While I was visiting my family earlier this month, my mother and I sat down to talk through some of our notes about the mystery we’re starting to write. One of the biggest challenges we’re facing is creating a world for our characters that’s richly developed without being cliché, as well as filled with a fleshed-out supporting cast with the potential for romance, friendship, petty grudges, and of course, murder. It’s not that we have a shortage of ideas – not at all. The problem is that we’ve both read so many cozy mystery novels over the (ahem) decades, we’re afraid of covering over-farmed territory.
In general, when I look at an author’s bio after reading a book or series with a well-drawn community, it turns out that person lives (or lived) in a place very similar to the one in their story. This makes perfect sense. I’m always more comfortable writing about someplace I’ve spent a lot of time, and the details ring truer when you aren’t fabricating them, or trying to write them based on satellite views from Google Maps. (Not that I’m disparaging that method – I’ve done it many times myself – but isn’t it tougher to write when there’s constant breaks for research? It is for me.)
The challenge for us, as a writing team, is that I feel that the town where both of us lived for many years is a less interesting location than some of the places we’ve lived separately. Unfortunately, if we want to write about one of those cities instead, one or the other of us will be at a huge disadvantage. It’s a conundrum. It’s proving to be a roadblock for other elements of the story, which is of course also frustrating.
I suspect that’s why I found the setting for Crooks to be so delightful. It takes place in a bed and breakfast in an Amish and Mennonite community in Pennsylvania, and by choosing such a location, Myers has given herself the perfect constraints to work within. Hernia is a small community, and an old one, so families and neighbors are deeply intertwined (for better or worse). It’s also a town where religion and culture are braided together, and both have to come up against the modern world on a daily basis, in no small part due to the fact that protagonist Magdalena Yoder invites that world into her home in order to make a living.
When I went to Myers’ website, I was fascinated to see that she also has a series that takes place in the Congo. I’m sure this is possible primarily because she spent her first sixteen years living there, and I have to admit to being jealous of such an incredible (albeit dangerous) experience. Could I write a book about the Congo? Sure, I suppose so. Maybe with about twenty books open at a time (not to mention an infinite number of tabs on my computer!), years of detailed research, and maybe a trip to see it for myself, I could consider an attempt. But even then, it wouldn’t come close to the perspective of a person who has lived there for many years and taken that cultural experience into her soul.
The reason I’m so obsessed with this part of my own novel is that I believe setting and community are what set this particular genre apart from other mysteries. Sure, plot is important. Dramatic tension is necessary. Unexpected twists and a healthy sense of humor (especially about murder and incompetent police work) are appreciated. At the end of the day though, fans of the cozy mystery come for the people, and for a seat at the table in a well-drawn world.
For more about Tamar Myers, go here.