Today, join mystery author Maria Hudgins as she takes us on a trip around the world. And it's free!
Faraway Places with Strange-sounding Names
Each of my mystery novels is set in a different country and there are 195 countries on the planet. If I write one novel a year, I figure, I won’t run out of settings until the year 2201. (I’ve already done three) Of course, there’s method in my madness because I love to go places. I ain’t dumb. Unfortunately, I have yet to convince my accountant that I can deduct travel expenses before I’ve actually used the setting in a book and the lag time, my friends, is years.
Ah, well. If I didn’t write, I’d still travel.
Wherever I go I’m on the lookout for settings to use and also for spots mentioned in my favorite mysteries. When I read a story set in London or New York I always keep a city map beside me and follow the sleuth (or the killer) around from street to street. Did you know London has a Baker Street but there’s no 221B on it? Sherlock Holmes would have had to sleep on the sidewalk I guess. Seriously, when you’re writing fiction you have to be careful not to put the action in someone’s real house. Especially not a murder. The real-life residents tend to get upset about that.
I have attended church services in the thousand-year-old church in Oxford where Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane were married. Let’s forget the fact that they were fictional and the church is real! I’ve located a dozen other places in Oxford used in the Inspector Morse episodes, including, I kid you not, Gill the Ironmongers. Revisit Last Bus to Woodstock if you have it handy. I have attended a real murder trial in London’s Old Bailey. It’s almost exactly like the Edward Petherbridge/Harriet Walter Strong Poison, except they now have laptops on all the desks and the women in the gallery don’t wear big hats. And the carpet is new. By the way, they’ll let you go in to observe but DON’T bring a camera. And your belongings will be searched.
In Vienna, I saw the Prater Wheel, the big Ferris wheel that figures prominently in Graham Greene’s The Third Man. Remember the tense scene with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton in the amusement park? I looked at the manhole covers in downtown Vienna but stopped short of taking the sewer system tour I’ve heard they offer to die-hard fans of the movie.
In England summer before last, I rented a car and drove around in the Cotswold Hills soaking up the air in the little villages that have been the setting of so many mysteries. Trying to drive in the Cotswolds was a big mistake. Chipping Norton, Bourton-on-the-Water, Shipton-under-Wychwood, Lower Slaughter –even the names are mysterious.
In Aswan, Egypt my travel mates and I took a felucca trip, which sailed us past the Old Cataract Hotel, where Agatha Christie wrote part of Death on the Nile. Our guide pointed out the terrace where she (allegedly) sat and wrote. A couple of days later, our ferry lucked into docking beside the very boat used in filming the BBC version of that same story starring David Suchet as Poirot.
I looked it up online. Yes, you can sail the Nile on it. No, it isn’t cheap.
Do I think setting is important in a mystery? Absolutely. The tone of the story makes all the difference. Is setting more important than plot or characters? No. I don’t know how to answer that because the writer forgets any of these three at his own peril. Ask yourself. Would you care to read a mystery with a dull setting? With cardboard characters? With a dumb plot? I thought not.
I’m always on the lookout for new settings and I’ve found several I really want to use if I ever run into a plot or characters that fit them. One is Highgate Cemetery in London. It’s spooky and it has hundreds of little paths leading off to who knows where. Another is Zermatt, Switzerland. There is a wonderful tunnel leading straight into a mountain and to an elevator. You’d never know it was there unless you were told. If anyone reading this is a writer, help yourself to these settings. I give them to you.
How about the big island of Hawaii? I don’t know. I’ve never been to Hawaii but since I’m going there for the Left Coast Crime Conference in March, you can be sure I’ll have my eyes open for possibilities.
Maria Hudgins’s Dotsy Lamb Travel Mysteries include: Death of an Obnoxious Tourist, 2006, Death of a Lovable Geek, 2008, and Death on the Aegean Queen, coming in 2010. You can visit her website at www.mariahudgins.com
One aside from Terry: There is a 221B Baker Street in London, but it's a museum. The Sherlock Holmes Museum. Says a lot that people are willing to fork over bucks to see the "history" of a fictional character! (Yes, I'm one of them.)