Worldbuilding in the Cozy Mystery

Whether you are planning a stand-alone mystery or an entire series, the setting of your cozy will play a large role in the success of your story. Before you even start writing, it’s a good idea to give serious thought to the world of your sleuth and how this world will interact with the other elements of your story.

There are two main components to worldbuilding: the physical setting and the intangible elements.

Let’s begin by thinking about the physical environment of your story world. When is your cozy set? Is it present-day? Is it some time in the past? Where is the setting geographically located? Are you modeling your setting on a real place you’ve been or a composite of places? Is your setting completely made up?

Don’t forget to define for yourself the climate, topography, flora, and fauna of your setting. What season is your story set in? How can weather play a part in your storyline? Do the plants and animals in your setting play a role in your storyline?

When describing your setting, work it into the action instead of one big dump of description. Below is an expert from my cozy The Good, the Bad, and the Pugly in which our sleuth, Emma, discovers she’s inherited a rundown roadside tourist attraction called Little Tombstone. During the course of the conversation Emma has with her late aunt’s lawyer, we gradually find out what Little Tombstone is rather than having all that information dumped in one fat paragraph.

“Aunt Geraldine is leaving me Little Tombstone?” I asked.

“According to the terms of her will, Mrs. Montgomery has left you nearly everything she possessed, yes,” Mr. Wendell said. “The few exceptions are addressed in the later pages.”

He smiled an impersonal smile, displaying a row of very white, very straight teeth. I doubted Mr. Wendell ever went around for hours, oblivious to the fact that part of his lunch was on display every time he opened his mouth. At least everyone I’d seen since noon would know I was the sort of responsible citizen who ate her vegetables and did her part to keep rising health care costs at bay by practicing preventative medicine.

I smiled back at Mr. Wendell with my lips pressed firmly together. Smiling with my mouth shut makes me look slightly deranged, but as Mr. Wendell had obviously had extensive dealings with my Great Aunt Geraldine, he shouldn’t be surprised to discover that being slightly deranged runs in the family.

“I’m getting the café building?” I asked.

“Yes. The Bird Cage Café is included on the deed.”

“And the little shop with that funny old man—Hank? He runs that weird museum thingy?”

“The Curio Shop and Museum of the Unexplained, yes. Hank Edwards leases that portion of the premises, although I understand his rent amounts to a purely symbolic sum.”

“Hank will become my tenant?”

“In the latter half of the will, Mr. Edward’s use of the premises is discussed. It seems your aunt had granted Mr. Edwards tenancy for life at what seemed to me a rather reduced rent.”

“How reduced?”

“The will stipulates the rent to remain, in perpetuity, at ten dollars a month.”

If I hadn’t been so shocked by the will in its entirety, I would have asked a lot more questions about the relationship between Hank Edwards and my Great Aunt Geraldine—not that Mr. Wendell would have been in a position to answer them—but I didn’t. At the moment, I had more pressing concerns.

“Aunt Geraldine left me the trailer court too?”

“Yes, also with several long-term tenants, although I won’t deceive you that the rents amount to much. You are free to raise those rents, unlike Mr. Edwards’, at your discretion.”

“And the motel?”

“There are the two tourist cottages as well as the eight-room motel, all of which are vacant and virtually derelict.”

“If Aunt Geraldine was this loaded,” I pointed down at the documents on Mr. Wendell’s desk, “why is Little Tombstone in such bad shape?”

“I’m afraid Mrs. Montgomery did not confide in me her reasons for allowing things to run into such disrepair.”

The more your characters interact not only with each other but with their environment, the more interesting your story will be. The more clearly you, as the writer, understand your story world, the more likely you are to make your characters interact with it.

Describe the physical aspects of the community your cozy is set in. How big is your town? How sprawling? How does the settlement interact with the topography?

Consider establishing a few “sets” within the larger town where much of the action will take place and decide in advance what these “sets” look like. How are the buildings where the action occurs laid out? Are they tidy or unkempt? In pristine or falling apart at the seams?

Returning to an example from The Good, the Bad, and the Pugly, Emma sees Little Tombstone for the first time in three years in the following passage, and we get an excellent feel for the condition of the place and are introduced to the Bird Cage Café, an often used “set” during the course of the entire series.

When we reached Little Tombstone, a mere half-mile north of Mr. Wendell’s office, it looked much as I had left it three years before. Little Tombstone had looked shabby then, and it looked shabby now.

According to the deed, which I’d received along with Aunt Geraldine’s will, Little Tombstone sat on one hundred and fifty acres, but the buildings were clustered on three blocks’ worth of street frontage along Highway 14. The buildings were on the far north edge of the tiny village of Amatista, but the bulk of the land attached to Little Tombstone extended into rolling hills dotted with sagebrush and cactus interrupted by the occasional arroyo.

Little Tombstone proper—a haphazard and truncated imitation of the original historic town in Arizona—had originally been my grandfather’s idea back in the 1970s, but his idea had outlived him by forty years. After my grandfather’s unexpected death left my grandmother a very young and overwhelmed single mother raising a daughter on her own, she had invited her sister Geraldine and Geraldine’s husband, Ricky, to move to Amatista and help run the roadside attraction—then in its heyday.

Judging by the condition of the place, Little Tombstone’s heyday was over, never to return.

Mr. Wendell bypassed the eight-unit motel with its broken-out windows and collapsing roof and pulled up in front of the Bird Cage Café, the only building within the three blocks’ worth of weather-beaten structures which had any cars parked in front of it. I pulled into the gravel strip which fronted the dilapidated boardwalk that tied the whole crumbling monstrosity together.

Mr. Wendell climbed out of his Land Rover and navigated the broken steps leading up to the elevated boardwalk with a look on his face that plainly said, “This place is a personal injury lawsuit waiting to happen.”

I made a mental note to use a bit of the cash my Great Aunt Geraldine had left sitting in the bank to get someone out to fix those steps before some poor soul broke his neck.

I’d always assumed that Aunt Geraldine had let things get in such a sorry state because she lacked the funds to do anything about it, but, based on the assets enumerated in the list I’d just received from my aunt’s lawyer, I’d assumed wrong. Aunt Geraldine had been practically rolling in dough.

Mr. Wendell held open the swinging saloon-style doors, which led into a small open-air vestibule.

“You may find that Mrs. Gonzales is still somewhat distraught over your great aunt’s passing,” he said as we paused in front of the glass door which led into the café’s dining room.

I noticed one of the panes of glass in the door was broken out and had been covered over with an old license plate screwed haphazardly to the frame.

As Mr. Wendell pushed open the door, a bell jingled overhead. The dining room was empty except for a wizened old man I immediately recognized as Hank, the proprietor of the Curio Shop and curator of the Museum of the Unexplained next door.

Hank was sitting at a table for two in the back corner, sipping a cup of coffee and smoking a cigar. He’d overturned one of the little plastic No Smoking signs that sat on each table and was using it as an improvised ashtray. 

In addition to imagining the physical aspects of your story world, you need to consider the people who inhabit it.

Aside from your main characters, it’s useful to have a supporting cast that is anchored to the place and time of your story world and helps reinforce what makes the community unique and colorful. Part of worldbuilding is creating supporting characters who seem very much at home in your story world but would stick out like a sore thumb anywhere else. Supporting characters should be very much a “product of their environment.”

In the following passage from The Good, the Bad, and the Pugly, we meet Morticia, Little Tombstone’s resident fortune teller. 

The trailer court occupied a tumbleweed-strewn lot behind the derelict motel. One corner was taken up by a couple of rundown tourist cottages, and the remainder by a double row of narrow concrete slabs with a gravel alley running down the middle. Only three of the twelve slots were occupied.

Morticia’s motorhome, which functioned both as her home and business premises, was easily the most striking feature of the trailer court. It occupied the prime position nearest the side street.

There was no danger of anyone passing by without noticing Morticia’s ancient Winnebago. She’d painted it every color of the rainbow, and the central feature of the design was an enormous, vaguely menacing eye painted on the side. Underneath the eye were the words: Tarot. Your Future Foretold. Free 10-Minute Readings.

Morticia never charged for the first ten minutes, but she’d always make some breakthrough discovery at the nine-and-a-half-minute mark. Surprisingly often, according to my Aunt Geraldine, Morticia’s hapless clients would happily fork over her standard rate of three dollars a minute to hear what the cards had belatedly revealed.

Morticia answered the door on my first knock. The smell of incense wafted out the open door of the Winnebago, and from within the patchouli-scented interior, I heard a miniature sneeze.

“Sorry about your aunt,” Morticia said without preamble. “Somebody should have told you she was sick. I’d have called you myself if I’d known Geraldine was keeping it from you.”

What mannerisms and speech patterns do people in your community have in common? What are their unique cultural practices and beliefs? Are they religious? Are they committed to common causes? Are there annual traditions and celebrations that can work their way into your storylines?

In the following passage, Juanita, a supporting character in the Little Tombstone series, is described as a churchgoer, followed by a chunk of worldbuilding description and an introduction of another supporting character, Pastor Freddy, who also provides “local color” throughout the series.

Juanita is a big churchgoer. There are two tiny religious congregations in Amatista. The Catholics have an ancient adobe chapel that gets a visit from a succession of random priests who conduct mass about every third Sunday. The other congregation is a group of nondenominational Protestants who meet in the back of Freddy Fernandez’s barbershop. Freddy’s barbershop sits right next to the Bird Cage Café, so it’s certainly convenient. Freddy isn’t really a pastor, but that’s what Juanita calls him anyway. 

Considering the history of the community can also be a useful way to make your setting more vivid and provide opportunities to come up with unique story ideas by tying the past to the present, as demonstrated in the following passage where Emma discovers a bit of local history which is intertwined in the present-day mystery.

I moved on to a scrapbook. It was full of newspaper clippings. They’d been added over a long period of time, perhaps a span of a decade or so from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, and the only unifying theme seemed to be local history.

There was one article about the derelict amethyst mine, which closed in the 1960s and which was responsible for the town of Amatista’s name. There was another about Amatista being home to New Mexico’s first lady physician in the 1880s (apparently, the lady doctor wore a gent’s suit so convincingly that the local populace had only discovered they’d not been treated by a man after she herself fell deathly ill). Towards the back of the scrapbook was a series of articles about a stagecoach robbery.

According to the articles, back in 1910, a stagecoach carrying mail to Santa Fe had been robbed by two outlaws who murdered the stagecoach driver and made off, not with the mail, but with a consignment of gold coins the stagecoach had been transporting. The outlaws had been caught within days, not far from the village of Amatista, but before they were captured, they’d succeeded in stashing the gold somewhere. One of the robbers had died in prison, and the other had been eighty and in poor health by the time he’d been released. Whether the surviving outlaw had succeeded in eventually retrieving his ill-gotten gains was uncertain.

According to one article, it had been a major local hobby for a while to go out with a metal detector and a shovel and try to find that fortune in old gold coins. There was even an article featuring a picture of my Great Uncle Ricky wandering around in the sagebrush with his metal detector in front of him. The headline read, “Local Man Looks for Treasure.”

Tucked into the page containing that clipping was a crude map.

The map consisted of several sheets of graph paper taped together with yellowed and brittle tape. I gingerly unfolded the papers and tried to make sense of the diagram. The buildings of Little Tombstone, the road to Nancy Flynn’s ranch, and the cemetery were all labeled. Even the arroyo I’d fallen into earlier in the night was shown by a pair of faded squiggly parallel lines.

Don’t underestimate the importance of local lore and superstition as part of your worldbuilding. Throughout the Little Tombstone series, several of the characters maintain a belief in Chupacabras—mythical creatures believed by some to inhabit the desert of the American southwest. This misapprehension weaves itself into multiple storylines throughout the series. Choosing regionally-specific oddities adds richness to your story world. In the following excerpt, Emma’s cousin references her young son’s obsession with Chupacabras.

We’ve got to do something about Hank.”

Georgia spoke quietly as if worried little ears were listening. I could hear Maxwell back in the spare bedroom he currently shared with his mother. He was solemnly instructing Earp on the hunting habits of the Chupacabra and how the rare beasts could be observed in the wild if one went out in search of them under the full moon.

I had no doubt where Maxwell had come upon this information. The cornerstone exhibit in Hank’s Museum of the Unexplained consisted of a family of stuffed Chupacabras. Grandma Wright and Great Aunt Geraldine had always insisted the family of mythical creatures were the work of a talented and highly creative taxidermist, but Hank, himself, was completely convinced of the Chupacabras’ authenticity.

“I wouldn’t worry about Hank influencing Maxwell to devote his life to the study of Chupacabras,” I told Georgia. “Maxwell will eventually figure out Hank’s just a crazy old coot.” 

You don’t need to completely define your story world before you start writing but having some idea of what makes your story world unique and interesting can certainly jumpstart your process and help you come up with more interesting storylines.

Whenever you define some aspect of your story world, make sure you note it down. Setting details should become part of your series bible.

Early on in your series, settings must be described in greater detail. By the time you get to book three in a series, you can ease off on the details, but you should still sketch out enough that readers jumping in mid-series can still make sense of what’s going on.

Worldbuilding can be one of the most satisfying aspects of planning your cozy mystery series. Remember that all those quirky details unique to your setting are what make your story world such a charming corner of the mystery universe.

Ultimately, you want both your characters and your readers to feel a genuine affection for your story world. Here are the final lines from Lonesome Glove, the third Little Tombstone mystery where Emma finally accepts that she’s at home:

I hadn’t been lying to Maxwell. I was crying tears of happiness. They were also tears of relief. It was as if some invisible cord tying me to my old life with Frank in California had been irrevocably severed, and I was finally free to throw myself wholeheartedly into my new life at Little Tombstone.

Little Tombstone might be raveling apart at the seams and its inhabitants collectively several eggs short of an omelet, but never had any place felt so much like home.

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