Once in a Cold and Snowy Forest…

Winter in the Northwoods

My husband and I woke early last Monday morning to eight inches of new snow in northern Wisconsin. It happened silently, overnight—a thick white blanket, erasing details and muffling sounds. The tree branches drooped under the weight. The road leading to our cottage bore not so much as a single deer track to mar the landscape’s frozen perfection. I stood there for a moment, marveling at the sight. Then, because I’m a writer, I began to think about the fact that a heavy snowfall conceals footprints and other evidence of a murder. Taking the thought further, I considered a plot where a corpse is discovered outside a remote cabin in the forest. How did the dead man get there? Friend or foe? Was he alone? On a snowmobile? A blizzard had eliminated all clues.

Snow plays a major role in the settings of many mystery novels—Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is a notable example, as is one I read recently, Lucy Foley’s chilling, atmospheric The Hunting Party. I’ve used the device myself. In my first Kate Hamilton mystery, A Dream of Death, a freak snowstorm in the Scottish Hebrides limits the suspects in a bizarre murder and delays the arrival of the police. Setting is often a character in its own right, driving the plot and revealing character.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the importance of setting in a novel. The setting of a story is (or should be) more than a mere backdrop, more even than the world in which the story unfolds. Setting is a multi-faceted literary device that includes the time frame, the season of the year, the weather, the geography, and the culture, customs, and traditions of a particular location. Where a story takes place suggests and focuses plot points. As the main characters react physically and emotionally to their surroundings, the reader sees them in a new light. For readers, the setting of a novel allows them to experience parts of the world they may never visit–or possibly adds to their bucket list.

Authors are often asked, “Which comes first for you—plot, character, or setting?” For me, they are inextricably linked.

Have you ever fallen completely in love with the setting of a novel?

Would you like to visit that place one day?

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