Setting and Its Limitations

One of the most interesting features of any mystery novel for me is the setting. Create a world of rich details and the story seems to unfold naturally. In the draft of one story I used a setting that I had seen but not walked through. A Beta reader asked basic questions about the distance between two points, the nature of the trail between them, and more. It was a signal to me that the setting wasn’t clear. And how could it be? I hadn’t been there, walked through the area, taken note of crucial features.

Today I find myself at the other end of that continuum for setting. I’m working on a mystery novel set on a small island linked to the coast by a tidal causeway, and home to varied flora and fauna. The location is based on an island I know fairly well, having visited it numerous times in my earlier years. The only significant change I’ve made is in size–I’ve reduced the island from over eighty acres to about ten, and moved it closer to the mainland. I’ve borrowed the causeway from another part of the shore farther down the coast. I’ve chosen this site because of certain activities that can only happen in this kind of isolated setting, and because I know it fairly well. I’m also working into the plot a specific time–using the sunrise, moonrise, and tides as crucial factors.

In most stories the writer can adjust the crucial elements such as the time a train arrives, the time of high tide or low tide, the seasonal winds, and more according to the needs of the story. With my decision to use a specific month, I’ve chosen to work within a specific set of parameters. I want this grounding because the story is going to hinge on what is or is not possible according to the setting.

Consider the range in tides. In some parts of the world the range between high and low tide is minimal, and even the range between high tides is minuscule, as is the case in Southern India, which is fairly close to the equator. With an almost even twelve hours of daylight throughout the year, the tides are similarly even throughout the day. But the Bay of Fundy, located at latitude 45, has the highest range between high and low tides on earth, forty-three feet. At most places on earth the range is about three feet. I’ve chosen a location in which the range between high tides in one month is up to almost two feet.

I don’t think the area for my story is particularly exotic. But in exploring the details of the setting–sunrise, moonrise, tidal range and more–I have uncovered details that suggest specific clues and turns for the plot, features in a story particular to the setting.

When writers talk about setting, we are often thinking of a different kind of influence, such as the kind of people who might live in a rural area surrounded by forests or farms; the tight-knit community in a tenement building trying to stave off developers; or perhaps the mix of people riding on a train that is caught in a blizzard. In my current story I’m tying the crime and its solution more tightly to the earth, to the specific environment not exactly replicated anywhere else. I’m in the early stages at the moment, so I’m looking forward to how this is all going to work out.


14 thoughts on “Setting and Its Limitations

  1. Susan,
    One of many strong points in your writing is your effective use of setting as it connects to the characters and mystery plot. I’m certain it will be true with your new work as well. Best Wishes!


    1. Thank you, Jacquie. I’m hoping this time adhering close to the restrictions of this particular setting will provide unrecognized opportunities as well as challenges.


  2. Love this, Susan. I think part of a great mystery is the author’s willingness to get the details as correct as possible. You’re on your way.


  3. I actually find it easier to use a real date and place, and the real temps and weather for that date. Those are things I can look up and don’t HAVE to create. I can create everything else. When I use a fake place, I base it on a real one and use stats for the real one. I hope you find this gives you a framework, as I find it does.


    1. Kaye, this is what I’ve usually done in earlier books. But this time I’m pushing myself to give greater attention to the features of a real landscape in order to tie the story closer to the place. This has already given me a couple of ideas for clues and behaviors that I might not have noticed or considered otherwise. It’s all part of the challenge of creating a persuasive story.


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