Where In The World Are We?


Eudora Welty (1909 – 2001), writer of stories set in the American South, famously said, “Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else… Fiction depends for its life on place.”

This is true. The setting of a story determines the plot and shapes the characters. Would Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, for example, have developed her keen sense of evil if she lived in London rather than the village of St. Mary Mead? Could George Simenon’s Inspector Maigret exist anywhere other than mid-twentieth-century Paris?

Setting has often been described as another character in the novel. Think of the Bates Motel in Robert Bloch’s Psycho. Or the Transylvanian countryside in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The setting of a novel is a physical world created by the author with sights, sounds, smells, textures, and colors. Setting is a picture painted with the medium of language. In modern fiction the brush strokes tend to be layered lightly, allowing the imagination of the reader to fill in the blanks.

In general, there are three kinds of setting in fiction.

1. Imaginary: Sometimes (as in fantasy) the world of the novel is created out of whole cloth, bearing little resemblance to the world in which we live. In this case, the author must give readers the “rules”—i.e., the way things work in that world. Is gravity a factor as it is on earth? Is the atmosphere air or water? The setting of the imaginary world can help the protagonist or hinder him.

2. Fictional: Sometimes the setting of a novel is fictional but very much like a place the reader knows or could know. The setting of my mystery, The Secret of Lanark Island, for example, doesn’t exist but very well could. The benefit of a fictional setting is that the author is free to paint in rivers or mountains or castles or trailer parks—whatever works to serve the story.

3. Real: Some novels are set in real places like Stockholm, Sweden, or Savannah, Georgia, or Quebec, Canada. When the setting is a real place, the author must work hard to get the details right. For example, if your main character, a New York City detective, is driving north on Second Avenue, he’s going the wrong way on a one-way street. Mistakes will be noticed and angry emails received. Thank goodness for Google maps!

IMG_4290 Place is important in real life, too. Yesterday I drove eleven hours from the city where I live most of the year to a cottage on a lake where I will write full-time for two months. It’s not that I can’t write at home (I do), but I write more easily here. Why? Is it a case of fewer distractions or is it the lake that I see from my computer desk? I don’t know, but my goal this summer is to finish what I fondly call my “final revision.” Then, let the query process begin! Now that really is an unknown land.

1816: The Year Without A Summer


Have I missed something? It is mid-May, right? 

Two days ago I received an email from an English mystery-writer friend who is vacationing in Colorado after the Malice Domestic convention. “It’s snowing here,” she wrote. This morning I awoke to a weather report forecasting below-freezing temperatures in many parts of the upper Midwest. Including the part where I live. The winter of 2013 is going down in memory as The Winter That Refused To Go Away. 

At least things aren’t as bad as they were in 1816—at least not yet. That year is known as The Year Without a Summer or The Summer That Never Was or Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death. The unusually cold weather in 1816 was felt across the northern hemisphere but had the greatest impact in the northeastern United States, Atlantic Canada, and parts of western Europe. 

In New England, the summer of 1816 witnessed snowfalls in May, June, and even early July. These were followed by nighttime frosts in July and August and killing frosts by early September. Crops failed, and food shortages led to the first mass migration from New England to the Midwest, shifting the center of farming in the U.S. forever. In Europe there were food riots. At least 200,000 died from hunger and a severe typhus epidemic. 

So what caused the unusual weather in 1816? At the time, some blamed it on God’s displeasure with the War of 1812 (which lasted until February of 1814). Others blamed it on Benjamin Franklin’s crazy experiments with lightning rods and electricity.  

Today, climate studies indicate that 1816 was the culmination of a “mini ice age” that lasted from 1400 to around 1860. In addition, the eruption on April 15, 1815, of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia spewed an estimated 1.7 million tons of ash into the atmosphere.  

Every cloud has a silver lining, they say.  

High levels of volcanic ash in the atmosphere led to unusually beautiful sunsets as captured in the paintings of J. M. W. Turner. The lack of oats to feed horses gave the German inventor Karl Drais the brilliant idea for the “velocipede,” a method of horseless transportation that led to the modern bicycle. And the cold, wet weather kept Mary Shelley and a group of literary friends cooped up during a Swiss alpine holiday. To redeem the time, someone proposed a contest to see who could write the scariest story. Shelly’s offering was her novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Lord Byron’s was “A Fragment,” a short story which later inspired Polidori’s The Vampyre, a precursor to Dracula. 

I’m looking for the silver lining this summer. Maybe I’ll get a lot of writing done.

Return From Malice

I just returned fromMalicebanner Malice Domestic, the gathering held each spring near Washington, D.C. for fans and writers of the traditional mystery. A recently published compendium of Malice’s twenty-five-year history is entitled, Not Everyone’s Cup of Tea. Maybe not, but traditional mysteries certainly are mine. 

I’ve been reading mysteries all my life, beginning with Nancy Drew and going on to the likes of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, and Cyril Hart. When I’d read all there is to read of these classics, I began to mine gold in more modern practitioners of the craft. Now I’m writing mysteries myself, the kind I like to read, where the puzzle is the main thing and violence and sex are mainly “off stage.” 

Here’s my problem: there are just too many good mysteries out there. My “to be read” pile is now twice as long as it was before Malice. I’m losing ground, but happily so because I can afford to be choosy.  

Here are some of the new mysteries I’ve added to my already extensive reading queue:

   All of the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books by Laurie King

  All of the Inspector Banks series by Peter Robinson (soon on BBC)          

   A Dangerous Talent by Aaron and Charlotte Elkins 

   The Twelve Clues of Christmas by Rhys Bowen

    Killer in Crinolines by Duffy Brown

    Dandy Gilver and an Unsuitable Day for a Murder by Catriona McPherson

        The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

          Low Country Boil by Susan M. Boyer

      Fatal Winter by G. M. Malliet

      The Other Woman by Hank Phillippi Ryan

      Artifact by Gigi Pandian

      Whatever Charles Todd writes next 

The interesting thing about mystery writers is that, while they plot ingenious methods of killing off their characters, they are some of the nicest people you’d ever meet. One of the nicest is Carolyn Hart, this year’s winner of the Amelia Award (named after Elizabeth Peters’ most famous creation, Amelia Peabody). In her acceptance speech, Ms. Hart said that the traditional mystery appeals to those who wish the world to be a place where evil good triumphs in the end.  

Long live the traditional mystery! And may good triumph, not just in books but all over our world.