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In award-winning author Elizabeth J. Duncan’s tenth Penny Brannigan mystery set in North Wales, Canadian amateur sleuth Penny Brannigan attends a dinner party at a posh country house–where a historic chair disappears and a waiter is murdered.
Artist and spa owner Penny Brannigan has been asked to organize a formal dinner to mark the centenary of the armistice that ended World War One. After dinner, the guests adjourn to the library for a private exhibition of the Black Chair, a precious piece of Welsh literary history awarded in 1917 to poet Hedd Wyn. But to the guests’ shock, the newly restored bardic chair is missing. And then Penny discovers the rain-soaked body of a waiter.
When Penny learns that the victim was the nephew of one of her employees, she is determined to find the killer. Meanwhile, the local police search for the Black Chair. The Prince of Wales is due to open an exhibit featuring the chair in three weeks, so time is not on their side. A visit to a nursing home to consult an ex-thief convinces Penny that the theft of the Black Chair and the waiter’s murder are connected. She rushes to Dublin to consult a disagreeable antiquarian, who might know more than he lets on, and during the course of her investigation confronts a gaggle of suspicious travelers and an eccentric herbalist who seems to have something to hide. Can Penny find the chair and the culprit before she is laid to rest in the green grass of Wales?
Solving the mystery in a foreign setting
Authors are often advised to ‘write what you know’. And although there’s a lot of debate about what that means, when you set your book in a foreign land, you’re setting yourself up for a whole lot of complications because you just don’t know the place as well as your homeland.
I’m a Canadian, and I live in Toronto, Canada, but I chose to set my Penny Brannigan mysteries in North Wales after an afternoon visit to Llanrwst, a market town on the banks of the River Conwy. This picturesque place, with its three-arched, seventeenth century bridge, gothic revival church, and friendly town centre seemed the perfect location for a cosy mystery, and ten books later, it proved to be everything I thought it would be, and more. (I renamed it Llanelen for my fictional purposes.)Of course, when I wrote my first book, The Cold Light of Mourning, I had no idea the series would stretch to ten.
My decision to set that book in Britain didn’t come completely out of the blue, however.I’ve always loved the UK, and at one point in my life, lived in London for five years.
But setting involves so much more than descriptions of a physical place. It also includes the way the characters live their lives … it’s the way we do things around here.
For credibility, an author has to get every aspect of setting right, and online searches will take you only so far. You have to be familiar and comfortable with the place where your book is set, and the more time you spend there, the better.
I now spend five months a year in Wales, and although the time flies by, I have the luxury of being able to immerse myself in the culture. I ride the buses and go to the pub so I can listen to people talking. I pay attention to their word choices. I spend time in shops, I go out and about with Welsh friends, I watch telly, and just generally absorb as much as I can, and trust that every nuance I pick up will inform my writing, adding richness, depth, veracity, and that all-important credibility.
Credibility is a critical component of the contract between author and reader because the reader has to believe that the author knows what he or she is writing about. A reader might forgive or overlook one or two errors, but probably no more. Too many pull the reader out of the story. Using the appropriate names for things reinforces the setting. In Wales, it’s a mobile, not a cell phone, a railway station not a train station, a car park, not a parking lot. Job titles and roles are different from North America.
So I’m grateful to friends in Wales who read my manuscripts and pick up on the occasional word, or its usage, that doesn’t work or isn’t accurate. Like this one: do you know the difference between a cemetery and a graveyard? While both are burial grounds, a graveyard is always associated with a church.
When it comes to a foreign setting, the devil’s in the details.
About the Author
A two-time winner of the Bloody Words (Bony Blithe) Award for Canada’s best light mystery, Elizabeth J. Duncan is the author of two series of traditional mysteries: the Penny Brannigan series set in North Wales and Shakespeare in the Catskills featuring costume designer and amateur sleuth Charlotte Fairfax. A former journalist, public relations practitioner, and college professor, Elizabeth is a faculty member of the Humber School for Writers. She divides her time between Toronto, Canada, and Llandudno, North Wales.