Welcome to our regular Monday feature, where you'll find different kinds of writing prompts and exercises. Each week, we'll give you something to help exercise your mystery-writing muscles.
This week’s prompt is designed to help you enrich (or conceive of) a setting for your mystery. A strong sense of place informs the tone and plot in any fiction, but especially in mysteries. What would Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca be without the crumbling ruins of Manderley? Or, for that matter, The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler without the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Ever since Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, mystery authors have relied on setting to create atmosphere and suspense.
Sigmund Freud wrote a famous essay exploring the power of the unheimlich or uncanny in literature. Literally translated, unheimlich means “un-home-like.” While there’s plenty captivating about haunted mansions, graveyards, an abandoned amusement parks, often the most unsettling is when a writer transforms something familiar (a home) into something strange:
- Make a list of unassuming, familiar settings — invented or real. Feel free to use something from a work-in-progress. The strip mall down the street. Your parent’s kitchen. A fifth grade science lab. Your public library. A newly built subdivision on the outskirts of town. Whatever comes to mind.
- Next, sit quietly, close your eyes, and imagine one of these places. Run through all of your senses as you imagine it: What do you hear, smell, touch, and feel? What colors, shape, texture, people, shadows do you see?
- Do a ten minute free-write to describe what you’ve been imagining in as much detail as possible, using all your senses.
- Now try to imagine the same place from the eyes of person overcome with fear. Perhaps they’ve just found something especially disconcerting? A jar containing teeth and a lock of hair? A dismembered doll? A single blood-stained shoe? A strange coded message painted on the walls?
- In a free-write of however long you choose, describe the same setting from this frightened character’s point-of-view in as much detail as possible. Feel free to use a character from your WIP.
Afterwards, you may want to now return to a description of setting in your own work to see how you might infuse it with even more tension.