When Agatha Christie introduced an eager world to the Cozy Mystery, she knew how important settings were. She made readers feel the hot desert sun of an archeology dig and the opulence of a country estate whose host was about to be poisoned. She took us for an exotic ride on the Orient Express.
But she also created cozy places like St. Mary Meade that we wanted to keep returning to. When I started writing the Delhi Laine mysteries, starting with A NOVEL DEATH, I wanted to create a world that people would find as comfortable as sinking into a warm bath. With a few murders, of course, to spice things up.
I began with the battered farmhouse that Delhi and her in-and-out husband, Colin, rent from the university where he teaches archeology and writes poetry. The kitchen appliances are the original Harvest Gold and work when they feel like it. The living room furnishings of shabby couches and ancestral photographs haven’t changed since their oldest daughter Jane was a toddler. Delhi puzzles things out with a juice glass of wine, curled up in the oversized wing chair.
Out behind the house, beyond the pond, is the barn where Delhi stores the used and rare books she sells on the Internet. It is a retreat, though frightening things have happened to her here, terrible discoveries have been made. Real life goes on in the house as well. That’s my point. A setting should be more than an empty stage set, more than a backdrop for the characters, lit up when they are on stage, then darkened again. Where people live needs to have history and emotional resonance.
Then there’s Port Lewis, the Long Island town on the water where Delhi lives. It bears a strong resemblance to my hometown, Port Jefferson, and people sometimes ask me why I bothered to change the name. I did it for the same reason that Sue Grafton set her Kinsey Millhone novels in Santa Teresa instead of Santa Barbara. I want to have things happen there, to be able to move things around without having someone point out, “But there’s no seafood restaurant on that corner!”
I also try and choose places that I know will be fun to visit. In my newest book, A PHOTOGRAPHIC DEATH, Delhi has to return to Stratford-Upon-Avon in search of what really happened to her missing daughter, Caitlin. I wanted the color and feel of Shakespeare’s home town. I wanted to share the experience of shopping at the Christmas Fair and drinking Strongbow cider in a local pub. It seems to me to make the frightening things that happen there more vivid.
When I’m reading mysteries I want strong characters and an intriguing plot with a satisfying ending. But I want the journey to get there to be comfortable and fun!
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