How important is the setting or time period to everyone?

DAgent

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I'm currently working on outlines for two different detective stories, one set between the World Wars, the other a bit more nondescript in that it could be set today, or any time since the 60's, I've got a sort of vagueness to it that could lend itself to any time period but it might work best before the more modern technology of today was around. I kind of think this would show the detective having to use his brains more.

But all of this got me thinking about settings. If you were going to make your own detective story, what time period would you find gives you the most challenge and what would that challenge be?

A far future Sci Fi setting to my mind might make it a bit too easy to solve the crime depending on just how high tech the police gear is. A modern day setting might have the same kind of issues given just what they can do today. Setting it in the 60's or earlier might give more of a challenge but at the same time might give readers an expectation of more sort of pulpy fun, shoot outs and femme fatales, but go back to the Victorian period and you might get people accusing you of making up your own Sherlock. Going for a medieval setting might be interesting because no tech to really help out.
 

Flaviosky

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A far future Sci Fi setting to my mind might make it a bit too easy to solve the crime depending on just how high tech the police gear is
Yeah, but don't forget that police technology is usually reactive, meaning that the technology is used to counter a new method of crime. Criminals always have the lead in bending the rules and established methods.

Also It'd be interesting to have a murderer using so old fashioned methods and tools that may render the authorities confused, and have the criminal getting away with it using cunning alone
 

AnyaKimlin

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I wrote a contemporary world with some technology we currently have but more frequent (things like automated vehicles and farms) and I created a reason they hadn't achieved air travel because fighter jets would mess with my bird shifting elements. It was fairly easy as has been everything futuristic because a certain amount of imagination can come into it. Also as long as it's logical nobody can say you got it wrong.

My current story is a fantasy/magical realism detective story set in the North of Scotland in the autumn of 1829 (I wanted the aftermath of the Great Flood (in Moray) to create problems for witches). It's fairly easy because there is only one definitive text on the flood. It's far enough back that there are loop holes and lack of information that I can exploit.

Speaking from experience and in terms of research, by far the hardest detective story I ever wrote was set in 1912 - the Edwardian era up to WWI was moving so quickly with innovation that what was true for 1911 or 1913 didn't automatically work for 1912 and I had to get the months and days right. Flight suits, cars, phones, pens, the way the police read people their rights all changed in 1912. Even the aquarium in her father's study would be different if it was new to one he had purchased in 1911. Unfortunately because it involved suffragettes and I cars to be coming into a reasonable amount of use it couldn't be set in any other years either because of the cessation of activity by the suffragettes in some years. I wanted to start by blowing up a pillar box. Victorian era onwards is so well documented that you have to get it right.
 

.matthew.

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I'd say pick the time period that you are most interested in. That way your passion for it will show through.

Also less research :)

For me, it would depend on the type of book. If I was trying a detective novel I'd love to set it in the 1920s - noir style for example.
 

Wayne Mack

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Setting or time period can provide two things to the story: constraints on the plot line and interest or a sense of wonder.

For example, a closed room murder mystery precludes many obvious solutions thus requiring a more involved scenario. A foreign country may provide interest due to local culture. A fantasy world may provide interest by presenting unique races and creatures. A story, however, cannot survive on these alone. Setting and time period only support the plot and characters.
 

sknox

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Funny you should say that because I'm currently working on a mystery set in the Middle Ages (alternate history, fantasy). I'm exploring how magic might work in both committing and solving a crime.

So, in this case anyway, the setting was absolutely crucial. I had to choose what time period (because understanding of magic evolves over the centuries in Altearth), though the physical setting was less important. Chosen mainly for color though also to help set some narrative constraints.

I've never written a mystery, and it's been interesting to me as a writer to see how changing elements (e.g., character, place, magical skills, legal and social custom) can affect the plot and even the genre (few detective novels, for example, have a team rather than a solo lead).

But here as with all writing, it's not really a single choice. Rather, there is a dialectic between all the story elements--setting, plot, theme, character--with each affecting the other iteratively and unpredictably.
 

Dragonlady

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this is what puts me off writing in the real world- I worry a lot that I'll not research well enough and make anachronistic assumptions.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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It is very important to me. As a reader, I like books where the writer takes care over such things and so, as a writer, that is the kind of book I try to write. As a result, I do a lot of research. Since I quite enjoy reading about the details of everyday life in other times and places, this is a pleasure for me rather than a hardship or a duty or a virtue. It can make me a very picky reader, though.

I have a number of favorite historical periods, so I tend to be drawn to stories set in those periods. On the other hand, I also enjoy books set in fantastical worlds that have little resemblance to any particular period of our own. Even there, though, I like the setting to be consistent and the story to fit logically into the setting. I am speaking as a reader here.

As a writer, except for a few short stories I tend to draw inspiration from my two favorite periods, the Middle Ages and the 17th-18th century.

The only mystery I have ever written (a locked-room mystery for an anthology mixing murder and magic) was set in a secondary world setting with a flavor of the late 18th century. Since the crime was committed using magic, it followed that the official charged with solving the crime needed some background in magic in order to accomplish that.
 

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Mm. And it isn't "just" research as it were - it is being immersed in the subject/period and knowing when to fuzz things a bit. You can research individual topics, and not spot the gaps. For example the changing cost of metal - that it was far more expensive in the 17th century compared to income than after mass production. So people might own one needle - and keep it in a special case. I've read (stopped reading) historical fiction where someone turned over in a 17th century bed and said the springs creaked. No. The bed could creak, but there would be no sprung mattress. If they'd kept it more general and said the bed creaked, that would have worked better. Though having said that, there was an English Civil War novel I read which was pretty good on the politics, the costume, the songs, fun characters and plot and then this scene where two characters are going to defend the house by firing a cannon. I used to be in the artillery. And the author commented on how lucky it was that the previous winter the male character had taken the whole thing apart and greased it and re-assembled it. Excuse me? It is a solid cast cylinder of metal with a hole drilled up the middle. The gun carriage had moving bits - but they didn't move it. It really wouldn't have taken a vast amount of effort to look up pictures of 17th century cannon and how to fire them.....I actually wrote to the author about it and had a brush off answer about how hard it was to look things up before the internet and she'd thought it a reasonable thing to say (which it would have been in something with moving parts) - or in other words she wasn't that interested in cannon compared to costume and politics because there were certainly reference books in libraries with that kind of info.
And having had that rant on the mostly negative side - it can be done well and has been done (to the best of my knowledge which is weaker on Medieval-ish than 17th century, The Deeds of Paksennarion is spot on) I would also note that it is easier to do today, or less hard, at least on some periods, thanks to all the videos by enthusiasts and re-enactors. And trying to go to living histories if you are talking 17th century, Napoleonic and actually quite a few periods.
 

DAgent

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Mm. And it isn't "just" research as it were - it is being immersed in the subject/period and knowing when to fuzz things a bit. You can research individual topics, and not spot the gaps. For example the changing cost of metal - that it was far more expensive in the 17th century compared to income than after mass production. So people might own one needle - and keep it in a special case. I've read (stopped reading) historical fiction where someone turned over in a 17th century bed and said the springs creaked. No. The bed could creak, but there would be no sprung mattress. If they'd kept it more general and said the bed creaked, that would have worked better. Though having said that, there was an English Civil War novel I read which was pretty good on the politics, the costume, the songs, fun characters and plot and then this scene where two characters are going to defend the house by firing a cannon. I used to be in the artillery. And the author commented on how lucky it was that the previous winter the male character had taken the whole thing apart and greased it and re-assembled it. Excuse me? It is a solid cast cylinder of metal with a hole drilled up the middle. The gun carriage had moving bits - but they didn't move it. It really wouldn't have taken a vast amount of effort to look up pictures of 17th century cannon and how to fire them.....I actually wrote to the author about it and had a brush off answer about how hard it was to look things up before the internet and she'd thought it a reasonable thing to say (which it would have been in something with moving parts) - or in other words she wasn't that interested in cannon compared to costume and politics because there were certainly reference books in libraries with that kind of info.
And having had that rant on the mostly negative side - it can be done well and has been done (to the best of my knowledge which is weaker on Medieval-ish than 17th century, The Deeds of Paksennarion is spot on) I would also note that it is easier to do today, or less hard, at least on some periods, thanks to all the videos by enthusiasts and re-enactors. And trying to go to living histories if you are talking 17th century, Napoleonic and actually quite a few periods.
I've not read that particular book, but the wrong description reminds me a lot of Hollywood movies where they've not bothered to do any research and just thrown in something that they think looks cool even though it's wrong for the period.
I've seen enough cannons in various castles and monuments I've been to over the years to get a good basic idea about them, without learning how to use them properly or what the names of the parts are. She could have just pretended she was referring to the wheels and the case the cannon was in as I could see those being repaired and replaced
 

Montero

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Yeah, if the character had said "what a good thing I had the gun carriage repaired last winter" that would've been fine.

Though if you are going to do a blow by blow loading of a cannon by a pair of amateurs scene, a bit more accuracy would also be good. Plenty of opportunities to get it wrong, set yourself on fire or get your foot run over by the gun carriage from recoil. Would have been better if the gun loading had been off stage and the viewpoint character just saw the results - loud boom, jet of flame, shot sweeping away the enemy.
 

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I have read several books by Michael Jenks about a down-low Knight Templar who assists his friend - an English Sheriff - in solving crimes. Not bad at all, influenced obviously by The Name of the Rose.
 

W Collier

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We learn in grade school that the four fundamental elements of fiction are character, plot, setting, and theme, but in truth character drives everything, sometimes with theme close at hand. In any good story, the characters determine the plot and setting. You know who your characters are, but a person can only be who he is because he grew up in a particular place in a particular era, so if your characters are who they are, then you know (if you're paying attention) where and when they live. Then you have to honor that setting, and adjust the plot to fit that setting, and those themes, with those characters, or risk the most fundamental anachronism: characters who clearly are not from their purported time and place.
 

Montero

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I have read several books by Michael Jenks about a down-low Knight Templar who assists his friend - an English Sheriff - in solving crimes. Not bad at all, influenced obviously by The Name of the Rose.
Or possibly Ellis Peter's Brother Cadfael - monk in Shrewsbury at the time of Stephen and Matilda battling for the crown, he becomes friends with Hugh Beringar who by the end of book 1 (spoiler alert)

becomes the under-sheriff.

Think that actually pre-dates Name of the Rose - though love that too - well mainly the Sean Connery film.
 

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I’d say period is intrinsically informed by the story itself - or it’s needs, rather. In that regard does one have a choice in when to set it?

I particularly like writing and reading within 1750s - Edwardian period, because for horror it’s a wonderful time to explore - esp gothic-ly.

Mostly my ideas come pre-packed in terms of era.
 

sknox

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Ellis Peters was brilliant. Perhaps a half step up from Brother Cadfael, at least in terms of characters being utterly true to their setting, would be Patrick O'Brian's series about Aubrey and Maturin. There, it's not just the two leads, it's pretty much everyone who walks on stage, and the stories take place all around the world, so there's quite a variety of characters.

There's another type, though: the outsider. The first that comes to mind is someone like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. These types clearly belong to their world, but they often move into circles to which they are not native. The best example would be Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, which contains some of the more viscerally violent scenes I've ever read. There, it's an insurance investigator from San Francisco, but the story takes place in a Montana mining town. This type, the outsider, typically provides commentary (and criticism) of the worlds through which they move.

So, setting is again important (in fantasy, I'd point to portal stories), but in this case the contrast is the point.
 

KiraAnn

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I have not read Brother Cadfael but have seen the UK series with Derek Jacobi. How close were those to the books?

As for naval adventures, I prefer the Hornblower books over Maturin, myself, although they are a close second.
 

AnyaKimlin

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I have not read Brother Cadfael but have seen the UK series with Derek Jacobi. How close were those to the books?

As for naval adventures, I prefer the Hornblower books over Maturin, myself, although they are a close second.

I loved the books - it was pretty close in terms of story and character to the series.

I personally think Ellis Peters is an amazing world builder.
 

Dan Jones

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A far future Sci Fi setting to my mind might make it a bit too easy to solve the crime depending on just how high tech the police gear is.
My WIP has a mystery (a murder, no less) set in a far-flung future, and it will be interesting and fun to see how I deal with things like procedure in the face of huge technological change. But it depends on what the story is trying to do; I'm not going to get hung up on too much detail if it gets in the way of the story. For example, the story isn't a murder mystery story, that section of it just happens to open with a murder.

One thing to consider with far-future mysteries, is that the (sophisticated) criminal will also have access to new technologies as will the coppers of the day. So much as criminals in the early 2000s started to use disposable burner phones to evade detection by the feds, and now organised crime uses cyber technologies, so we as writers can imagine that the crims have new means of evading capture (or conducting crime) in the first place.

My last WIP was a mystery (of sorts) set in medieval England, and the story had to be entirely informed by the story. Story has to come first, and the world around it serves it. I was having this conversation about my previous novel recently; unless you're writing proper historical fiction (mine was a ghost story set in the 14th century) then the world can bend to fit the narrative rather than the other way around.
 

sknox

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My WIP goes the other way: murder mystery set in the Middle Ages. Yeah I know, Cadfael, but this is fantasy. It's a bit analogous to the future mysteries. In the latter, tech can change how the mystery gets solved. In fantasy, the challenge is how the mystery gets solved in a world that has magic. I'm far from the first to do this, but it's not common.
 

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