How to Create a Setting for Mystery—Let’s Crack This Case
All the best mysteries have two things in common: unforgettable sleuths and immersive settings. In fact, if you think of your favorite mystery protagonist, I’m willing to bet you can’t picture them without the surrounding world that makes them who they are.
It’s also a powerful tool for revealing character, building suspense, heightening conflict, illuminating themes, and much more. If you’re interested in writing mysteries that stick with readers forever, you’ll have to master the fine art of setting.
Let’s get started now with tips on:
- Creating an engaging setting for your mystery novel
- Learning how to improve your own setting by reading successful mysteries
- Researching your story’s location and time period
- Treating your setting like another character in the novel
- Describing your fictional world
- Using the setting to enhance other aspects of your mystery
First, let’s clarify what a good mystery setting involves.
Elements of a Good Mystery Setting
What makes a mystery setting work? What elements need to be in place in order for your readers to feel the thrills and chills you’re going for?
Here are the key elements of your mystery novel’s world:
Strong atmosphere - Atmosphere is the character of a place—the way it makes people feel. And what fun is a mystery setting that doesn’t tingle the spine or carry a sense of foreboding?
If you’re not sure how to tap into atmosphere and make your reader feel it in their bones, stick with me. We’ll cover it.
Location - This is the element we tend to think of first when we start talking about setting. Where does this story physically take place?
In a mystery novel, your choice of location influences the atmosphere. It can also create obstacles for your main character, provide unique opportunities for crime, and symbolize the deeper themes of your story.
Time period - When does your mystery story take place? Setting your novel in the past means you’ll have to do additional research. It also means you’ll need to consider the cultural, political, and technological context of that point in history.
Climate - What kind of weather does your main character have to navigate in this world? How does that weather affect the atmosphere? Does it present any challenges for your protagonist?
Cultural context - What are the cultural norms of your main character’s world? Are there any tensions or power dynamics that are relevant to your mystery story? Does your sleuth fit in here, or are they struggling to solve mysteries in a place where they’re considered an outsider?
Clearly, there’s a lot to think about when you’re trying to write a mystery setting. Don’t sweat it. We’ll take this step by step.
Creating an Engaging Setting for Your Mystery Novel
Let’s start by setting up the basic blueprint for your story’s world.
Choosing the Right Location
Your first order of business is to determine where this murder mystery is going to take place. There’s no right answer. Any place can feel sinister once you get a writer involved. Nevertheless, you want to think this through.
Here are some things to consider as you select the location for your mystery novel.
Your subgenre will clue you in to what your readers expect in terms of setting. Cozy mysteries tend to take place in seemingly harmless places: quiet villages, bakeries, bookshops, and the like. The joy of the subgenre comes from the dastardly hidden within the quaint.
If you’re writing noir, you’re probably looking at something darker and harsher—lots of concrete and shadows. A caper could carry your characters all around the world. So could a thriller.
We’re back to that question of how you want your reader to feel reading your mystery story.
Are you going for playful and quirky with a thrilling undercurrent of intrigue? Then you might want a sleepy village filled with colorful characters and historical buildings. Are you going for gritty and suspenseful? Then you might want a dark, hard-to-navigate space like a sprawling city.
If you get stuck, make a list of locations that you associate with the feeling you’re trying to convey. What sparks your interest?
Ideally, some aspects of the location will throw obstacles in your main character’s path. This could be things like:
- Dangerous situations like pursuing a perp into an abandoned warehouse or navigating treacherous mountain trails
- Easy opportunities to dispose of evidence, like a giant body of water
- Resource issues, like an inability to access forensic technology, find a competent crime-solving partner, or gain respect in a powerful police force
- Difficulty connecting with the locals if your main character is in a fish-out-of-water situation
- Too many red herrings if the crime took place in a setting where the crime rate is high or everyone has a connection to the victim
How does the crime itself integrate with the location? Is it delightfully shocking that a murder mystery would happen here? Or does it feel almost inevitable—so much so that the main character has a hard time getting anyone to care about the crime? Does the location give you plenty of opportunities to establish red herrings and false suspects?
Think through the relationship between where your story takes place and the way both the crime and investigation unfold.
Once you’ve nailed down a location, you’re ready to think about ways to make it come alive.
Creating a Sense of Atmosphere and Mood
We’re talking about scene description here, and let me tell you, it takes a light touch when it comes to mystery writing.
Your audience is here for the story. They want to pick up clues, get creeped out, and try to help your main character solve this thing. They don’t want three pages discussing every creaky floorboard and loose screw.
This means you need to master the fine art of picking details that get the job done fast.
Start by identifying what you want your reader to feel in the scene. Is it a sense of danger? Urgency? Momentary relief?
Think about what sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes evoke those feelings in you. If it helps, think of a location where you’ve felt the way you want your reader to feel. Are there any details you can bring into your scene description or adapt for your setting?
The important thing is to show, not tell. That means you help the reader experience the moment rather than telling them how they should feel about it. It’s a cardinal rule for writing mysteries as well as every other genre. In fact, we made some worksheets to help you practice it.
Developing Sense of Suspense: The Role of Foreshadowing
Just as your setting can inspire some great red herrings, it can also help you hint at the chaos to come.
Foreshadowing happens when something in your mystery story indicates that something is coming—something good or bad, but usually bad. It can be very on-the-nose, like a character saying, “Something bad is coming.” (Be more artful about it than that, though.)
It can also be something in the environment that feels foreboding. The lights flicker in the abandoned museum where the sleuth is searching for the perp. Or an unnatural silence blankets the town the morning the body is discovered.
Establishing Cultural and Historical Context
It might seem like a murder mystery is the one story where the cultural context doesn’t matter. I mean, murder is happening. Don’t your characters have bigger things to worry about than navigating cultural dynamics?
The fact is, culture influences the way we deal with everything, including homicide. All successful mystery novels reflect the norms, values, and assumptions that define their settings.
Sometimes it’s simply a matter of creating obstacles for the main character. Perhaps there’s a culture of fear in the community that makes witnesses reluctant to talk. Maybe the main character can’t get locals to communicate because they’re seen as an outsider.
For some mysteries, cultural and historical contexts are the most defining aspects of the setting. Attica Locke’s Highway 59 series confronts both the history and present reality of white supremacy in East Texas as Black Texas Ranger Darren Matthews investigates the murders that happen there.
Whether you seek to examine society or just use it to add depth to your world, it’s important to consider this context when writing your own mystery novel.
If your story takes place in the past, be sure to do your research so you understand not just what the world looked like in your time period, but also what it felt like to live in that era. On that note…
Tapping Into the Time Period
When does your mystery novel take place? The answer to this determines many of your story’s details, including:
- How your characters dress and communicate
- The technology available to your detective
- How the community feels about engaging with law enforcement
- What it would take to pull off the crime in question
- How characters view their world, themselves, and others
We’ll talk more about how to research your story’s time period in a bit. For now, just know that it matters. Even if your story is set in the present, think about which aspects of our current world should play a role in your novel.
The norms of a time period can even help you set up a few red herrings. For example, suppose a young lady in a Regency Era mystery story can’t supply an alibi when her lady’s maid reveals that she was not in her room at the time of the crime, as previously stated. It’s eventually revealed that the young woman was attending a political rally in disguise—a move that could destroy her family’s reputation in the community.
Now that you’ve got a solid understanding of the setting elements that make for a great mystery novel, let’s take a look how it’s done in these successful mysteries:
Examples of Successful Mystery Settings
In order to write a good mystery novel, you need to read a lot of mysteries. Current bestsellers will help you pick up on current trends and audience interests. Beloved classics will reveal timeless tropes and plot structure.
All great mysteries will show you how to write engaging sleuths, dazzling plots, and—of course—worlds that draw the reader in. Here are some solid books to read for examples of well-executed (*cough*) mystery settings.
Cooper’s Chase Retirement Village, Present – Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club Series
If you’re writing a cozy mystery, this series is one to check out. In the tradition of all cozies, these books are set in a place you wouldn’t associate with murder: a comfortable retirement home.
What makes Osman’s mystery novels unique, however, is the extent to which he leans into the trope of the geriatric amateur sleuth. Not only does this series include an entire gang of senior detectives, it also has a few suspects and spies of a certain age.
Rural Ireland, Present – The Searcher
In this Tana French novel, the main character, Cal, retires from the Chicago police force and retreats to rural Ireland for peace and solitude. When he gets roped into the search for a missing child, his beautiful surroundings start to feel more sinister.
This is an excellent mystery story to read if you want to study shifting atmospheres and learn how to use the environment to create a sense of danger. It’s also good for examining cultural settings and the treacherous business of being an outsider.
Chicago, 1944 – Clark and Division
This mystery follows a young woman investigating the death of her sister after her family’s release from a Japanese internment camp, casting a light on a corner of history that gets limited attention in pop culture.
If you’re interested in learning about blending a compelling mystery with a weighty historical and cultural context, this is it. Plus, author Naomi Hirahara studied and collected oral histories on Japanese internment for a previous nonfiction book, so Clark and Division is a solid example of a thoroughly researched historical mystery.
Pemberley, 1803 – Death Comes to Pemberley
Writers are nothing if not artistic borrowers, and that includes mystery authors like P.D. James. This murder mystery is set at Pemberley, the fictional estate Jane Austen fans will recognize from Pride and Prejudice.
By writing a whodunit in this setting, James taps into a world that’s already beloved and funnels it into an entirely new genre. The familiar becomes fresh and the fresh is somehow familiar.
Los Angeles, Present – Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch Series
As this series lands in the crime fiction branch of the mystery genre, it’s not at all shocking that it would take place in a major city—the popular setting choice for gritty deeds and a cynical main character.
But Los Angeles specifically is a great choice for the protagonist, Detective Harry Bosch, who works by the philosophy that “Everybody counts or nobody counts.” As L.A. is known for being a place where people are either somebodies are nobodies, it’s satisfying to watch Bosch doggedly pursue justice for all victims.
The Importance of Research in Creating a Mystery Setting
By now, you have the basic idea of what makes for a good mystery setting. Time to get into the details of how to bring the world of your story to life for your reader.
The first step: research.
What to Research
The amount of research you have to do depends on how familiar you are with the time and place in which your novel takes place. But here are some things you’ll probably want to know about your setting before you start writing:
- Landscape and climate
- Cultural values
- Dominant religious beliefs or political affiliations
- Relationships between cultural groups, economic classes, etc.
- Power structures
- Technology used by regular people
- Fashion, entertainment, and pop culture
- Threatening forces like extreme weather, wild predators, mob presence, etc.
- Local crime history
- Local laws
- Available forensic technology
- Police presence, including the size of the force and their relationship with the community
As you brainstorm and write your mystery, you’ll discover other gaps you need to fill in. But the list above should get you started.
So how exactly are you supposed to find all this information?
We’ve actually written an entire article on the fine art of researching historical fiction, and many of the strategies in it can apply to researching a present-day location, too. Either way, here’s a quick list of places to look to find information about your mystery’s setting:
Internet - Make sure sources are credible and you’ve got the most current information.
Library - In addition to books and periodicals, your local library might have photo, video, and audio archives, as well as maps. Librarians love research questions, so don’t be shy about asking for help.
Experts - Is there someone who would know about a particular aspect of your story’s setting? Someone who really knows the time period or can clarify what it’s really like to work in a police department?
The actual place - Can you visit the setting of your mystery novel? Spend a weekend in the town or tour the courthouse that features prominently in your story?
Museums - Do you have access to a museum that features items or art from the world of your mystery story? Go check it out.
Pop culture - If you plan to write a mystery that takes place in the past, immerse yourself in the pop culture of the time. Listen to the music, watch the movies (if they existed), and even dabble in the kind of recreation that was popular at the time if that experience would help you understand your characters better.
And don’t forget to bookmark this article. You’ll need it for evidence of your authorly ambitions when federal law enforcement inquires about your concerning search history. (Just kidding. Probably.)
Setting as a Character in a Mystery Story
Now for a very artsy matter that’s bound to come up on author panels and NPR interviews when your mystery novel becomes a bestseller.
How is your setting almost like a character in the story?
I have mixed feelings about this question, because what people are usually saying when they ask it is:
- “This setting has a clear personality of its own.”
- “I want to spend more time in this world.”
- “This place felt real and deeply human to me.”
- “The setting has an obvious influence on your characters’ decisions, conflicts, and sense of identity.”
All those things describe a well-crafted setting. There’s no need to call it by a different name. At the same time, describing anything in human terms changes the way we look at it, so if it helps to think of the world of your mystery as another character, go for it.
Maybe this is an antagonist who hides secrets in dark alleyways or eerie bogs, protects the guilty within corrupt power structures, misleads with constant red herrings, or threatens your sleuth with dangerous elements.
Go ahead and give your world a personality. Think about who it would be if it were a character. Then write yourself a living, breathing setting that will impress all the fancy people who interview you.
Using the Setting to Write a Compelling Opening Scene
Your audience reads mysteries because they want to feel the kind of thrills you can only get from a good whodunit. So if you want to rope them in on page one, you have to give them the atmosphere they’re looking for.
Our friend Doug has already put together a great article on writing a solid opening scene. But here’s a quick rundown of how to make your setting shine in those crucial first pages.
Set the mood - Remember all that stuff we said about creating an atmosphere? Now is the time to put those skills to work.
Highlight the obstacles - What aspects of this world are likely to work against your main character as the story progresses? Give the reader a glimpse of that dangerous terrain or tight-lipped culture in the first scene.
Create a sense of character - How does your main character relate to the setting? Is it familiar or unfamiliar? What about the other characters?
Foreshadow danger - You can accomplish this just by shining a light on the challenges that exist within your setting. You can also take the more symbolic route and let the atmosphere suggest that trouble is coming.
Using the Setting to Enhance Other Elements in Your Story
We’ve already covered this topic in bits and pieces over the course of this article. So consider this a quick reference for when you want to make sure your setting is truly pulling its weight in your novel.
Here are some of the most important ways the world can interact with other elements of a mystery story.
The setting informs and reveals who the characters are, including their:
- Norms and taboos
- Relationships to one another
- Interests and hobbies
- Ability to investigate a crime
- Ability to defend themselves in an investigation
In mysteries, the setting often contributes to both internal and external conflict.
For external conflict, you’re looking at things like:
- The resources available to your main character as they attempt to solve the mystery
- How crimes are concealed in this society and/or physical space
- The level of physical danger your detective must accept in order to do their job
- What it takes to get witnesses and sources to trust your main character
- Red herrings
For internal conflict, the setting can contribute to things like:
- The main character’s dilemma between the importance of their goal and the dangers of the situation
- Any social or cultural risks the witnesses might face by coming forward with the information they have
- Your detective’s strong sense of justice while having to work within a corrupt system
A good mystery demands a setting that contributes to the overall puzzle. When building the world of your story, think about things like:
- How a criminal could conceal their crime in this setting
- What aspect of the setting could potentially give them away
- If there are any accidental red herrings built into this world
- What opportunities there might be to heighten tension by trapping your sleuth in a dangerous location
- How the culture of the world might promote secrecy or distrust of the detective
- The cleverest way to dispose of a body
Think about whether your setting can convey something more than just, “This place has secrets.”
We talked about the way the setting of L.A. highlights Harry Bosch’s personal philosophy by constantly challenging it.
And in The Searcher, Cal retreats to the quiet beauty of rural Ireland in an attempt to flee the corruption and family drama he’s unable to fix back home. As the atmosphere shifts from quaint to sinister, Cal is forced to confront the fact that you can’t escape pain anymore than you can erase it.
What can your setting do to support the theme of your mystery story?
For more on highlighting a theme, check out this article.
Want More Clues on Writing a Mystery?
I hope you’re feeling more equipped to write a mystery. Of course, there’s a lot more to learn when it comes to this particular genre. If you could use help any other area of your mystery writing, check out:
And may I emphatically recommend using Dabble to plan, draft, and revise your novel? The fully customizable Story Notes make worldbuilding a breeze (or at least worldorganizing), and the Plot Grid is an absolute lifesaver when it comes to writing mysteries. This feature helps you keep track of everything, from alibis to red herrings.
Want a chance to inspect Dabble before you commit? You got it. You can access a 14-day free trial at this link, no credit card information needed.
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