In a Place Far, Far Away Only in My Mind, Or—
What’s a writer to do when she wants to humiliate someone but they won’t go along willingly?
During my writing career, I have discovered that people are both thrilled and anxious about the prospect of ending up in a book involving murder and mayhem. After meeting me, some have to wonder, “How does she see me in one of her books? A detective? A suspect? Oh, my heavens, certainly not a corpse!”
The Joshua Thornton mysteries are set in Chester, West Virginia; the small town where I had grown up. In A small Case of Murder, Joshua’s parents discover a dead body in the barn on my brother’s farm. Mark has fun telling people that actually no dead body was ever found on his farm. When researching A Reunion to Die For, I took a tour of the county prosecutor’s office. Hancock County’s prosecuting attorney thinks it’s a kick having a fictional counterpart.
However, while writing the Mac Faraday mysteries, I learned that when it strikes too close to home, some people would rather the author take her murder elsewhere.
My sister-in-law had asked me to set a murder mystery in her home town, a sweet summer place in Wisconsin called Pelican Lake. At the time, I was working on a storyline that wasn’t a good fit for Joshua Thornton. So I went to work on a new series set on a lake in a resort town modeled after Pelican Lake.
I had completed the first draft of It’s Murder, My Son in time for a visit from my sister-in-law. Excited about a murder set in her town at her request, she asked for all the details. When I mentioned that the murder victim was killed in her house, I was surprised to see horror on her face. Since her home and property had a unique design and layout, anyone knowing her could easily tell that the murder took place in her home.
For the sake of family harmony, I decided to do a re-write.
As luck would have it, my family started vacationing at Deep Creek Lake in Maryland. Like Pelican Lake, this Maryland town is a resort area. It was child’s play to pick up my murder in Pelican Lake and plop it down in Deep Creek Lake, until I asked the local police department to let me portray them as a bunch of idiots.
In the storyline for It’s Murder, My Son, homicide detective Mac Faraday discovers that his birth mother is the late Robin Spencer, America’s Queen of Mystery and he is her sole heir. Upon learning that he has a half brother, police officer David O’Callaghan, he moves to Deep Creek Lake to meet him.
Mac is drawn into the murder investigation of his neighbor after Gnarly, his inherited German shepherd, drags home a dismembered head. When he sees that the chief detective is an incompetent, Mac joins David in the investigation. It is the perfect opportunity to get to know his brother better. But, as luck would have it, Mac ends up making David the prime suspect.
While rewriting It’s Murder, My Son, I was surprised when the local police department refused to cooperate in my research. Unlike the Hancock County sheriff (a protagonist) in the Joshua Thornton mysteries, the sheriff in Deep Creek Lake (an antagonist) would only give me a tour of the jail if I brought my toothbrush and planned to stay a while. The resistance was understandable. Even though I promised disclaimers in my acknowledgements about my work being completely fiction and not based on anyone real, the police department was concern about their image.
So, out of respect for the real law enforcement, I created a fictional resort town resting on the shores of the real Deep Creek Lake and had a blast doing it.
In my previous series, my imagination was fence in by the boundaries of Chester’s realities. While I was able to move the barn on my brother’s farm, I couldn’t get away with placing a twenty-five story high-rise on Carolina Avenue. Nor could I change the town’s history to fit a storyline.
When a murder mystery is set in a real town, readers expect the writer to be true to the facts. Even with a work of fiction, readers familiar with the area have a hard time forgiving authors when they rewrite their hometown’s history or change the streets. Even if the author had a legitimate reason for making the change, to the reader, it looks like sloppy research. For example, a woman once told me that she had stopped reading a series set in Washington DC when the writer had placed an exit ramp off Rock Creek Parkway that wasn’t there.
When I sat down to create the setting for It’s Murder, My Son, like a bird set free from a cage, my imagination opened its wings and soared. Since this was my town, I had the freedom to do with it as I saw fit.
Thus, Spencer, Maryland, was founded.
Nestled in a corner of Deep Creek Lake, Spencer is named after my protagonist’s ancestors. As the descendent of the town’s founders, the character of Mac Faraday has political influence that he otherwise couldn’t have inherited.
Since my first draft had already been on a lake in Wisconsin, I duplicated that setting in Spencer, but added some of my own touches. Mac Faraday’s cedar and stone home rests at the end of the most expensive piece of real estate on Deep Creek Lake. The peninsula houses a half-dozen lake houses that grow in size and grandeur along the stretch of Spencer Court, which ends at the stone pillars marking the multi-million dollar estate that had been the birthplace and home of one of the world’s most famous authors.
My fictional setting’s affluence is born out of necessity. While this lakeside town is small, it also has its own police department. In order to make that feasible, I had to make Spencer a getaway for the rich and famous.
From the lakeshore, Spencer’s border stretches up and over a mountain, on top of which rests the Spencer Inn, a resort and spa, which is also part of Mac’s inheritance. Ironically, before his windfall, he couldn’t have afforded to eat there.
While it is fun to create a fictional setting, the writer does need to keep hold on the reins. The setting needs to fit with the surrounding area. Readers familiar with Deep Creek Lake would never buy an exclusive resort town like Spencer on their shores if in fact the area was an impoverished swamp. In reality, Deep Creek Lake is a popular vacation spot for people from Washington, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and all the surrounding areas. The million dollar homes in my setting fit right in with the real vacation houses that dot the lake and mountainside.
Lauren Carr fell in love with mysteries when her mother read Perry Mason to her at bedtime. The first installment in the Joshua Thornton mysteries, A Small Case of Murder was a finalist for the Independent Publisher Book Award. A Reunion to Die For was released in hardback in June 2007. Both of these books are in re-release.
Lauren is also the author of the Mac Faraday Mysteries, which takes place in Deep Creek Lake, Maryland. The first two books in her series, It’s Murder, My Son and Old Loves Die Hard have been getting rave reviews from readers and reviewers. The next book in this series, Shades of Murder, will be released in spring 2012. This will be Lauren’s fifth mystery.
The president of Acorn Book Services, Lauren is also a publisher, consultant, editor, cover and layout designer, and marketing agent for independent authors.
Lauren is a popular speaker who has made appearances at schools, youth groups, and on author panels at conventions. She also passes on what she has learned in her years of writing and publishing by conducting workshops and teaching in community education classes.
She lives with her husband, son, and two dogs on a mountain in Harpers Ferry, WV.
Visit Lauren’s websites and blog at: