Three Things to Consider for Your Story Setting

Art Hill, Forest Park, St Louis, Missouri, Art Museum
Across the lagoon . . . a forest!

Tonight, I was chatting with a group of my fellow authors about mystery writing. They’ve all completed and published mysteries. I’m working on my first cozy.

One of the things we discussed was what annoys us enough to quit reading.  One woman mentioned that she grew up in New Orleans so when she read a mystery in which the character stares out the window at the hills of New Orleans, she put the book down. Apparently New Orleans has one hill.  It is manmade.

I had a similar experience reading a mystery when the body was found in the tree line beside the St. Louis Art Museum.  The author had done enough research to know the museum is located in Forest Park but not enough to know that the forest does not come that close to the museum.  Back in the library bag it went.  And that leads us to the #1 thing to consider when creating your setting.

1. If you don’t know this setting like the back of your hand, using it might be a huge mistake.

The devil is, as they say, in the details.  You can find a lot of information online and Google Earth is a huge help.  But if you’ve never been there you are taking a chance.  What looks like a hill on Google Earth, may be something else entirely.

2. Making a setting up is 100% legitimate.

If you are setting your story in a real city and you need it to take 45 minutes to drive across town, you are simply out of luck if it only takes 30.  The same holds true for a real building.  If you need three floors and no more, but the building you are setting your story in is only two, that’s going to be a problem.

The solution?  Create a location that is just as fictional as your story.  You can make the city as large and the building as tall as your story requires.

3. Even a fictional setting can half real-life components.

I didn’t want to set my cozy in the city where I live, but I am using certain buildings as locations in my setting.  A church and a historic school house that I’ve actually visited have found their way onto the page.  By migrating a real place into my story, I can draw on the details that I observed while singing in a Christmas program, helping set up a wedding reception, or attending a punch and cookie event.  These details will help my settings feel as real as the places that inspired them.

–SueBE