Creating Reality for Your Mystery Thriller

CHEYENNE, WY – 9/13/15.

Unless the plot of your mystery thriller demands a real-life locale, you’ll be wise to create a setting or settings — a place or places where the scenes you write can play out. But, how to do that?

For authenticity, it’s best to start with this: thoroughly research factual models for the fictional elements that you create.

For example, most of the action in my first fact-based fiction novel, Little Sister Lost, takes place in several locations; Lutherville, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Cuernavaca, Mexico, Mexico City, Mexico, and New York City, New York. In order to give each scene a semblance of authenticity, I had to research those places. Thoroughly. I checked out the history, language, architecture, traffic patterns, housing, and even the restaurants and police departments. I also checked into the dominant religion and art. Why? Because, as you might imagine, as soon as I would write something not quite accurate, someone would call or e-mail and say, “Hey, I’ve been there and what you wrote about . . . is not exactly accurate.”

Finally, after two months of researching, especially the environs of Cuernavaca, Mexico City, and Washington, D.C. as they were in the 1940s and early 1950s, I was ready to write.

On the other hand, creating an imaginary area in Cuernavaca and in these other locales gave me the wiggle room to focus on the needs of my narrative without stressing about getting facts wrong. Or stressing about someone telling me I had the geography of Manhattan screwed up, or downtown Washington, D.C. in the 1950’s backwards.

This advice is not only pertinent for the writers of historical romances, but it is also relevant for authors of contemporary novels. Consider that while there are many readers who are experts on various historical periods, there are probably far more who know about whatever contemporary reality you plan to describe. They’ll be swift to notice errors of fact. Therefore, unless your story utterly requires an actual place, set it in a  make-believe locale.

Let’s say that your mystery thriller is about a protagonist who was once a landowner who, looking for something productive to do with his land, turned his farm into a place where he bred thoroughbred horses, but now he’s seeking employment because the thoroughbred horse market has collapsed and he can’t sell his yearlings or his two-year olds.It’s important for him to make a profit doing that in order to put his kids through private high schools and later, colleges.

For authenticity, find a real horse breeding area which fits your story’s needs and use it as the pattern for your research. Read everything you can find about the raising of thoroughbreds in that area; bloodlines, breeding of mares, their care and feeding, and the training of their offspring for the track as they get ready to race. Study maps and nature guides, visit the area and interview owners of stallions and breeding farms, and the owner of the local feed mill, and perhaps even a local veterinarian, and so forth. But when your research is done, don’t write about that actual place; make up your own locale. Give it a fictitious name and location.

I’m currently researching a fact-based fiction novel, the fourth of the series of protagonist, private investigator, Matt Dawson. As with Little Sister Lost, The China Connection, and Return to Darkness, this is a case of writing something of what I know: I have been a licensed and bonded private investigator for over twenty years in the Baltimore County, MD and Laramie County, WY areas. I’m going to draw on my experiences as a PI in those areas, but the settings for this novel are actually Istanbul, Turkey, and the Museum-church of Hagia Sophia, and Paris, France.

I have never been to Turkey. In view of the situation created by the third (and, I hope, the final) Muslim uprising against the Western world, I do not expect to ever go there. I have been to France; Paris, Nyon, Avignon, etc. A long time ago. Nonetheless, I’ve researched thoroughly and feel confident that I can, yet again, create settings which will pass muster, both with the casual reader, and with the reader who has actually traveled to the locales which I will describe in the novel. This is, of course, the way all good writers create works that are aesthetically pleasing; interesting and lasting, joining form and function to draw your reader forward from scene to scene, chapter to chapter, holding his or her interest, and creating in the mind of your reader that wonderful compliment: “A good read. I could not put it down.”

The beauty of this research-and-switch method of creating fiction is that you can convey the genuine ambience of real settings — Istanbul, Turkey, Paris, France, etc. — without trapping your plot in specifics. So, go ahead; try it. But, whatever you decide, remember; write, write, write.


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