Where your murder happens.
What makes setting an essential character.
The mysteries I love the most are the ones where the setting is an essential part of the story.
Brunetti couldn’t solve crime anywhere but Venice and the surrounding towns in Italy. Gamache must be in Montreal and, most often, in Three Pines the deadliest small town in the province, it seems. A more recent discovery, The Below Stairs Mysteries by Jennifer Ashley feature an amateur sleuth who works as the cook in a series of wealthy households in pre-war London. I get hungry hearing about what she prepares and it adds to the mystery as well. (Plenty of poisoning happening in these)
I was lucky enough to get to spend four days in Glasgow this past weekend, which served as both a visit with family, who were also there on holiday, and location research for the opening scenes of my mystery.
Given that mine will be set in roughly pre-corona present day, walking around Glasgow was a good dose of the personality of the city as I will portray it.
If you plan to visit your location in person, here are a few tips to get the most of the time there:
Walk as much as you’re able to. If walking isn’t possible, take aboveground transport such as a bus, or a cab. We had several wonderful chatty drivers during our stay that shared trivia, tips, and history simply out of kindness and love of their city.
Take a walking tour. Most cities will have an inexpensive option to get to a deeper level. We found an option on trip advisor and spent an hour and a half with a historian who’s family had lived in Glasgow for seven generations and knew stories it would have taken me months in a library to find. If you’re writing historical, try to get a tour that includes a period residence or public building. A guide who can peel back the layers of time will have you on the right track quickly.
Go beyond tourist spots. We decided to explore the Barras Market and two members of hotel staff as well as our cab driver all tried to talk us out of going. They thought it was too shady and one person made us swear we wouldn’t buy anything. No one thought it was unsafe, just not worth the time. When writing murder mystery, these are the locations you want to visit. I’m not sure how the Barras will feature in my book, but the twenty minutes wandering through the stalls meant I have details ready to go should I need it.
Note the absurd or unusual and ask questions. The statue above sits in front of the contemporary art museum in Glasgow and the decorated cone on his head is a tradition. No one has ever been arrested for doing this, but each season the cone is decorated corresponding to what holiday is being celebrated, including national sports matches. Finding quirky details specific to your location will bring the story to life.
Peoplewatching encouraged. There is nothing better than sitting in a cafe and spying on people. Need dialogue that reflects your location? Want to describe what people are wearing accurately? Building local characters? Get a hot drink or something at a pub with sidewalk seating, open your notebook and drink in the abundance.
Of course, it’s not always possible to visit the places we write about in person, but when you can, wandering and drinking in the atmosphere will infuse your writing tremendously.
Should it not be possible, there are other ways to get the flavor. YouTube has a surprising amount of ambient video. For example, one was simply walking around in Berlin in the rain. It did capture much of the feeling of the place as well. So a quick search of your desired location online + “YouTube” or “video” may turn up gold.
For character and dialogue, TuneIn Radio includes channels all over the world. Listening to stations and news programs can give you a lot of dialogue clues as well as a sense of the place. Podcasts based from that location are even better for getting slang and personality for characters, so searching for “podcast+location” can give you a good place to start.
Films and television can help, but I prefer to hear from acutal people in the location to get a more direct impression.
Where are your stories set, or what locations do you most love to read books set in? Let me know in the comments.
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