How important is setting to a story? VERY. Especially in a mystery, where an unthinkable act has been committed and ordinary people, nice people, are forced to look at the dark side of human nature, into the most hidden corners of their own hearts and to confront secrets they try to hide–even from themselves.
The setting for my latest novel, LOVE AND NOT DESTROY, is a small town, as picture-perfect as anything designed by Walt Disney. There are clean streets, lined with small shops, illuminated by vintage lampposts hung with colorful flowering baskets. Walking along these streets are smiling, open-faced people, civil and friendly, seemingly in control of their destiny. Can anything be this perfect? As a writer, I hope not. More accurately, I won’t allow it to be. There’s no story in perfection. I’m compelled to seek the snake in Eden.
Seeking a setting for my story, I find this juxtaposition of dark and light irresistible. I have to tinker with it, manipulate the sunshine and the shadow. I need to show how fine is the line between the two, how delicate the balance. How can I do this? I imagine our little town at the height of its perfection–a soft, sunny weekend in early May. Dogwood blossoms frame every view. Tulips nod on every lawn. The museum is at its most festive, all spruced up for Folk Fest. The civil, friendly people are in a celebratory mood, enjoying a well-earned holiday. A shout rings out: “Blood! It’s all over him.” Everything changes. The illusion of perfection is shattered–and the story begins.
Cruel? Maybe. I like to think of myself of a reasonably nice person, but as a writer, I love upsetting the applecart. I’m not alone in this. Think of all the stories set in amusement parks or empty theatres. It seems the brighter the setting, the more frightening it becomes when the lights are extinguished. Add a doll or a tiny kitten and it becomes even more threatening. Nothing produces a more delicious tingle down the spine than a scary setting. And there’s nothing more fun to create.