Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Small Town Settings, Part 1 of 2 Parts

By Sandra Parshall

[Originally published at www.poesdeadlydaughters.blogspot.com]

Agatha Christie didn’t have a lot in common with Grace Metalious of Peyton Place fame, but both ladies understood one thing well: the placid surface of a small community can hide some wickedly entertaining secrets. Christie ensured her own immortality by adding murder to this eternally intriguing milieu.

We may joke about Cabot Cove syndrome – an astronomically high murder rate in a tiny community such as Jessica Fletcher’s home in the Murder, She Wrote series – but readers are more than willing to suspend disbelief in exchange for likable characters, an appealing setting, and lots of juicy small town secrets.

“If I had to choose a favorite sub-category in the mystery field, it would have to be small town mysteries,” DorothyL regular Kaye Barley told me. “I get completely caught up in the intricacies, entanglements, and complexities that exist under the surface in simple, small town living. And if it happens to be a small town in the south -- oh my, that can only ratchet things up. I'm a complete push-over for eccentric southern characters found in small town mystery novels.”

The village has always been a favored site for British mysteries, and M.C. Beaton and others continue that tradition, but U.S. and Canadian cozy writers are probably more successful at making readers fall in love with their settings. From coast to coast, North America is dotted with tiny fictional communities so charming that readers long to set up residence despite the crime rate. “If I thought for one minute that this place really existed,” a reviewer wrote of Louise Penny’s Three Pines, Quebec, “I’d be packing the car.”

Most small towns in mysteries are invented, but writers inevitably draw on their fond memories of actual places.

"I've set the Orchard Mysteries in a small town that is based on a real one I know,” Sheila Connolly says, “although I take liberties with some details like where the highway is. Using this place helps me visualize the story, but I chose it primarily because it is a classic New England town (a town green, big white church, old houses), and the town itself plays a major ongoing role in the books. Now I'm having fun populating the place, a few characters at a time. This parallels my newcomer heroine's process of getting acquainted with her neighbors. So far I haven't created any evil residents--in fact, the ‘real’ police chief wrote me to say he was flattered by my depiction."

Lorna Barrett, who writes the Booktown Mysteries, has also consciously created a setting that readers will find welcoming and soothing, even in the middle of a murder investigation. “My little village of Stoneham is like a character itself,” Lorna says. “From its brick storefronts to its little park with gazebo, it’s a throwback to better times.”

The physical charm of the place is only one plus for writers and readers, though.

“The benefits of a small town setting are bountiful for a cozy-style mystery,” says Mary Ellen Hughes, author of the Craft Corner series. “The suspects are, for one thing, right there, conveniently available to be questioned or watched. Then, your on-going characters get to be familiar and (hopefully) enjoyed, which can bring interested readers back for updates on their lives.”

Denise Swanson, author of the Scumble River series set in Illinois and featuring school psychologist Skye Denison, loves to explore what lies beneath the pretty surface.

“In most small towns there is a tacit agreement to live as an insular society,” Denise says. “Vital components of this agreement are the secrets, assumptions, and shared background knowledge of the citizens. The interrelationships are more intense, because often entire extended families live within the town's boundaries. For story telling, this setting provides both the mystery and the solution. There is a golden opportunity for a story within a story plot, and the public versus the private details are an ideal way for the amateur sleuth to be a credible part of the investigation.”

To be continued....

Top photo: Debnam garden in Apex, NC by Molly Weston.
Bottom photo: Downtown Purcellville, VA by Kathie Felix.

Sandra Parshall is the author of the award-winning Rachel Goddard mysteries; the most recent title in the series is Broken Places. Sandra also serves on the SinC/national board as Chapter Liaison.


Fran Stewart said...

I placed my Biscuit McKee mysteries in a small town simply because I grew up in an Air Force family -- I went to four different schools from 9th to 12th grades. I created Martinsville GA to be the home town I never had (except for those pesky murders, of course).

Anne White said...

Great post on using small towns as settings. The protagonist in my Lake George Mystery Series, Loren Graham, is mayor of fictional Emerald Point, (right near the real lakeside village of Diamond Point) on upstate New York's beautiful lake. Loren can't help getting involved in whatever goes on, esp. in the unreasonably high number of murders, even receives inside info from the sheriff's dep't. After so many murders, I moved a couple off site or Loren would never have been reelected.
Anne White - Cold Winter Nights - Bk 5 of Lake George Mysteries www.annewhitemysteries.com

Victoria said...

I think we, as writers, love writing the small town so much because we get to create a place where we'd live, if we could. My Vintage Kitchen Mystery series location, 'Queensville', is a mixture of small resort towns along the Great Lakes, places I visited and/or stayed as a kid, and adult.

Sandra Parshall said...

I'm very familiar with small towns, and I've never understood why anyone would say it's unrealistic to have murders occur in such a community. When everybody knows everybody else, it makes perfect sense for old grudges and hostilities to flare into violence. And if you're publishing a book a year, that's only one or two murders a year. A reasonable murder rate even for a small town.

Loni Emmert said...

I love the small townn settings which is why I write cozies. In The Leaf Peeper Murders we set it in Button Hollow, New Hampshire a fictional small town loosely based on Center Ossipee, NH where we love to visit. In Lights Camera Murder my "small town" is Hollywood, CA but really the movie studio where most of the action takes place. Movie studios are like 'cities within cities."

Meg Mims said...

Even in big cities, you can have a "small community" - but I prefer the small town or village for writing - especially historical. Thanks for a great post, Sandra!

Jody said...

My mysteries all start in Malibu - a very small town stranded on the tippy edge of a big city. With only 13,000 residents, half of whom are on location at any point of time, there are plenty of strange eccentrics, from hippie surfer dudes who live in battered VW vanagons to agoraphobic celebrities who live up long, winding drives at the top of a hill. Small towns aren't always really rural.