Setting the Scene for a Good Story

by Mike Martin 

I know you are not supposed to, but I do judge a book, at least whether I am going to buy it or not, based on the picture on the front of the book. That’s not my primary motivation to buy a book, but it can get my attention, attract me, and draw me in. I don’t think I’m alone in that. The front cover gives me an idea of where the book may be set, and sometimes that’s enough to get me to check out the blurb at the back and a little bit about the author.

Everyone has their own personal attractions, but for me and I think a lot of mystery readers we look to the front cover as a way to see inside the book. In my first two books I choose pictures from the area in which the stories take place, small fishing communities on Canada’s east coast.

Here is the cover from Book #1, The Walker on the Cape

Walker on the cape

As you can see it was a picture of the lighthouse in Grand Bank as seen, not from land, but from the ocean. We added a little fog and rays of sunshine coming through the clouds and the effect is stunning, IMHO. I had a 7 ft. banner done up with this cover on it and used it (still use it) at book signings and other promo events. Many people would come by just to look at the picture and ask where it was taken. Some of them even bought books!! For me the cover set the scene and the scenery made the sale.

But you can’t just put a picture of the ocean on the front and expect that people will rush to look at it and then buy your books. I learned this lesson from Book # 2, The Body on the T

Here is the cover from The Body on the T

 The Body on the T

Another great picture, right? This time it is a boardwalk reaching out into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. But somehow it didn’t attract people to come over and talk with me. That was too bad because I had a great story to tell them about when you walk out on this boardwalk in Burin, Newfoundland. It could be sunny when you start but some days the fog rolls in and you feel like you are completely surrounded by fog in the middle of ocean. But, alas, they didn’t come over to hear my tale.

Why? Who knows? A design friend of mine says it’s because the first picture is darker and more mysterious and thereby more attractive to mystery readers. The second book, he felt, was too bright and sunny. Maybe it didn’t set the scene right for the story that I wanted to tell or the story inside the book.

Inside my books, scenery and setting are crucial to the story. I have often joked that the weather is a character all to itself and in an ocean-side setting that is often the case. There’s always a little bit or a lot of wind, and almost always the threat of some form of precipitation. The small communities also have their own personality and character. That has been true ever since Jessie Fletcher showed up in Cabot Cove!!

Certain things can only happen in certain settings, although as fiction writers we do stretch that as far as our reader’s imagination will take us. For my books, the small coastal communities are tightly knit and full of secrets. My job is to pry them loose. I also have a responsibility to portray an authentic voice for both the setting and the communities. The words and actions of my characters are visitors to their world and I have to try and allow both to interact with integrity.

The final thing I would say about setting and scenery is that I try to only use places that I have actually seen or visited. Just for me, I think it would be hard to write about a librarian in the Deep South, although I admire those who do. And I do try and use all my senses to describe the setting, what it looks like, sounds like, smells like, feels like and sometimes even tastes like.

I think my mission as a fiction, mystery writer is to create characters who can fit into a real world. I can manipulate both them and their surroundings a little bit in the cause of a good story. But at The End, I want readers to say that both were believable. The best way for me to do that is to try and describe the scenery and the setting as accurately as possible, from my memory or imagination. And if I do that, I think I’m doing okay.

SAM_0045Mike Martin is the author of the Windflower Mystery Series, set in small communities on the east coast of Canada. His latest book, The Body on the T, is now available in print and an e-book on

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11 thoughts on “Setting the Scene for a Good Story

  1. Thanks for guest posting today, Mike! I’m like you…I like writing about close-knit and secretive small communities. Those are great for crime writers. And interesting point about how our covers might set the stage for the story inside.

  2. I also judge a book by its cover. If the cover doesn’t pull me in, it won’t matter how good the synopsis because I’ll never read it. I’ve been fortunate that my publisher has created great covers for my books that do represent a scene in each one.

  3. Elizabeth – Thanks for hosting Mike.

    Mike – Thanks for your take on setting. There needs to be I think a good match between the kind of mystery in the story and the sort of setting it has. As you say, certain kinds of mysteries aren’t likely to take place in certain settings. Forcing it, if I can put it that way, makes a story seem contrived.

  4. Many thanks to Elizabeth for allowing me some of your time and cyberspace. This is an interesting discussion and I hope that others will join. I still like watching Murder She Wrote on re-runs, but some of the situations in Cabot Cove don’t really match the settings!!
    Mike Martin

  5. Mike– You raise issues of importance to all writers, especially to indies. Thank you.
    I’m no book designer, but I’ve tried to educate myself a little bit about covers. My reaction to your two covers, why one succeeded better than the other, is this: cover one relies on a single, unambiguous image–the lighthouse. That image fits well with your title–readers know capes and lighthouses fit together. In cover #2, though, the image and title are not immediately related–what body? What T? And cover #2 is not only “pretty,” but also emphasizes atmosphere rather than a central image. I ran into a similar problem with the first Brenda Contay mystery, The Anything Goes Girl. I had what I thought was a good cover, but it wasn’t. I got a new designer who knew what to do, and the cover he created (I think) works much better.

  6. Covers do matter and sometimes it’s tough to find just the right one.

    I’ve visited almost every location I’ve written about, and that really helps when getting the setting right.

  7. Interesting post. I especially like what you said about writing only about places you know, have been to. But what is most interesting is that you incorporate “And I do try and use all my senses to describe the setting, what it looks like, sounds like, smells like, feels like and sometimes even tastes like.”
    Good advice. Thanks.

  8. I totally judge a book by its cover! I really like both of your covers. Maybe the lighthouse had something to do with the first one? Lighthouses have always seemed mysterious to me.

  9. I have recently began to write about my own state and places within, always before I wrote outside it. It’s funny the place I spent so much of my youth longing to escape, I now love.

  10. I need to figure out my cover soon and because I know how many of us judge the cover first, I’m very anxious to get it right. I love what you said about the communities. Mine also has a secret and is written from the POV of a local who is an outsider. Thanks for sharing your wisdom on covers. Very timely for me. :)

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