Set the Stage with Setting
Setting is a novel element that grounds your reader. Without it, your characters are floating in space. It acts like another character in your mystery, providing physical clues. But it also creates atmosphere, reveals character personal traits, and gives your reader a sense of place.
Filmmakers know how important setting is. They scout for the right location for each scene in the film. You can do the same thing for your story.
Every scene in your story takes place somewhere—a busy street in the afternoon, a dark and empty street at night, the protagonist’s kitchen, a suspect’s office.
When you plan out the action of a scene, don’t forget to plan the location.
Author P.D. James believed setting was the spark for a novel.
Something always sparks off a novel, of course. With me, it’s always the setting. I think I have a strong response to what I think of as the ‘spirit of a place.’
You may not start with setting, but you need it every scene.
How to Scout Your Locations
Filmmakers hire people to find the perfect location for story scenes. You can do your own footwork.
If your setting is local, get out with your camera and start collecting images for settings in your story. If friends have the perfect bedroom or kitchen for a scene, be brave with your writing life, ask if you can take photos.
Ask friends, both in real life and online like social media, for location ideas. Independent filmmakers do this with regularity. It works for authors, too.
You may not have physical access to a location, but you can search online for images.
The Story and the Scenes
Once you have a good idea of the overall setting for your story and know the location of each scene, use details to make your settings part of the story.
Rather than long descriptive passages focus on details.
Details bring the scene alive for your readers. They will empathize with the physical and emotional responses your characters experience. Your focus on the details enriches your reader’s sense of place. The details bring them into the story.
Long descriptive passages take readers out of the story. Practice breaking up a long paragraph and, instead, scatter those details throughout the scene. Your reader has a sense of being there, in the scene. Your setting will have a stronger impact than a long description.
Setting Research Pays Off In Your Story
The research you do for settings adds verisimilitude to your story. The details emphasize the unique place—not just any kitchen, but this character’s kitchen.
Setting pulls your reader into the story. The details make each scene come alive. Take the time to locate your settings and add specific details. Your readers will appreciate your work
Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash
Research Before You Write The Story
The first round of research is background material for your story. You may look for settings, hidden alleys, a great beach. Murder weapons or poison. The psychology of being a mistress. How to clean a Glock. Pharmaceutical drug research lab procedures.
Base your research requirements on your story premise.
Gather Broad-base Details
The aim of the first research is to discover background that will enrich the story for your readers. You are in discovery mode. When you find details, store them away. For beginning writers, know that 80% of your research will not show up in your story. The reverse of this that when you want a detail, you will have material to enliven your characters and enrich scenes.
Feet On the Ground
While an online search, will give you generic information, there's nothing like going to the place of your story.
What You Need
It doesn’t take much to explore your story’s location. You’ll need:
Google is a great place to start. But sometimes you need more detail or scholarly background.
Google Scholar gives you access to articles, book excerpts, and abstracts that won’t display in regular search results.
If you can’t get your feet on the ground, Google Earth displays very detailed images of cities and towns. Plug in a zip code or city, to search a certain area.
Need a mansion for a rich villain or a humble condo for your sleuth? Try Redfin. Images of exterior and interiors are yours for the asking. Be sure to save your images to your Research folder. These properties sell.
Books and Print Materials
Build a personal reference collection of books you can grab to enhance your overall knowledge and gather specific details.
As you search for just the right answers you may collect details from many sources: travel brochures, firearm manuals, used bookstores, government websites, maps, documentaries, medical journals, guidebooks, news broadcasts, trade magazines, public trials, almanacs, memoirs, regional histories, and other discoveries you find.
Guidelines for Research
Research can lead you down rabbit holes. You could spend years doing research. Your main goal is to write the story.
Beginning writers can feel that they don’t know enough. You can get trapped in an endless search for more information. Gather basic information and then start writing.
Because you won’t use 80% of the research you’ve done, the best approach is to begin your story.
Let the Story Guide the Research
No matter how much research you do, as you are writing you’ll discover details you want to know. Rather than trying to know everything before you start, do your general background research, then let the story guide the details you need.
As you write, you’ll discover needs you had not imagined. So, instead of attempting to get everything you need, collect general background. The story will tell you the specific details you need.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Derek Pacifico conducting Homicide School for Writers
Real Cop Details in Your Fictional World
Unless you have worked in law enforcement, writing realistic cops for your mystery involves getting to know law, law enforcement procedures, and a realistic picture of how cops think, act, and work.
Reading and online research will give you a general background on how cops operate on a daily basis
Knowing a law enforcement officer who is willing to share details about procedures, daily life, worst case scenarios and the like
is gold. Connect with your local law enforcement agency to find a resource. It may take some doing because cops are busy. Perhaps someone on the team can refer you to a recently retired detective who has more available time.
You’ll be on your way to verisimilitude that engages readers and doesn’t get your book tossed because of inaccurate details.
You may love noir loners who go against all odds and the bad guys, but real cops work as a team and call in professional teams for various aspects of an investigation. You’ll need to know who does what where your fictional cop is located
Procedures vary from big city locations with many personnel
to small town cops who may call in the local sheriff’s department for crime scene details.
Teams that may interact with your fictional cop:
Wherever your detective is located, make sure he is surrounded
by the right colleagues.
Writer Resources from Real Cops
Some cops are willing to share their experience with writers. The following three cops have years of experience and the willingness toshare their knowledge with writers.
B. Adam Richardson a police detective does a lot to actively support
writers in getting their facts right from cop lingo to procedures and jurisdiction. Find him at Writer’s Detective Bureau a podcast with the same name, an email newsletter Writer's Detective APB, and a very active FaceBook group Writer's Detective Q&A community where you can join with other writers to answer questions.
Lee Lofland conducts the Writers’ Police Academy as well as
his website The Graveyard Shift. And, a group to ask specific questions Crimescenewriter2@groups.io.
Police chief and retired homicide detective Derek Pacifico taught interview and interrogation techniques to law enforcement personnel world wide. He offers a course for writers on how to do the same. Writing Fictional Police Interrogations. His book Writers’ Guide to Homicide gives background and provides insights into what cops do when faced with legal parameters.
The forums and Facebook groups are places for you to get specific answers to details you want to include in your story. Responses come from other law enforcement folks, forensic scientists, and other professionals related to solving crime.
Resources like Derek Pacifico will read chapters and passages from your story to ensure you are representing a true-to-life scenario.
First Hand Research
Real cops are the backbone of getting your details right when it comes to writing about cops. You’ll avoid mistakes like having a cop share investigative details with your cozy mystery heroine.
Every novel takes background research. Mysteries often involve cops as well as civilians. Do the background research to make your story realistic and believable. Your readers will appreciate the work you do.
Discoveries I Made While Researching The Peach Widow Background
Every story presents new research challenges when writing an historical mystery. For The Peach Widow I needed background on farm dogs, inheritance law, and natural poisons.
My first challenge was looking for background on inheritance law concerning a second wife and children by a previous marriage. After all the wonderful and informative responses from scholars about the time of Theodoric in Italy, I was frustratedto discover that Roman Law attorneys have no such enthusiasm for writers. Each one I approached did not respond.
When Murder Was Not A Crime
That drove me to more online research. I made a story-changing discovery as I dug deeper. Murder was not a crime.
That means a public crime. No police. No trial. Each family had to deal with the consequences once the murderer was revealed. That gave me a whole new layer for Argolicus as he makes his way discovering a killer. He also had to help the family come to terms with what they could and could not do for recompense.
The Big Farm Dog
The farm dog, Pup, plays a crucial role in the story. I read about Roman farm dogs and discovered the Pup most closely resembles the modern Dogo Argentino, a big dog breed that originated in Argentina.
To arrive at that conclusion I looked at a number of illustrations of both Greek and Roman dogs, read descriptions from the time, and then looked for a modern equivalent.
The Natural Poison
Another challenge was to find a natural poison source that would be readily available to a poor murderer who did not travel far. I needed a substance that grew locally. After researching natural poisons and plants that grow in southern Italy, I identified oleander. I could plant clues early on and bring the poison to light later in the story.
New Year Roman Games: No Lanes. No Rules
STEPPING BACK IN HISTORY TO ANCIENT ROME WITH AUTHOR ZARA ALTAIR
Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in the time of Ostrogoth Rule in Italy in The Argolicus Mysteries. Learn more about her and her books at her website.
The New Year: A Time for Games In Ancient Rome
The latest Argolicus mystery, The Roman Heir, is set in Ostia just outside Rome in January 512 CE. The young heir thinks his greatest problem is getting his father to let him go to the new year Games hosted by the new Consul. His father is viciously murdered and the young man changes from teenager to adult.
The games were extravagant events that went on for days. They were entirely free to the public but cost politicians so much they often went deeply into debt. Chariot races were the main event held at the Circus Maximus, which could hold 250,000 spectators. Aside from the cost of horses, chariots, charioteers, and all of their attendant grooms, the games also provided entertainment with musicians, wild animal hunts, acrobats, and other acts all paid for by the politician.
Even though the Games were held in January, inclement weather like rain or snow did not stop the Games. Whatever the weather, people flocked to the Games for the annual holiday.
Charioteers were like famous sports personalities today, gaining popular support with the people. They belonged to Factions represented by colors. By the time of the story, there were two main Factions - the Greens and the Blues. Loyalty to Factions was strong, often passed down through generations. Enthusiasm and support for Factions was high-strung resulting in fistfights in pubs and street fights much like soccer team support today. The closest modern day example of the fervor is the Palio horserace in Siena, Italy, where faction loyalty consumes the city.
The charioteers wore Faction colored jackets over their tunics so they were easily identified by the spectators. Around their waist was an arrangement of leather straps that protected them from the reins of the four horses. The reins wrapped around the charioteer’s waist. He guided the horses around the dangerous turns at each end of the Circus Maximus by leaning his body.
The Passion of the Games
The passion of the games were a mammoth spectacle that began with a parade of the game’s sponsor with musicians, acrobats, mounted guards, etc. Faction members held traditional positions to spur the crowd to cheers with chants and loud noisemakers.
Crowds loved the chariot races as there were no lanes and no rules. With 24 races every day, the Games were filled with excitement, drawing people from outside the city to celebrate the holidays. Chariot races were filled with danger. Wheels fell off, and charioteers lost their balance on the lightweight wood and leather chariots and were dragged behind the running horses by the reins wrapped around their body.
A Teenager’s Freedom
Teenagers enjoyed the Games as a time of no-holds-barred excitement much like young people in Europe today flock to the running of the bulls at the Feast of San Fermín in Pamplona, Spain. They went not just for the event but for the freedom from usual social constraints. The Games offered an environment for young men and women to meet without the usual Roman parental guidance.
Philo, the Roman heir, gives up his dream of going to the Games as Argolicus searches for clues. The Games are background to the mystery. I hope you are tempted to add this story to your New Year’s reading.
Happy New Year!
Guest Post for Author Anastasia Pollack
Gathering Research Bits
While The Roman Heir is in editing process, I’m scouring for ideas for the next several stories. Never forgetting setting, I’m looking at meadows and woods for The Vellum Scribe.
The Vellum Scribe
Although I went to Italy for initial research, I was in the north at Ravenna, the political center and king’s seat, at the time of the Argolicus Mysteries. Except for The Roman Heir, set in Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber, the mysteries are set in the far southern province of Bruttii. Cassiodorus mentions the area frequently in his letters, where I found the venal Governor Venantius in The Used Virgin shortchanging locals and creating arbitrary punishments.
Research When You Can’t Be There
For a sense of place when I’m unable to travel I cruise around Google Maps to find a particular location. Then once I know the location I look at related images and videos. For the Argolicus mysteries, I’m watching videos and collecting images of southern Italy, especially around the town of Squillace. Argolicus’ estate is in the hills above the town. Here’s a modern quick tour of the town.
And a friendly tour of the Ghetterello river which runs from the hills, down to Squillace from Massimo Castelli. This one’s in Italian but you can see the valley and surrounding hills.
The waterfall in the Gheterello surrounded by boulders is the setting for an ambush in a future story.
Books for Details
For a sense of time, I turn or return to books. Currently, I’m rereading The Ostrogoths from the Migration Period to the Sixth Century ed. S.J.B. Bamish, Federico Marazzi. My son bought it for me as a birthday present a year ago. The book is one of my main sources for political goings on at the time of the Argolicus mysteries. Look at this. There are at least three good stories in just this one passage.
….at least one town, Squillace, is prey to violent troubles that suggest conflicts with the special aim of seizing the episcopal see. More than one bishop there has been killed, and visitors have to be appointed. A priest, Celestinus, is complicit in the murder of his bishop and kinsman at an unnamed town which may well be Squillace. Again, in an unnamed town which may perhaps be Squillace, the bishop is murdered by a creditor to whom he has made over Church property to settle his debt. The archdeacon Asellus allows the murderer to be killed in a riot before he could reveal if he had accomplices.
The Ostrogoths from the Migration Period to the Sixth Century ed. S.J.B. Bamish, Federico Marazzi p. 192
The Transformation Process
One absolutely essential quality a historical fiction author needs is the ability to transform dry text like this (I Ieft out the various footnote references) into a story with interesting characters who interact within their political, cultural, and physical setting.
Imagination makes the story.
Zara Altair combines mystery with a bit of adventure in the Argolicus mysteries. Her Argolicus Mysteries are based in southern Italy at the time of the Ostrogoth rule of Italy under Theoderic the Great. Italians (Romans) and Ostrogoths live under one king while the Roman Empire is ruled from Constantinople. At times the cultures clash, but Argolicus uses his wit, sometimes with help from his tutor Nikolaos, to provide justice in a province far from the King’s court.
Setting is important in any story. In historical novels, setting details give the reader a sense of what is around the characters. Without setting the characters are "floating in space" with nothing to ground them to surroundings.
In the video of the mosaic discovery, the details of vibrancy and varied images are a fine example of the style of flooring in Italy and the Mediterranean.
Setting details are the perfect way to enrich historical fiction without an overload of info-dump. When characters in The Roman Heir gather in a new room to meet the murdered man's widow, the description is brief but sets the tone of the meeting.
Aemilia Atia, Philo’s mother, had left her bedroom and gathered everyone in the entertainment room when she learned of the guest. The floor was covered in a dizzying array of black and white mosaics and the walls were painted with intricate scenes of trees and flowers and young people playing musical instruments in nature. Braziers, next to seats, warmed the room from the winter cold. Slaves brought trays of gustum: small tidbits of fruit, cheese, and salads for nibbling placed on platters and bowls around the seats, but no one was eating.
Homes at the time of the story (512 A.D./C.E.) were highly decorated. A floor plan of the house in Ostia illustrates the elaborate mosaics in every room. Even the kitchen had designs on the floor, though not as elaborate as other communal rooms. In the scene with the widow, the characters are gathered in the room marked number 10.
Italian homes of the time were not limited to vibrant and intricate flooring. Walls were painted in bright colors often with detailed figures. These are the walls in the "side room" where Argolicus first sees the body of the murdered Patrician.
Our current Western decor--from rustic to industrial to modern--is far from the colorful indoor life of Italian life at the time of Theodoric.
Visual imagery is a powerful aid in writing research, especially for historical genres. I find myself looking at images as I write scenes to help me get into the story.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Argolicus thinks he has retired, but he and his tutor, Nikolaos, are drawn into puzzles, politics, and murder.
Research Trip: Plan for No Plan
My day job is ghostwriting. My current project is a thriller. The culmination of the story takes place at Chichen Itza on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.
Pictures, Google Maps, and other resources cannot replace the experience of being on site.
The author had personal reasons for visiting over and above the story. She wanted to connect with relatives she had never met. I had several plot points I wanted to clarify.
We arrived in the evening with no set plans other than to walk all of the archeological site of Chichen Itza. Tired and hungry we met for dinner on the terrace of our hotel and spa. The evening air was warm, musicians played guitars, our dinner was delicious. The author went to the front desk to ask if they knew any tour guides who were in her related family. The host pointed to the musicians and said that one.
A few minutes later Jaime Uh Mar Rufo joined us at our table and the rest of the trip was filled with excursions.
The following morning we were up before sunrise to watch the sun come up over the Warrior Temple and the Chac-mool stone statue that held the head of the sacrificial ball team captain.
While Jaime explained the mathematics of the Kukulkan Pyramid I was searching for the spot where the MacGuffin could hide in plain sight.
We continued our walk around the main site, learned about the incredible competitive ball games between competing communities, learned to recognize repeated symbols like the serpent, the jaguar, the eagle, and the monkey. I found the place to hide the MacGuffin. And, as we were leaving we saw the guards for the archeological site clustered in one place, making it much easier for my characters to sneak in at night.
We returned to the hotel for breakfast and invited Jaime to join us. He was a non-stop source of Mayan lore. At home he and members of his family speak Mayan, not Spanish.
After breakfast we continued our tour to the old city. For the first hour, no one else was with us while we spent time at the oldest building, Akab Dzib, the house of mysterious writing. Exploring the plants and trees and the nearby sink hole I found the site where the protagonist confronts the evil antagonist and wins. Two down, one to go.
Hot and tired, we walked back and encountered the thousands of tourists that arrive each day streaming in to the archeological site. Along the trail back to the hotel, among the trees, I found the right spot for the hired killer to attack the protagonist and her group of friends.
The Extra Added Bonus
You'll learn more from your on site visits if you are friendly and happy. Ask questions and pay attention to answers so you can ask more questions. In another article on research I talk about the mind set for being open to learning from people you meet.
Being open to what people have to share leads to deepening your knwledge. It's the biggest benefit to doing on-site research. Because of our interest in natural healing and local plants, Jaime invited us to his home the following day to meet with his mother-in-law who is a local healer. He translated for us since she spoke no Spanish or English, only Mayan.
The neighbors were celebrating a Hesme (Mayan baby blessing) with a party afterward and we were invited. Everyone was friendly, open, and welcoming. I met and talked with the community wise man (Jaime translating).
Stay Open to Experience
Our research trip was a brief two days on site but I gathered so much material for the story. Things I never would have thought of without being there. Staying open and communicating clearly are two skills every author needs for the surprise discoveries an on site research trip provides.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Argolicus thinks he has retired, but he and his tutor, Nikolaos are drawn into puzzles, politics, and murder.
She consults with a select group of writers as The Story Bodyguard.
Zara Altair, Author
The puzzle of politics, the mystery of murder in ancient Italy. After Rome, before the Middle Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.