brick-and-mortar booksellers and online booksellers.