Mary Ellen Hughes is the bestselling author of the Pickled and Preserved Mysteries, the Craft Corner Mysteries, the Maggie Olenski Mysteries, and the Keepsake Cove Mysteries. Learn more about her and her books at her website.
The Significance of Setting
How important is setting in a book? A lot. If your protagonist is number one, to my mind setting is a close number two, especially in a cozy mystery, the kind I write.
Cozy mysteries are usually set in a small town, or at least in a city neighborhood where everyone knows each other. I’ve chosen to create fictional towns for my mysteries, and I do it carefully, knowing that what I create will affect my entire story.
In my latest series, the Keepsake Cove Mysteries, I put my town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, an area that developed differently than the rest of the state because of its location. For many years, it was reachable mostly by boat by anyone on the western side of the bay. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge eventually changed that, but the culture that developed over three centuries remained to a large degree.
I built my fictional Keepsake Cove within easy reach of the bay bridge and not far from the historic town of Cambridge, in an area that Harriet Tubman’s underground railroad wound through in the nineteenth century, a fact that I worked into A Vintage Death.
The development of Ocean City on the coast brought droves of vacationers across the Eastern Shore to its beaches. When they’re not swimming or sunning, tourists love to shop, so small businesses, of course, sprang up. Though no town exactly like Keepsake Cove existed, it seemed quite possible that it could. So I created it and filled my town with shops that specialized in one or another kind of collectible, making it a popular stop for vacationers as well as collectors.
That setting was important to my protagonist, Callie Reed, whose life was changed (in A Fatal Collection) by the sudden death of her aunt, who owned a collectible music box shop in Keepsake Cove. When Callie inherited the shop along with her aunt’s little cottage, it gave her the push to break off a stale relationship and start a new life, as well as investigate the true cause of her aunt’s death.
In A Vintage Death, Callie was pulled into circumstances surrounding the death of a local B&B owner. This brought in more history of the Eastern Shore, which, I felt, added to the murder investigation.
Would my story have been different set anywhere else? Absolutely. Just as one character is affected by another, where they are impacts their decisions and what they are able to do. It can also add interest and color.
A side advantage is that the author—in this case, me—has a good excuse for fun excursions we refer to as ‘research.’ Spending a pleasant day learning about a lesser-known part of your state, camera in hand and meeting new people can be a wonderful break from sitting at your computer, and it only takes a day when your story’s location is nearby.
On the other hand, setting a book a bit farther away, like, say, Hawaii, might be a great idea, too. For the mystery possibilities, of course, not (cough, cough) necessarily for the ‘research.’
I think, though, with a little effort, I could deal with that side, too. We authors can rough it a little, when we have to.
A Vintage Death
A Keepsake Cove Mystery, Book 2
As the new owner of a music box store in Keepsake Cove, a quaint town full of collectible shops on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Callie Reed is eager to get more involved in her community. So she volunteers to plan the fall street decorations and welcome a visiting author who's come for a special book signing. But the celebratory mood is cut short when the local B&B owner is found dead, killed with a pair of vintage scissors.
Suspicion is cast on the victim's estranged wife, Dorothy, who owns Keepsake Cove's vintage sewing shop. Callie is sure Dorothy is innocent, and the visiting author agrees. Together, they begin their own investigation, only to discover that many people in Keepsake Cove have secrets. Secrets that are worth killing to keep.