Leslie Wheeler’s mystery fiction includes three novels in her Living History Mystery Series, and short stories that have appeared in several anthologies. Rattlesnake Hill is the first book in a new series of Berkshire Hilltown Mysteries. Learn more about Leslie and her books at her website.
Location is important in books, as well as real estate and movies. For me, setting, rather than character, is where a book begins. I choose settings that interest me or that I love because I know I’m going to spend a lot of time there.
For my current book, Rattlesnake Hill, the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts was an obvious choice. I not only love the area but know it well, having lived there for many years. But which Berkshires? The one that draws tourists and wealthy weekenders in the summer for numerous cultural attractions, as well as chi-chi shops and restaurants, and again in the fall for brilliant foliage? Or the Berkshires of small towns and villages off the beaten track, where people whose families have been there for generations eke out of lives, not necessarily of “quiet desperation,” but sometimes close to it?
I chose the latter. As a resident of a small backwater town myself, it’s the Berkshires I know best. As my main character, Kathryn Stinson, herself a city dweller as I was and still partly am, describes the difference between these two Berkshires:
“Main Street [of Stockbridge] was decked out with boughs of holly, pine wreaths, and Christmas lights in readiness for another holiday a la Norman Rockwell . . . Even on a weeknight in December, visitors strolled along the sidewalk or sat, bundled in fur and down, on the porch of the Red Lion Inn, sipping hot chocolate and hot buttered rum.
But it was the other Berkshires she was traveling to—the Berkshires of lonely towns perched high on hills, of narrow back roads whose winding darkness come nightfall never ceased to amaze an urban dweller like her. She’d been away less than a day, but already she’d half forgotten what it was like to turn off the main thoroughfare and plunge into a world of blackness, broken only by the lights of an occasional house, or if the sky was clear like this evening, a crescent moon and a pinprick pattern of stars. Past experience had taught her to drive these roads with care, because you never knew when a deer might dart out, or when rounding a bend, you might find yourself on a collision course with a wrong-sided vehicle.”
Of course, setting isn’t just about place; it’s about the time—centuries, years, months, days. Rattlesnake Hill is set in the present, with forays into the past, and despite the Christmas holiday references above, the novel actually begins in November, a dark time of dwindling light when the foliage is gone and with it the tourists. I chose this month, because I wanted to focus on the tension between my main character and the locals, who are suspicious of her. As one local, who especially resents her presence, puts it, “Nobody moved here in this off-season time before the last of the foliage and the first snowfall.”
Which brings me back to another important element of setting: people. Small towns in rural areas are places where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and strangers are not readily welcomed. Kathryn Stinson discovers this when she starts asking questions about an event in the distant past. And when she seeks answers to a more recent mystery: the murder of a woman who once occupied the house she’s renting, her neighbors become openly hostile.
So why does she stay? In part because she’s stubborn and is determined unlock the secrets the locals are withholding from her. But another part has to do with the area’s great natural beauty. From her very first view of the landscape outside the house she rents, Kathryn is enchanted by its loveliness.
Throughout the novel, Kathryn finds peace but also draws inner strength from her surroundings. It’s why I’ve stayed in the Berkshires, too.
A Berkshire Hiltown Mystery
It’s November in the Berkshires, a dreary time of dwindling light when the tourists have fled along with the last gasp of fall foliage. So when a stranger shows up in the sleepy hilltown of New Nottingham and starts asking questions, the locals don’t exactly roll out the welcome wagon.
Bostonian Kathryn Stinson is on a deeply personal quest to solve a family mystery: the identity of a nameless beauty in an old photograph an ancestor brought with him to California over a century ago. But, as Kathryn quickly discovers, the hills possess a host of dark secrets – both ancient and new – that can only be revealed at the price of danger and even death.