Yes, I forgot . . . by Susan Oleksiw

This post is late because, well, I forgot. But I’m in good company. 

My daily newspaper hasn’t arrived for the last four mornings, though one arrived late in the afternoon. This seems to happen every year, right after I send them a check to thank them for their very reliable delivery the rest of the year.

Every year my husband and I pick out a tree about two weeks before Christmas, but this year all the trees were gone by then. Not even a live tree (in a root ball) could be had. So we bought what was meant to be an urn tree, and so we have the smallest tree we’ve ever had. I rather like it—easy to maneuver, easy to decorate, and easy to move back outdoors for the rest of the winter.

Last year we had dinner at a nice restaurant in Salem, MA, but that wasn’t possible this year. Nevertheless, we received an email confirmation for a reservation for Christmas dinner—one year late! 

On dismal weather days, of which we’ve had several, our dog is slow to get moving, which means he wants his morning walk later in the morning, closer to noon. This means that my husband’s midday walk comes earlier. I consider this another category of lateness but my husband considers it an unnecessary disruption to his schedule. In previous years, with a different dog, I had to drag the animal outside. During a snowstorm he would go no farther than the porch. I no longer do that. If a dog wants to go out in bad weather, he can ask.

Every year I make Christmas cookies. This year I burned several—I was late taking them out of the oven—but my husband is too nice to point that out. Besides, they’re still tasty.

My wishes for a Happy New Year are early, which makes a nice change. In 2021 I hope to get in sync with the rest of the world, or perhaps the rest of the world will sort itself out and we’ll all end up on the same page—emerging from isolation grateful to have survived healthy and ready to meet people without fear of infection.  I look forward to being on time in 2021, along with everyone else.

The Natural World in Crime Fiction

Many of the books I enjoy include some aspect of the natural world. An obvious recent example is The Witch Elm by Tana French, which revolves around an old tree in a yard where the main characters played as children and one returns as an adult to recover from an assault. Then there’s my own Below the Tree Line, which is set on a farm in rural Central Massachusetts. Now that I’m writing about a suburban setting, I’m taking a look at my neighborhood for scenes or aspects of nature to include in a traditional mystery. It’s not going as expected.

My first choice was to talk about apple trees, since we have one. However, it hasn’t produced a real crop in a few years, and right now looks like it’s dying. It might work if the book were entitled “Death of an Apple Orchard,” since the tree looks more like a sculpture than something that might have ever produced fruit. Scratch that idea.

The ornamental trees in this area seem to have developed a disease that kills off their leaves, so for the last two years they have looked like they too are dying. No one seems concerned enough to take them down, so we’ll have to wait and see what the future holds.

To this I can add all the invasive species that have killed off our native species, thereby depriving other plants, birds, and animals of expected sustenance. Our own backyard is being overtaken by bittersweet, bamboo, rose of Sharon, and lots more. I’m not sure it’s even possible to get rid of the invasives now. It may be too late. Nature as evil invader. Not my idea of the setting for a cozy.

The other obvious choice for drawing nature into a tale is birds. I love birds, love watching them flit among the shrubs picking up a meal—bugs or seeds—and jabbering at each other. Cardinals are of course always welcomed, along with goldfinches, northern flickers, and egrets, even crows. But the winged creatures I most often see are not nearly as attractive, or as much of a pleasure to watch. Turkeys.

Turkeys are everywhere now.

Last year a flock made its way slowly down our street, passing from yard to yard in search of edibles. When they encountered a fence they headed out to the street. A driver trying to park made the mistake of honking at one of them. This is received as a direct insult, and the turkeys responded accordingly. Two of them attacked the car, pecking and jabbering at it. Not satisfied with this display of temper, they headed out into the street, bringing two lanes of traffic to a halt. This was so disruptive that a neighbor entered the fray shooing away the turkeys to the other side of the road, allowing traffic to flow again. But the turkeys weren’t done yet. They reentered traffic, once again tying it up, until bored, they wandered away, down the center of the road.

Once when a turkey was behaving appropriately, I snapped a pic of it. The click of my iPhone startled the bird and he looked up, scanning the area for whatever creature had threatened him. I moved on.

These feather characters won’t work as background detail for a story, though they might serve as a motive for murder.

Notice I began looking for an apple tree but mine was not attractive, and then moved on to other aspects of nature that were less than serene or beautiful. The cozy mystery needs the apple tree in blossom, but a thriller or suspense story needs the scaly fruit tree. Nature offers us both (and a lot in between) and as writers we choose aspects of the natural world to signal theme, tone, mood. I plan to get those diseased decorative trees into a story very soon. The turkeys are more likely to find their way into a humorous story, perhaps fleeing a homeowner determined to get rid of them. I’ll enjoy writing that one. And then I’ll talk about the rabbits that are now everywhere.

Tactile Pleasure of Mystery Writing

For the last several months I’ve been rewriting a mystery from first person to third. This was more fun and more rewarding than I at first expected and I’m pleased with the results. One of the best parts of the work was rearranging the plot and reworking and developing the subplot. I have a general rule that when this part of writing a mystery gets tedious, then it’s time to start over. That didn’t happen this time, and I enjoyed one of my favorite aspects of crime writing.

Setting up and working out a mystery is for me the same as working out a puzzle, or finding a new tool and learning how it works. I like moving pieces around, setting up clues, keeping track of lines of dialogue that can be used later, reworking a clue, slotting in hints in dialogue to guide or mislead the reader, or lifting and replacing scenes. Dorothy L. Sayers called this process of working out a plot a “tactile” pleasure, and indeed it is. I’m not talking about notecards; I’m talking about the mind’s perception that the hands, fingers, are moving physical items around on a surface.

Some years ago, I signed up for a design course to learn more about how designers work to help me think about book covers. It was a revelation. Never had I more truly understood the difference between a writer’s mind and that of a designer. The first lesson was to use our names in a design as a way to introduce ourselves. I fussed for days over fonts, letter placement (vertical or horizontal), and more unimaginative details.

The student work I remember best was a drawing of the letters of his name tumbling out of a cornucopia in random order. I never produced anything equal to the work of the other students but I learned to release objects as well as ideas from their given, or assumed, boundaries. Which, when you come to think about it, is kin to what’s happening in crime fiction—individuals breaking rules and crossing lines, violating boundaries and challenging others to contain them.

The term “boundaries” has come to mean an emotional guide we use to protect ourselves from others or establish areas where connection is possible. We establish rules of interacting, and talk at length about how to do this. But boundaries are also physical, lines on a map drawn between nations or neighbors. We think of them as fixed, but experience tells us they’re not. Mystery writers have no trouble rearranging the world to suit our purposes. It makes me think of Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill at the Yalta Conference in 1945, rearranging the map of Europe before the war was officially over.

Rearranging a plot is rarely so significant as Yalta but slipping the pieces out of logical, rational place can produce the startling results that jiggle the brain out of its comfortable path. Examples abound in the work of Anthony Berkeley, a writer of the Golden Age, in his repeated challenges to the idea of justice and the issue of justified homicide. By seeing an encounter between two people in terms of its individual steps, the writer can pull apart the entire progress and rearrange the steps into a challenge to the standard perceptions of crime and violence. Every time a writer makes a change in the story, no matter how minor, she is turning what is regarded as a straightforward crime into a plot, and leading the reader to break established boundaries and ways of thinking about a particular event. This is a useful skill that might well be applied to all areas of life.

From First to Third

Since publishing my first mystery in 1993, my preferred point of view has always been third person. In the Mellingham/Chief Joe Silva series I used multiple points of view, and in the Anita Ray series and later the Felicity O’Brien series I used only one. All were third person. But a few years ago I wanted to try first person, and started a stand-alone. After numerous rewrites I had something my agent liked, and out it went to editors, where it has died a pandemic death of neglect.

While I’ve been waiting for responses I’ve had time to think about all the parts of the story I couldn’t tell because I’d committed myself to first person and one main character. I had no interest in adding other points of view in either first or third, but the initially quiet moments of dissatisfaction at what I’d left out grew and I wondered what it would have been like to write the story in third person. Immediately I was reminded of why I liked that particular voice—for the intimacy and also the flexibility it allowed me as the narrator. And that did it. I decided to rewrite the mystery in third person.

Over the years I’ve heard plenty of writers groan about an editor’s or agent’s suggestion that they rewrite the entire book from first to third (or third to first), always with the reminder drumming in their brain that this means more than changing “I” to “she” (or “she” to “I”), along with all the other pronouns as well as correcting the verbs. But the thought of what I could also do prodded me forward and I began. The first discovery was the opening. I needed a different opening, and once I began that I could feel the difference in how the story would unfold.

One of the reasons I’ve avoided first person for so many years comes down to the voice. Too many of the voices in crime fiction seem flip, sarcastic, chip-on-the-shoulder tough, the teenage swagger, a voice that doesn’t sound authentic to me and one I didn’t want to imitate. The strongest people I know are also the gentlest, and that was something I couldn’t seem to capture in first person, at least to my satisfaction. Now that I’ve moved back to third person I feel the other characters opening up, and exploring them more has given the story new dimensions that I’m eager to learn and write about.

In some parts of the novel I’m rewriting an entire chapter—the same plot steps but rewritten line by line. I’ve added new scenes and chapters, but in other instances all I’m doing is changing pronouns and verbs or crossing out entire paragraphs or scenes.

When I began the rewrite I thought about how much work it would be, but still I was curious. I wondered if I’d get bored or frustrated reworking a story whose characters and details I already knew too well. But once I got into a new perspective on the main character, much of the story began to feel new to me (and much of it is new to me). I’m energized every morning as I sit down to work. The characters and plot are the same, but this mystery unfolds like an entirely new experience. For once I’m not cursing the pandemic; it has given me the time to rethink and rewrite a story I care deeply about and want to see succeed. And when this is rewrite is done, I want the pandemic to be over so my new novel can go out into the world and be read by others.

It’s Awkward

Once a month I appear on this blog, so I have about four weeks to think of what I want to say. Most of the time I have no problem coming up with an opinion on anything, but shaking loose an idea I want to explore and spend time with that will benefit other writers, even if it’s short, is harder.

My first idea usually gets shelved. This month I considered writing about Beta readers because two experiences from my earlier years came to mind. A friend who wasn’t someone I considered a book person asked about what I was working on. He asked to read it when it was ready. When I had a pretty good draft (perhaps fourth or fifth), I gave it to him. He gave me lots of notes and conversation, and a year later I reworked the story. He again asked about it, so I showed it to him. This time he didn’t like it at all even though it was essentially the same book. He took exception to things he liked the first time around and passed over things that excited him before. Okay. I don’t know what this means except that he changed in the interval, and first impressions are more useful than second impressions. I shelved that blog.

Than I moved on to the idea of reviewing. This is tricky for a writer reviewing in her genre, so after reviewing numerous titles in the 1980s and 1990s for all sorts of journals–The Drood Review of Mystery, Mystery Scene, and Publishers Weekly among them, and later Audible–I gave it up for the simple reason that it became too awkward. After attending a few conferences, including Malice Domestic and Bouchercon, as well as Crime Bake later, I knew too many writers whose books I loved as a reader but could see flaws in as a reviewer. Awkward for sure. End of that topic.

The pandemic is still with us but I’ve already posted about it twice and I’m sick of it. You may be too. I don’t know anyone who isn’t. How is it affecting my work? Hard to say, though I expect we’ll all discover in a year or two that we were in a fog for almost a year and we’ll look back on these months with their fears and restrictions and wonder why we did the things we did. It will be, yes, awkward. Enough of that topic.

And then we come to words. I love words. Nothing new there. I also love my dictionary (Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, second college edition, printed on lovely onion skin paper), which comes with etymologies. The “Guide to the Dictionary” is a six-page explanation of the construction of the entry, all those little bits we lump together as the definition. My favorite line in this guide is “In no case is the first spelling considered ‘more correct’ or the one necessarily to be preferred.” There are also several pages on language, including English, and more on Americanisms. I’m enjoying myself but I’m not sure another reader would be. Time for another topic.

Editing is always a reliable subject because, Lordy knows, we writers do enough of it and we’re always looking for ways to be more efficient. I’d love to be able to write and construct a story well enough not to have to all but rewrite the damn thing during the editing process. I think of the standard advice, When in doubt, throw it out. The trouble with that advice is that it calls to mind a note on an article I sent to a publisher. It “didn’t fit” their journal so they sent it back, but in the notes a reader and editor left was the comment, “This is an excellent sentence.” I found the passage and read it. It read like all my other sentences. What was so special about this one? After turning to it every year or so, I still don’t know. It just looks like all the other passages in that article (still unpublished), so I seem to have not only no advice on editing but also no sense of what to edit. End of topic.

So here I sit at 7:30 on Saturday morning without a topic for my blog post. You’ll just have to tolerate my ineptness today, and I hope to do better next month. Yes, I know, it’s awkward.

Writer’s Block or Writer’s Rest

During the last month or so my mind has been a blank. I haven’t had a single new idea and have plodded forward on the fiction I’ve been working on—editing and proofing—all the while wondering where I would be when this work was finished. This is called writer’s block, but I have learned to call it Writer’s Rest.

At first I called it a drought. I felt dry, used up, empty, as though I had reached the end of the line, the finish line for fiction, the moment when I retire and try something else. Photography? Embroidery? Gardening? Sleeping? I’ve been dabbling in these for years. Was one of them about to take center stage? Unlikely. I began writing as a teenager and knew at once that this was something I had to do. The desire was far stronger than something I wanted to do. It was something I had to do, something I could not not do.

Over the years I’ve become accustomed to my personal quirks and mostly learned to live with them. Inspiration comes in the form of a general idea for a short story or a novel, the vivid image of a person or a situation from which a character emerges. In the AHMM July/August 2020 issue is my story “The Pledge.” The idea came from a news report of a police chief talking about a young man from the Midwest who got himself into trouble in the winter because he couldn’t read the landscape—what looked familiar to his rural eyes was quite different in New England. The police chief’s comments remained with me until the story idea shook them into shape.

In another short story I was struck by the relatives of a foster child who tolerated him but didn’t really want him around. He showed up after school and lingered till he was sent home at dark. This seemed cruel until it occurred to me there might be a reason for their awkwardness. From that came “Just Another Runaway” in AHMM November/December 2019.

These and other story ideas show up on their own, not when I’m rattling around at my desk looking for a good writing prompt and definitely not when I’m trying to force an idea into existence. Since I’m writing every day, you might say I always have a writing prompt in progress so what need do I have for more? Well, how about the moment Writer’s Block hits?

My suggestion in this post is different. It is to think about the purpose of a month or perhaps only a week of writer’s block. While I’m fretting about coming to the end of my career, my unconscious is rearranging the snippets of life I’ve collected and looking for something interesting, intriguing, riveting, revealing. My unconscious is at work creating while I’m fretting consciously about losing my imagination to ageing or boredom or something else.

While I typed the first few words of this blog post I got an idea for a short story and had to stop to write it down. Fifty years ago I met a Catholic priest who had such a clear dislike for secular women (and perhaps women religious as well, though I can’t say) that I had to force myself to keep appointments with him and conduct the business I was required to do. That kind of experience remains with you, and as I began typing this evening, the story revolving around him finally came to me. I’ve waited for a long time for this. After fifty plus years I’m going to get that man out of my head, and in a way that preserves his offensive biases and the damage they can do.

When I’m not obsessed with it, Writer’s Block is nothing more for me than the required rest for my unconscious to work out problems and deliver the results to my conscious mind. Sometimes a number of ideas arrive all at once in an afternoon, so I spend a few days trying them out. Do they resonate with something I learned or experienced recently? Do they give me a new way of looking at someone or a particular problem? Do I feel this will lead to personal discovery and deepen my understanding of a character? By asking these questions I get deeper into the idea and discover if it will sustain attention over several pages or thousands of words. Is there a story here worth the effort? Am I drawn in deeper just by thinking about it? If the idea falls apart on closer inspection, then I’m glad to let it go. But if it rewards me with twists and surprises, then I’m glad to write out a short paragraph about it and think about when I can begin work.

My drought, or Writer’s Rest, has ended. It came to an end while I was preparing this blog post and left me an idea for a short story featuring Ginny Means, a social worker, and a novel featuring a fortuneteller who has more talent than she realizes. I’d say that’s a pretty good ending to what can be a grim time.

The Question of the Victim

One of the first ideas that come to me when I begin a novel or short story is the identity of the villain. As soon as the basic scene takes shape, the victim is the first of the characters to gain a sharp outline in my imagination. The villain, among several possibilities, is the last to be identified.

The selection of both victim and villain allow me to explore various questions, but in the beginning I was mostly interested in mastering the form and telling a particular kind of story.

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In the cozy mystery, the victim tends to be “the person we love to hate,” the obnoxious neighbor or underhanded business partner, especially the philandering husband or the domineering departmental supervisor. No one misses them, or is sad to see them go. In my first mystery, Murder in Mellingham, Beth O’Donnell made everyone cringe with her sarcastic and cutting remarks, a bully though diminutive in every other way. With the victim neatly dispatched emotionally for the audience, the reader concentrates on those around her. But as the series progressed I wanted the victim to play a more complicated role.

Kali_Front

Setting a murder mystery in an exotic location (to us, the outsiders) offers new possibilities, and I took the opportunity to present a victim who was admired and mourned. Jean is an American nurse traveling through India on her way to Burma, or Myanmar, with a plan to be smuggled in to work in a clandestine clinic in the jungle. This will be her second trip, and she has come prepared with medicine and equipment. Who would want to kill her and thwart her humanitarian work? In Under the Eye of Kali, Jean disappears and is later found dead. Her openness about her plans seems to suggest smugglers or ordinary thieves could be the culprits. We care more about who the villain is because we care more about Jean.

Below the Tree Line

In the first Pioneer Valley entry, Below the Tree Line, Felicity O’Brien finds a young woman she’s only met once dead in her woods. This is the first of two deaths, neither of which fall into the category of expected victims. The reader has no reason to hate either woman, and the convenient category of the cozy victim has no role here. There can be no ambiguity about the death of either woman, and thus no pleasure in the reader at the elimination of an odious character.

The choice of victim tells the reader several things, but mostly what our own values are as we come to know the character and gradually discern the shape of his or her life. We conveniently agree that the obnoxious victim in the cozy got what he or she deserved; we admire the sleuth who tracks down the killer of a virtuous person risking her life for others; and we agree there can be no justification for killing an innocent person.

Crime fiction or mystery fiction opens for discussion and exploration our basic principles and beliefs. In Modus Operandi, Robin Winks, the late reviewer of and writer about this genre, was eloquent on this point. “Ultimately one reads detective fiction because it involves judgments—judgments made, passed upon, tested. In raising questions about purpose, it raises questions about cause and effect. In the end, like history, such fiction appears to, and occasionally does, decode the environment; appears to and occasionally does tell one what to do; appears to and occasionally does set the record straight. Setting the record straight ought to matter.”

One Writer’s Thoughts on the Pandemic by Susan Oleksiw

This post was supposed to be about setting, but while I was working on my current project I came to a scene in which the character had undergone a significant change. I wondered how to present this. Should I explain the loss of the job as the result of the Covid-19 lockdown? Or should I just leave it as an ordinary layoff? I posed the question as a general one on my FB page and as of this writing 24 writers have made comments. I’m not the only one thinking about this issue.

One of the strengths of crime fiction, and traditional mysteries in particular, is the precise way authors describe a world. Crime fiction is dependent on an accurate presentation of reality, even when that reality is far-fetched–from the deadly allergy to the fragrance of roses to the importance of the tides. We look for this in our favorite books whatever the subgenre. You may think about the yarn shop where a charming owner gives knitting lessons–to the reader as well as the characters, with knitting instructions at the end. Or perhaps you prefer the cooking mysteries with recipes and menus. I enjoy these too but in this instance I’m thinking about something less obvious but equally significant for the story.

Over fifty-five years, Agatha Christie set many of her mysteries in English villages, so richly described that even now many of us Anglophiles still think of a Christie or Miss Marple village as the definition of English country life. But this would be only half the picture. Christie depicted the world she lived in, and then added a murder and an amateur sleuth. Her sleuths and murders weren’t realistic but her descriptions of the village was. So much so that we can read her mysteries to study the historic changes in English rural life. The tidy village streets with modest homes radiating out from the center are soon dotted with high-rises for low-income and lavish homes for the newly rich after World War Two. The farmers and tradespeople are soon joined by British civil servants and military back from the outer reaches of the Empire and immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa, and South Asia. She would not have set a book in 1943 and failed to mention the war, nor would a story set between the wars have been complete without a Colonel somewhere in the mix. She used technology as do we, relying on one in particular in her most famous novel.

The pandemic of 2020 will fold itself into history, just as 9/11 has, but it would be foolish to think that readers won’t recognize these dates if they show up in a story. If we ignore the changes the disease is making to our daily lives, will our stories be anachronisms? Can you write a mystery today without recognizing the change in the US population? Reading a novel in any genre in which every character is a WASP would be unbelievable today, and a character’s African-American heritage will not necessarily have anything to do with the plot. In some parts of the country you would be hard-pressed to get through the day without hearing at least one foreign language or seeing a few young people walking down the street with their eyes on their cell phones. These are the details that ground a story and make the world believable.

For some readers the current circumstances are too extreme to explore in literature, and they don’t want to read about it. Plenty of writers don’t want to write about it either. It will probably be several months or even a year before we see the first pandemic stories, but until then each one of us has to decide whether or not to use the new ways of managing day to day life as background for a story or as part of the circumstances determining a crime and its solution. I don’t have the answer and probably won’t have one, at least for me, until I reach the end of my current work. I write in uncertainty, just as today we’re living in it.

 

 

The Writer during a Pandemic by Susan Oleksiw

Recently a number of writers chattered on line about writing a story during the coronavirus pandemic. I haven’t considered it yet, but I have noticed the details that signal the changes to my community, and these would probably appear in anything I wrote.

At first I thought the directions to pull back, self-isolate, etc., would lead to obvious changes, that the world would look startlingly different. But that hasn’t been the case. The world closed in gradually. Stay six-feet away from people; close the schools and study on line; work from home if you can. That all made sense. But the changes were more subtle.

Far fewer cars pass our house, and when I walk in the morning I’m struck by how many cars sit in driveways. They were usually gone by eight, and almost always by nine. Now they’re packed in. The streets are nearly empty, and on the rare day when cars are parked on a side street, I know that someone is ignoring the rules to stay inside and has gone visiting.

Most people I encounter seem to be following the rules; a few are nonchalant, letting masks fall, rubbing their eyes; others are defiant or oblivious. In a doctor’s office, twelve patients sat next to each other because there weren’t enough chairs to sit six feet apart. No one smiled, no one read a magazine, and no one escaped into their cell. People sat rigidly in their seats, keeping an eye on each other. No one sneezed, coughed, sniffled.

One morning a young mother parked on a side street, hustled three children out of her car, and followed them down the street to a house around the corner (no parking on that street). A play date? Home schooling?

To counteract boredom, neighbors organized an art project, setting children to decorate their front doors. The goal is to give them something to do, and demonstrate that the community is working together even though they can’t play with their friends at this time. The dark side of this is the closing of playgrounds, where caution tape around swings makes the point in a different way.

Before the virus, late at night the bright lights of an alarm-silent police car or fire engine might wake me up. But not now. Far fewer police cars and fire engines fly past the house day or night. Throughout the city sirens are mostly silent. This may not mean less crime; perhaps the police have been hit by the virus and fewer men and women are available to answer the call. A 911 call that once took ten minutes three months ago might now take forty. And no cars have been on the road around five or six in the morning. Most workers have no early shifts to get to.

Our main street is shuttered, restaurants closed, few of them doing take-out. The train doesn’t rumble by in the distance at expected times; the schedule has been changed to a weekend schedule except for an increase in early morning trains to get workers into the city for the early shift change at medical centers.

The newspaper arrives, the trash is picked up, grocery stores are reasonably well stocked. But in all, the salad bar, fruit bar, and soup bar are closed, and in some stores all vegetables are now wrapped. No one gets to choose how many green beans she wants, or how many shallots. The bakery no longer puts out a tray of pieces of a new cake or cookie for customers to try.

These are the obvious changes. The less obvious are the more dangerous, and those arising from people who flout the governor’s directives are even worse. A husband who has threatened his wife before is confined with her in a small home in the woods. Young children in a family with an older brother who bullies them have no way to escape. A landlord who cares little for his tenants’ problems quotes the president announcing the situation is under control; time to go back to work and pay rent. A small business owner dependent on crafts made and supplied by women working at home takes in inventory–and resells it without keeping records. A woman who turns sixty-five in a month can’t reach any of her utilities to fight a shut-off notice.

These are real situations whose danger is amplified by our unusual circumstances in winter 2020. These are the stories we’ll write some day.

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.