The picturesque St. Mary Mead village created by Agatha Christie. Sue Grafton’s Santa Barbara, aka Santa Theresa. Louise Penny’s Three Pines in the woods of the Quebec province. (Which is kind of like a French-Canadian St. Mary’s Mead, isn’t it?) Setting paints a picture in any mystery, and the Chicks weigh in on how it affects what we write and what we read.
So, one of the “rules” of cozy mysteries is that they’re usually in a small town or village with the same cast of characters in each book. Did I know that when I set out to write a cozy about a destination wedding planner? I did not. So, here I am, writing about a different location for each book, blatantly flouting the cozy rules and hoping the vicarious thrill of travel is enough to make up for it. First book? San Miguel de Allende, a small colonial town in Mexico. Second book? The California wine country. Third book? I’m thinking Hawaii. Basically, anywhere you’d want to throw a wedding is fair game. The downside of this approach is that I’ll never have an iconic setting that I’m known for. On the plus side, think of the research trips!
Someone asked me recently if I visit all the places I write about. Definitely! If there’s one thing I learned from being a travel writer, it’s that you really can’t fake it if you’re writing about a real place. That’s why I spent the last week in Hawaii, drinking Mai Tais, hiking along lava beds and snorkeling as often as surf conditions would allow. While it would have been a lot easier to make up a small town where the details were up to me, doing all this “research” sure is a lot of fun!
I’m ever fascinated by settings that are too perfect to be true. Visiting them in books makes for a lovely vacay, of course. All those endless shovelfuls of corpses beneath the warm sand and shady trees and neat picket fences draped in aromatic roses are merely a bonus. (Cabot Cove, 911. What is the nature of your emergency?) The thing is, I’m easily terrified, as I may have mentioned. But I lived in New York City for many years and I was never scared about traipsing around at night. Maybe I should set my next book there, because Florida, where the Ladies Smythe & Westin are up to their designer hats in murders, may be getting a little too dangerous, in my book.
For me, mysteries are like a vacation with murder. (Similar to my childhood family trips, where we somehow managed not to actually kill each other.) I love dropping into G.M. Malliet’s Nether Monkslip or M.C. Beaton’s Scotland. Alyssa Maxwell’s Gilded Newport series transports me to the ornate “cottages” my family toured when I was a kid. And both Rhys Bowen and Victoria Thompson take me back to the turn-of-the-century Manhattan of my grandmother’s youth. I’ve always been fascinated by what the city was like during that time and through their books, I get at least a wee taste of it.
When I created Pelican, Louisiana, in my Cajun Country Mystery series, I strove to give readers the kind of setting and atmosphere that I crave from a book. As I write this I think, am I weird? No matter how lovely the location, people die in mysteries. Why do I feel like I’m escaping into some bucolic world when I read them? I don’t know. But what I do know is that when I daydream about writing another series, I see it set in a version of Cambria, California, a charming seaside town that provides visitors—and readers—with the perfect vacation escape. And eventually, perhaps the occasional murder!
Readers, drop us a note in the comments below! What’s your favorite series location? And where do you think Marla should set her next book?
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