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Setting (Made Up Mayhem #7)

Also mood, style and tone!

The triumph of anything is a matter of organization. Kurt Vonnegut

Okay, you’ve got your plot figured out, your characters are on stage, you’ve even got a theme. Now it’s time to fine-tune your story by:

  • Setting the scene
  • Creating mood, style, and tone
  • Research.

Setting the Scene

Whether you love or hate writing about settings, used right, locations can become a useful tool in building your mayhem/suspense novel. A good location can add to the suspense, contrast with the suspense or be a neutral background against which your story plays out.

The first thing to ask your self is what does my story need in the way of setting?

Sometimes the story will dictate the setting. When I was writing The Last Enemy, I created a heroine who was afraid of heights. That meant that at some point in my story, my heroine was going to be up. Way up. And at the time I was writing the story, I also needed a place that had free internet access (wrote the book in late 1990’s). In that weird way that stories develop and change, I dumped the need for internet, but not before it took me to Denver, Colorado. And that led me to the nearby Rocky Mountains and Longs Peak, the place where the climax of my story plays out.

And once I’d started what eventually became my Lonesome Lawmen series, setting it in Denver, I was able to keep it there, which was a great bonus. I had tons of research I hadn’t used in the first book, but was able to make use of in the other two.

The Spy Who Kissed Me was easy since I started with a spy and some smart bombs.

The setting for Do Wah Diddy Die was chosen because I wanted to write a book set in New Orleans, where I lived. It helped that New Orleans is a nice background for a quirky novel, being a somewhat quirky city as well.

When you’re looking at the market or your target audience, setting can also be a selling tool. My [then] agent told me early on that editors love stories set in New Orleans. It’s colorful, it’s diverse and it can be funny or scary. And it’s close to swamps, which are very creepy.

One thing that can be challenging, when writing about a place like New Orleans, or any place with a unique identity, is being an outsider. I lived in New Orleans for almost eighteen years, but always as an outsider. There are things I’ll never really understand, because I didn’t grow up here and the longer I lived here, the more I knew this.

I deal with it by making at least one of my characters an outsider, too. It gives me “eyes” to introduce the reader to the city.

Other settings are less inflexible about their insider-ness. I was able to do long distance research on D.C. for Spy and have been told I captured the setting very well by people who live there—without ever having been there.

Just be aware that when you choose a place that has a strong personality, that your understanding of it might not be completely possible. One advantage to writing characters as outsiders, I think my characters have the ring of truth because I write from what I’ve experienced and felt.

While marketing can be a plus, you also need to decide how you’re going to approach your setting. So the next question to ask is: do I want my setting to be a part of the suspense or to contrast with the suspense? Or do I need it to be a neutral background against which the story plays out?

Any of the three methods can work for you. In some ways, Denver is a neutral background in my Lonesome Lawmen series. As I said, I set the story there because it is one mile up. And it is an area where I’ve visited and I’m more familiar with. That said, I still wove it into the story and made it a part of the character of the heroes of the three books. They lived near the mountains and did mountain type things. It helped to define their characters, so even in neutrality, it contributed to the story. But, and this is a big one, in many ways, this story could have been told in any mountainous/western state.

In Spy, the background is a contrast to the suspense. Isabel, my main character lives in the quiet, peaceful suburbs and gets mixed up with terrorists and spies. A classic fish out of water story, in fact. I couldn’t have told this story anywhere else.

How many times have you read stories set in some place peaceful with evil stalking the streets? Using setting as a contrast can add shock value to a story.

The effective writer can turn a peaceful setting to forbidding with skillful word choice and good plotting. Dangerous Dance has gothic overtones as the villain seeks to isolate my heroine within the context of her life. She’s still around people, but he’s made her suspicious of them.

It all comes back to what do you need from your setting to aid you in effectively telling your story. It should be apparent to the reader from the first sentence, what choices you’ve made.

You do that by creating….

Mood, Style and Tone

Mood, style, and tone are determined by word choice. More than anything these three elements are about what meanings you attach to words.

It was a dark and stormy night.

It was a bright, sunny morning.

It’s not that hard to set the mood, the trick is to make the setting seem fresh and alive. How you use words, how you put them together to set your mood, the tone you take (hard, soft or medium) tells the reader something about your style as a writer and what kind of book they are reading.

You can start out soft and sinister or hard and violent, or strike a note somewhere in between, but it should all be conscious, deliberate choice. And you should stick with it consistently throughout the book.

That’s not to say you can’t vary the tone and mood occasionally, again, for contrast, but the novel as a whole should have a consistent mood, tone, and style. Like a piano piece, you can play some lighter notes or lower notes for contrast, but the overall piece should feel consistent.

Consider these first sentences:

“I’d never have gotten mixed up in the first murder if Mrs. Macphearson hadn’t caught the flu, but I can’t blame her for capricious fate rolling the “who’s turn is it to be smitten” dice and my name – Isabel Stanley – coming up.”

With this opening sentence from The Spy Who Kissed Me, I was able to do several things.

  1. The reader learns that Isabel gets involved in several murders, so they know what kind of book they are reading.
  2. I established a light humorous tone, so they know the story will also (hopefully) be funny.
  3. They know who the story is about: Isabel Stanley.
  4. And they know right off that she has a sense of humor about herself.

In The Last Enemy I take a darker approach to my first sentence:

“Fear followed Dani Gwynne out of sleep, drying her throat to parchment, turning her muscles to wood and digging up her longing to go fetal and whine.”

Again, the reader knows right away that something is wrong.

“Kiernan Fyn heard the high pitched whine of a ship and could tell it was in trouble, even without the dark smoke trail spewing from the tail. It was coming in too fast and too steep.”

With this first sentence, we know The Key is an action-adventure mayhem novel, rather than a suspense/mayhem novel. Each first sentence sets a unique tone for each novel.

Look at these first sentences from different Mary Stewart books:

“I might have been alone in the painted landscape. The sky was still and blue, and the high cauliflower clouds over towards the south seemed to hang without movement.”

“The whole affair began so very quietly. When I wrote that summer and asked my friend, Louise, if she would come with me on a car trip to Provence, I had no idea that I might be issuing an invitation to danger.”

“It was the egret, flying out of the lemon grove that started it. I won’t pretend I saw it straight away as the conventional herald of adventure, the white stag of the fairy-tale, which, bounding from the enchanted thicket, entices the prince away from his followers, and loses him in the forest where danger threatens with the dusk.”

I like taking one author and comparing the different ways s/he begins, then trying out those techniques on my own beginnings, to see if one might suit my story. Not copying their opening, but adapting their approach for my own use.

The important thing is to let the reader know as quickly as possible, what type of story they are reading and what’s your approach. You don’t want to bump them out of the story, by starting out one way, then taking a right turn a new direction.

This is particularly important for digitally published books where readers can sample your book very quickly.


I’ve included research with setting, mood, style, and tone because it is one of your biggest partners in achieving your objective. Good research can help you root out those details that can make the story feel real.

It was research that led me to Longs Peak, which led me to a dramatic and exciting climax for The Last Enemy. And I quite literally stumbled onto it while researching something else entirely.

The internet is a great resource and has changed the way we research. Ten years ago, the writer did a lot of library time, but now you can visit the library remotely and request the books you need, then just stop by and pick them up. Just be aware that everything you read online isn’t necessarily true. Double and triple check your facts.

The internet also gives you access to experts in all kinds of fields. While writing Missing You, I was able to email to an amnesia specialist and find information on hypothermia. Because of my online research, I was even able to have my heroine rescued with some cutting-edge technology. It was very cool. I’ve also been able to email questions to a retired CIA agent.

And I’m a sucker for having good reference books on hand—though what’s on my shelves probably has me on an FBI watch list.

Books and search engines are great, but if you’re going to write mayhem, you should try to get a contact with people where your story is set. Sometimes you can get local details that add pop to your story.

Writer’s email groups are also a great source of information. I have yet to ask a question on a list that someone doesn’t know the answer to—or where to go find it. One thing though, try to find it yourself first. I was on a list where a gal asked about picking locks. I pulled up Google, did a search on lockpicks and pulled up literally hundreds of sites about the subject. Don’t get other people to do your work for you. Save your hard questions for your contacts and you’ll build goodwill—possibly future readers for your book.

Two things to keep in mind during your research phase:

  • Beware of getting so lost in your research that you forget to write.
  • Don’t bury your book in all those cool details you found. Like seasoning food, use enough for good flavor, but not so much you overpower your story.

One question we all run into at some point: what is enough?

Well, that’s what being a writer is about. In the end, you have to teach yourself to tell when enough is enough. (And it helps to have a good friend who is willing to read your stuff and tell you when the story drags or has been buried in details.)

A good rule of thumb is put in enough to make it feel real while keeping the pace fast and furious. If you haven’t read Alistair MacLean, you should try him. He does a great job of balancing detail with story movement. One of my favorites is When Eight Bells Toll. Great use of research detail for effect.

One thing you can’t do in a mayhem/suspense novel is cheat on the research. You can exceed the current technology, but you can’t pretend it’s not there. When I was writing The Last Enemy technology was changing so fast, I decided to jump ahead a bit.

I also was careful about getting too specific with modem speeds and bytes. If you’ve seen Golden Eye, you know it is seriously dated by a character bragging about his “14.4 modem.”

And while you’re balancing all the do’s and don’t’s, here’s one more: don’t forget to have fun with the writing and enjoy the process.

Well, hopefully, this quick and dirty guide to made-up mayhem has gotten your creative juices flowing and your mind spinning with characters, scenes and plot points. Readers—and editors—will love you if you make your characters fear, laugh, cry, sigh and sometimes die—because they’ll be taking the ride with them.

© 1998-2018 All rights reserved. Pauline Baird Jones.

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