The mystery genre, perhaps more than any other, is subject to certain formulas or patterns that each storyline must follow. But, with so many series available—whether mystery or another genre—how does an author go about making his or her series stand out from the rest?
There are tried and true formulas for certain genres that shouldn’t be rejected out of hand, mainly because there is a huge market for them. This is especially true of the mystery genre, especially the sub-genre known as “cozy” mysteries. That includes having the main character run a business, usually a struggling one inherited from a family member, in a small town (choose a bakery or quilting shop or a bed and breakfast) and an element of romance, particularly a romantic triangle.
In my Black Horse Campground series, Corrie Black is the owner of a campground she inherited from her father after he succumbed to cancer. I had done extensive research trying to find a unique setting for my series and, after my husband and I became enamored of camping in KOA campgrounds that had cabins, I realized it would be the perfect way to have my main character meet strangers in a small town, without stretching the imagination too far. There is always the danger, when writing a cozy mystery, of what has been referred to as “Cabot Cove syndrome” (my apologies to Angela Lansbury and “Murder, She Wrote”): how do so many murders occur in such a small town without people leaving the town in droves? In a vacation-destination setting, strangers are an accepted part of the landscape and it is more likely for the main character to find herself involved in the drama and danger of meeting new people every day. Being in a campground places the setting in a rural area, which gives access to wide-open spaces as well as having a town and all its conveniences nearby. And living near and working in a vacation resort town, I had the knowledge to make the setting ring true, plus the added bonus of being in a location that gets very little notice in fiction!
I also made sure to include “real life” elements to make my fictional setting ring true. Bonney County and Black Horse Campground only exist in my imagination and on the pages of my books, but I chose to set them near actual locations in south central New Mexico—namely the Ruidoso area in Lincoln County—in order to give my books local flavor. Therefore, my fictional characters do frequent places that really exist in the Ruidoso area, places with which I am familiar and like to visit as well.
The romantic element—in particular the love triangle—can be a bit trickier. It’s difficult to maintain a romantic triangle for a long time without creating annoyance in readers. They want to know who “wins”! In addition, it runs the risks of making the characters seem wishy-washy and tiresome, which is definitely not how you want readers to perceive main characters. In the Black Horse Campground series, Corrie’s romantic interests are old-flame Sheriff Rick Sutton who, for reasons which are unclear, broke off his relationship with Corrie in high school and married a woman who subsequently left him after the birth—and death—of their daughter. What creates a complication is that Rick, like Corrie and the majority of the residents of Bonney County, is a devout Catholic. While Rick and Corrie both seem willing to accept a life-long platonic friendship, everything changes when J.D. Wilder, formerly with the Houston Police Department, shows up and becomes a serious contender for Corrie’s heart. Of course, J.D. comes into the picture with his own set of baggage—including a wife who died while trying to get him killed—so the triangle is set. The key to not making a love triangle tiresome is for the author to know when to quit. Though I am currently working on the fifth book and the triangle is not resolved yet, I am already outlining the resolution to this particular element of my series… while allowing the series to continue!
Amy Bennett, author of the Black Horse Campground series, has spent eighteen years working full-time as a cake decorator for Walmart Supercenter in Alamogordo, NM, and part-time as a “vino slinger” for Noisy Water Winery in Ruidoso, NM, for the last five years. She lives in a small town halfway between her jobs with her husband and son.
Publisher’s website author page: http://oaktreebooks.com/AuthorRoster/bennetamy.html