Monday, May 20, 2019

#CozyMystery When the #Setting Counts by Sally Handley


Setting is so important when writing fiction. Without knowing what the story is about, wouldn't you have a different vision if I said the book takes place on the Sahara Desert as opposed to downtown Minneapolis? Please welcome my guest today, Sally Handley, and hear what she has to say about setting.

The last moderator of our local Mystery Book Club decided to choose books set in foreign countries.  We read: Daphne DuMaurier’s  classic suspense, Rebecca, set on the Cornish coast of England; Donna Leon’s Death at La Fenice, set in romantic Venice; and Cara Black’s irresistibly French Murder in the Marais set in Paris. The settings in this trio of books profoundly shapes the reading experience.

Recently I was invited to stay with friends in Tuscany, and as a result of my book club experience, I thought it would be a great idea to read books set in Italy while on the trip. Because I absolutely loved Death in La Fenice, I loaded Death in a Strange Country, the second book in the Guido Brunetti series.

My second selection was Aunti Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna, the second book in Mario Giordano’s Auntie Poldi series which is set in Sicily. I loved the first book, Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, so much that I pre-ordered book two. It arrived on my Kindle a full month before I embarked on my Tuscan adventure, and I had to resist reading it until the flight. Am I glad I did!

Reading these books set in Italy totally enhanced the travel experience for me. I actually looked forward to getting into bed at night to read these stories after a day of touring the countryside. The descriptions of the Italian people, the food, and, of course, the wine made me smile as I recalled the people I’d met on our travels each day, the food we’d eaten, and, of course, the wine we drank.

As a cozy mystery writer, my settings are not quite as exotic as the books I’ve just described. Almost by definition, the cozy mystery needs to be set in a small town atmosphere where everybody knows everybody else. Still reading mysteries set in other countries has caused me to think more about setting as critical element of the stories I write.

The first two books in my Holly and Ivy mystery series mostly take place in the fictitious New Jersey town of Pineland Park. I confess, the neighborhood bears a remarkable resemblance to the New Jersey town I really lived in for twenty-five years. Funny thing, Holly’s Tudor house was also quite similar to mine.

In Full Bloom, book three of the series, my sister sleuths never set foot in Pineland Park. The story begins with their arrival in the fictitious town of Reddington Manor, nestled in the Catskill mountains.  They’ve come to visit Holly’s friend, Kate Farmer. And guess what? Kate’s home bears a distinct resemblance to my friend’s home in the Catskills. You have to admit that if “cozy setting” was listed in the dictionary, that picture would make an ideal illustration.

In a March 4th blog on setting, Author, Editor, and Writing Coach, Lori Freeland sums it up perfectly: “The way you stage the setting in your story deepens the experience for both the character and the reader. Whether you’re being blatant or subtle, dropping heavy detail or sprinkling light clues, how you present a place tells readers how to feel about it.”

I couldn’t agree more. So as I continue to write cozy mysteries, I will continue to set them in cozy settings. But you know, I was thinking there’s no reason why my characters can’t take a trip to an exotic locale. Besides, Holly’s love interest is named Nick Manelli. I mean a trip to Italy would almost be a necessity. And, really what’s not cozy about a villa in Tuscany?

Full Bloom Book Blurb

In the third book in the Holly and Ivy mystery series, the Donnelly sisters are looking forward to a relaxing stay in the Catskills after Holly’s break-up with Nick Manelli. Holly and Ivy have their plans thwarted when, once again, they become involved in a murder investigation. The day they arrive at Kate Farmer’s house in rustic Reddington Manor, they discover the body of Kate’s next-door neighbor, Chuck Dwyer, in a pool of blood on his kitchen floor.  In a rush to judgement, the local sheriff sets his sights on 17-year old Tommy Cranston, but Kate insists Tommy is innocent. Can the sister sleuths prove that a shifty neighbor, the victim’s widow and local drug dealers all have better motives for the murder? And can Ivy and Kate unravel another mystery — the cause of Holly and Nick’s break-up and the chances of their getting back together?

     The full moon lit the yard and Holly could see all the way back to the recently installed chicken coop. She descended the porch steps and waited, grateful no deer or other more worrisome critters were about. Lucky moved down the yard sniffing. The dog squatted and Holly smiled. “That was quick,” she said into the night air.
Lucky turned and headed back, but midway down the long expanse of yard she veered off around the back of the house. Holly rolled her eyes and sighed. She didn’t want to disturb the peace by yelling for the dog, so she decided to just wait for her to return.
After a few minutes Holly remembered the deep ravine that separated Kate’s house from the Leggett house.  She hoped Lucky hadn’t gone down there and decided she better go find here. No telling what she’d bring back from down there.
Moving the flashlight beam back and forth in a wide arc, Holly crossed the yard. She could feel the wetness of the grass penetrating her slippers.
Turning the corner of the house, she was relieved to see the dog by the side porch.
“Lucky, c’mon,” she said in a stage whisper.
The dog didn’t respond. Instead, she lowered herself onto her front paws. Her butt up in the air wiggled as she stuck her nose under the porch.
“Oh, no!” Holly ran over when she remembered Kate said a groundhog sometimes took up residence under there. “Lucky, no!” She reached for the dog’s collar, attached the leash and tugged. “Come out of there.”
On the last tug, Holly lost her grip and fell backwards landing flat on her back. “Great. Just great,” she said aloud as she struggled her way up to a sitting position, facing the Leggett house. That’s when she noticed a light in the window that faced her bedroom. Still holding onto the flashlight, she aimed the beam at the window. Holly gasped as a man’s ghoulish face appeared. He spotted her, then quickly disappeared. The light went out.
Holly scrambled to her feet, caught hold of Lucky’s leash and pulled.
“Let’s go!” she commanded and this time the dog followed. Together they ran around the back of the house. Her heart was racing as they bounded up the porch steps.
Inside, Holly slid the barrel bolt lock, turned the deadbolt and shut off the lights. Scurrying into the living room, she found the remote and shut off the television. She mounted the stairs as quickly as she could and went straight to her bedroom window, peering out across the ravine. She stood watching, trying to catch her breath. No lights. No movement. No sounds. Climbing into bed, she pulled the covers over her head.  What fresh hell is this?

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Sally Handley, Writer, Gardener, Sister in Crime

President of the Upstate South Carolina Chapter of Sisters in Crime (SinC), Sally Handley is author of the  Holly and Ivy cozy mystery series. Sally’s sleuths are middle-aged, sisters who are reluctantly drawn into a murder investigation. Both find inner strength and renewed purpose, experiencing a renaissance at an age when many choose to accept the limitations of aging. A resident of Mauldin, SC, Sally devotes her time to writing cozy mysteries and gardening and also writes a blog “On Writing, Reading and Retirement” at

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