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 in her eyes. 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.
In 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 police 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. Their 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 fenced 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.
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 other vacation houses that dot the lake and mountainside.
Writing It’s Murder, My Son was an amazing ride. As a writer, it is exhilarating to let your imagination go free without the reins of reality. Who knows, maybe in Max Faraday’s next adventure, I’ll have him go into a galaxy far, far away—or was that already done?