Monday, November 2, 2009

The Where of a Story

Cricket McRae
One of the definitions of cozy mysteries is that they are set in small towns, or at the very least communities small enough to limit the number of characters. Think retirement homes or resorts.

My books, whether I like it or not, are classified as cozies. I insist on calling them contemporary cozies so I don't feel guilty about the occasional bad language or sexual reference. I also address issues like suicide, depression and alcoholism, which once caused a potential blurber to offer me his (polite) refusal rather than the hoped for pithy cover endorsement.

Now, I'm not interested in addressing the whole question of whether "cozy" is a negative appellation or how to define the subgenre. That's been covered ad infinitum on other blogs, DorothyL, etc., and I don't need to add to that particular fray. In fact, this is the last time you will read the word cozy in this post.

Thank God.

Because today I'm thinking about how setting affects story. And here's why: My books are set in the small town of Cadyville, Washington, which is based on the real town of Snohomish, Washington. But my protagonist is originally from the town I now live in which is located in northern Colorado. Well, a fictionalized version of that town. And in the fourth in the series, Something Borrowed, Something Bleu, I bring Sophie Mae back home for a visit.

I thought it would be easy. After all, I live here. How hard could it be?

Pretty darned hard, it turned out.

In the triumvirate of character, plot and setting, setting generally comes in last despite its importance. You can't have a story without a plot, or without characters to enact that plot. Can you have a [good] story without setting? I won't say absolutely no, but it would be quite rare.

Think about the movie Deliverance. Not for too long because I don't want you to get creeped out and move on to the next blog on your list. Could that movie be as effective if it were set in an English village? Or Miami? What about Lord of the Flies set in a sleepy mid western town?

Maybe. Dropping character and plot into an unlikely setting is a way to shake things up or make a point. Romeo and Juliet has been told in countless ways in different settings. And with different characters, for that matter. Hamlet as well. But The Tempest requires the original setting. Midsummer's Night Dream does, too.

I've always enjoyed weaving setting into a story. Description adds depth and atmosphere and evokes the senses, and I love finding just the right telling details. Perhaps writing a series allowed me to get lazy, though. Not in terms of describing setting, but in terms of having to define that setting over and over. The house, the weather, the town of Cadyville -- all are so thoroughly ingrained in my psyche by now that I no longer create details, I merely share them. Of course there are new and different settings in each book, but the basics have remained the same for the first three.

As a reader, consistency of setting is comforting. I'm instantly grounded. Plop me down in Nero Wolfe's brownstone, and I can find my way around. Take Jessica Fletcher out of Cabot Cove and start jetting her around the world, and the show jumps the shark. (Yes. I watched Murder She Wrote. It was about a mystery writer, and I'm not apologizing.)

So it was tricky, getting that sense of the familiar in an unfamiliar place to work in Something Borrowed, Something Bleu. I think I pulled it off, but time will tell. Or rather, my readers will, when it comes out next spring.

What role does setting play in your writing -- and reading?


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Timely post for me, too, Cricket. In Corpse on the Cob, the Odelia Grey novel due out in February, I took my character out of her usual setting of Southern California and plunked her down in rural Massachusetts. Not to invigorate my series, but because the plot required it. And it was tricky to weave a story around Odelia without her usual posse and settings. But as you pointed out, time and readers will tell if it worked.

signlady217 said...

A change of setting worked (at least for me) in Monica Ferris' Crewel Yule, when the main character goes to Nashville from Minnesota. It still involved needlework and two of her friends, so that may be why.

Cricket McRae said...

I remember you mentioned moving Odelia to MA, Sue Ann. I'm sure you handled it deftly.

Signlady217, Sophie Mae took along several of her sidekicks to CO, and that helped keep things familiar.

Lisa Bork said...

I had to look up the definition of "jumps the shark" but, for me, Jessica Fletcher means murder, more than Cabot Cove, Maine. And I think it's more fun hanging out with her wherever she goes than hanging out in Cabot Cove without her.

G.M. Malliet said...

I like a change of scene, as a reader and as a writer. I did like Jessica best of all when she stayed home, tho.

Cricket McRae said...

Ms. Fletcher is certainly more important than her town! It was just disconcerting seeing her truck with millionaires and wearing diamonds. Like the change in setting actually changed the character I liked so much.

Of course the "Jessica Fletcher Syndrome," where you can only explain so many dead bodies in one little town rears its ugly head. (Wasn't there a Left Coast Crime panel one year on how to avoid that?) Even Miss Marple left St. Mary Meade on occasion.

Jessica Lourey said...

Interesting post, Cricket, and before I answer your question, let me say that I love that you have real life, dark issues in your mysteries. If it's easier for the world, categorize them as cozies, but the depth you put in them makes them worth reading.

I've heard the phrase "setting as character," but not until I wrote (am writing) a magical realism novel have I done that. Magical realism allows me to actually let the town the novel is set in be a character with a past and a future and an arc. I didn't intend for it to be that way, but I am happily surprised that it is.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I'm not the best setting writer, I'll admit it. You're right about writing series---it's so much easier not to have to start from scratch with each book. Unless our characters go on a road trip! I think mine will have to in the next WIP. The body count is really piling up.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Cricket McRae said...

Sometimes I have to rewrite because I start out a little too dark, Jess. And how fun that your WIP (or one of them) is magical realism. I love the idea of a "setting arc."

Elizabeth, thanks for that unsettling image of bodies piling up now dominating my mind's eye. ; - )