Thursday, April 29, 2010

Guest Blog - Stalking the English Village by Maria Hudgins

Stalking the little English Village

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time: Why can’t cozy mysteries set in today’s America evoke the same charm we find in those of the Golden Age? I’m talking about the murder in a little English village where everybody knows everybody else. Where the village idiot is as much a part of the community as the doctor but is never referred to as challenged, special, or any other modern euphemism. Where curtains shift when a car drives past. American mysteries seem to be either urban with lots of blood and action, or suburban with everyone on the block the same age, upper-middle class, and flashing impossibly white teeth.

Our failure is certainly not for lack of trying. A quick scan of the mystery section at Barnes and Noble reveals dozens of new cozy titles every month. But (okay, here’s where someone throws a heavy object at me) many of them are silly. Some insult the reader’s intelligence. Some feature towns where the smartest residents are either feline or canine.

Essential features of the cozy plot include an isolated or limited group of suspects, a victim that everyone knew but no one will miss very much, and a murder committed under baffling circumstances. Usually we have an amateur sleuth but not always. Usually the body is discovered near the beginning of the story and the solution is revealed near the end. Usually the clues needed to solve the mystery are right there, in black and white, but still somehow concealed.

Readers of cozies are intelligent people who love a mental challenge. The only thing they like more than figuring out “whodunit” before the author tells them is NOT figuring it out and slapping themselves on the forehead with “Oh, no! How did I miss it?”

For this reason, plotting a mystery is hard. So hard I have to squeeze my eyes tight shut, groan, hands on head—basically the same process as childbirth—and twist my clues, red herrings, and sub-plots around until something makes sense.

Back to my original question: Whatever happened to the little English village? Do they still exist? On a recent trip to the English Cotswolds, I rented a car (big mistake) and drove around looking for that quiet, charming place where a good murder or two would upset the local applecart and bring out the nosy Parkers. They do still exist! They are as pretty as ever, but they’re not the same. The photo is one I took on my ramble through the countryside west of Oxford. What’s different? Under the thatched roofs they now have computers and TVs and microwaves. The man and the woman of the house are both wage-earners, employed in jobs that didn’t exist twenty years ago. Their children have tattoos and wear T-shirts with strange messages. A Beamer sits in the driveway.

On the other hand, I did find one sign that told me the quaint little village hasn’t changed all that much. A chalkboard menu outside a tiny tearoom announced the arrival of Samantha’s four boys and two girls. I suspect Samantha is neither human, cow, nor horse, but is a valued member of the community anyway. Samantha and offspring were all doing well.

Maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. Maybe I should quit looking for the modern equivalent of the little English village and content myself, as I have been doing, with settings that isolate a small group of suspects. So far I’ve used a Scottish castle, a tour bus, and a cruise ship. The story I’m working on now takes place in a Swiss chateau high in the Alps.

What do you think? Where can I go to find a great setting for a mystery?

Many thanks to Pamela and Terri for inviting me in today. Please check out my website, www.mariahudgins.com.

12 comments:

  1. Even the little American towns seem to have that flavor its true.
    Terri

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  2. I've always thought a bed-n-breakfast is a wonderful american setting for a mystery and I do get a quaint cozy feel from B&B settings.
    Pamela

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  3. I think American writers can and do pull off cozy mysteries. I've read some good ones, particularly published by Five Star.

    Of course, I have to say that no one surpasses Agatha Christie in that regard.
    But no need for us to imitate. My last mystery, THE DROWNING POOL, combines elements of the cozy with the police procedural. I see nothing wrong with doing cross genre mystery writing. Why hearken back to the Golden Age when we can create unique modern mystery fiction?

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  4. Your friend JeanneApril 29, 2010 at 2:19 PM

    Maybe there are some small towns settings left in the N.America, possibly small fishing or farming towns along the coasts or somewhere in middle America. Remember "Murder She Wrote"? Most of our shows and books seem to take place in big fast paced cities but Pamela's suggestion of a B&B is a good one, maybe somewhere in a sleepy southern town.

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  5. Maybe we are more concerned with the characters than the setting?

    Terri

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  6. I think that part of the problem could be the fact that rarely do you find a small town where everyone still knows each other. I've lived in a small town for most of my life and 40 years ago I could tell you who lived in each and every house in town. I'm not even close to that now. I was thinking earlier this afternoon as I drove down our Main Street that even the shops have changed. WalMart, Home Depot, Stop & Shop, for example have taken away meeting spots in our town. I think we are all just too much on the move.

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  7. Aha! I hadn't thought about that. The stores have indeed had a huge effect on changing how we get to know each other. WalMart isn't where you run into people you know, stop and talk. Where is main street, now? We dash through huge parking lots to giant stores.

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  8. Enjoyed all the comments and am glad to know there are all these interesting small town cozies either out or WIP :-)
    My Merrivale series (first out in Jan.) simply incorporates the 'gifted' citizens and the local gossip chain is alive and thriving. Zumaya has four MS in hand and there will be a new one every year, they're listed on Amazon etc.
    Good luck-happy reading and writing to all of us :-)
    Jackie Griffey

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  9. I find there are plenty of "English type" villages in American cozies. For example, Rett McPherson's series is mostly set in a small town where everyone knows or is related to everyone else.

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  10. I love cozy little English villages as well. Although I've only been to them in books. You're right about our American stories. The suburbs can be funny but it's just not the same. I love quaint with all the people who seem such a constant part of each others lives. Great blog.

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  11. Maria: I read your blog with interest. I'm going to London in July and hope to get to the Cotswolds. Places for settings? Normandy, in the fog. Backstage at Carnegie Hall. Geez, makes me want to try my hand at cozys.

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  12. Hello There,
    I just wanted to see if you were currently interested in additional guest bloggers for your blog site.
    I see that you've accepted some guest posters in the past - are there any specific guidelines you need me to follow while making submissions?
    If you're open to submissions, whom would I need to send them to?
    I'm eager to send some contributions to your blog and think that I can cover some interesting topics.
    Thanks for your time,
    Tess

    ReplyDelete

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