This month, Fabulous Florida Writers is pleased to welcome guest blogger Lesley Diehl. Diehl is the author of cozy mysteries featuring sassy country girls who enjoy snooping. Her latest release is Mud Bog Murder, book 4 of the Eve Appel Mysteries, a series set in rural Florida. Diehl was our featured writer on January 6, 2014.
I’ve set some of my mysteries in other locations, but my favorite place for leaving a body and solving the crime is Florida. I have two series set in rural Florida, and I live among the swamps, canals, cowboys, cattle, horses, turtles, feral pigs and alligators much of the year. Because my home is inland and not on one of Florida’s coasts, I find myself with a different picture of the state and why it is especially suited to bumping off people. I also admit that the Florida most know works well for a mystery setting, just for different reasons. I find Florida writers use Florida in ways writers in other states do not. For my work, as for that of my fellow Florida writers, I find setting inextricably intertwined with plot and character. Here’s how that works:
1. Lull the reader into the beauty of the beaches and then kill someone
It’s a great place to use the beautiful beaches, waving palm trees, and blue waters in juxtaposition to grisly death. Similarly, a writer can take the reader for a fun ride or adventure in Disney’s paradise and plant a dead body there, perhaps in a teacup ride. There is something so startling about killers in paradise. And something so satisfying about a sleuth who ignores the beauty to take on the case and find the bad guys (and gals). What dedication. We tourists love this sleuth for his or her determination and intelligence. Writers such as Randy Wayne White and James W. Hall create protagonists who are eager to rescue us from the clutches of those who think they are above the law. Along with these crime fighters, we can work up a real mad to think that anyone could ruin the serenity of coastal existence.
2. Underneath all that beauty lurks ugliness
The state may have been more bug infested and swampy before the developers got here, but paradise comes at a cost. Carl Hiaasen uses rampant destruction of wildlife and habitat to create scenarios that in any other state would be viewed as sheer fantasy. Here, they can happen. Likewise, in Mud Bog Murder, I write about how mud bogging alters the ecosystem. It provides a perfect opportunity to make fictional work relevant to contemporary social, economic and environmental issues.
3. Beauty and greed make for interesting characters
Take paradise and couple it with overzealous money grubbing and you’ve got the perfect recipe for villains, some so evil we can hardly wait until they get their comeuppance and others so crazy we want them to return to wreak havoc again. Hiaasen gives the latter type of villain free rein in his books, while Tim Dorsey creates characters so unusual that we aren’t sure if they are protagonists or bad guys, but we tolerate their criminal doings book after book. It’s hard to imagine any of the characters in Hiaasen’s and Dorsey’s books living in Vermont or Iowa. Nope. But take beach erosion and a developer eager to accommodate a hotel owner’s need to keep the beach lovely for guests and you’ve got part of the plot for Hiaasen’s newest book especially when the sand comes from Cuba!
4. There are other places in Florida to hide bodies—better places
Most Florida writers stick to the two coasts and the Florida Keys, and why not? They are lovely places to live and locations familiar to both the residents of Florida, most of whom reside in these places, and the tourists who choose to visit where there is ocean. With the exception of Orlando, home of that famous mouse and his pals, truly a world away from the usual, most areas of Florida inland are rarely visited by tourists and rarely written about by Florida writers. A few of us think the swamps and grazing lands of Florida make perfect places for killing someone and then hiding the body. Because of the large number of alligators, a discarded body can stay hidden forever. You do the math. There’s no juxtaposition of environmental beauty with murder here, only denizens of the swamp waiting for their dinner. This swampy reality is of real benefit to writers like Deborah Sharp whose Mace Bauer series is set in rural Florida and features a protagonist who has grown up in the area, works as an environmental officer and uses an alligator’s head as a coffee table decoration. The latter is an indication of beauty in the eye of the beholder, and readers of the Mace Bauer series will see a lot of this point of view in the characters and the plots of the books.
I allow my characters to embrace rural Florida, although my protagonist is a Yankee who has moved to Florida and adopted the rural setting as her new home. I have taken Eve Appel from a gal who finds the swamps, grasslands, cattle and cowboys alien and somewhat frightening to someone who embraces the unique nature of the place and becomes part of the community, not without difficulty, of course. Learning to live with alligators on the fairways, in the backyard, under the car or on the menu in a restaurant is not accomplished without some strain, and being accepted into a community whose values sometimes run counter to her own has created some bumps along the way for Eve. She’s a spunky gal who’s up to the challenge.
Florida is the perfect place to set a mystery regardless of what part of the state a writer uses as the book’s locale. For more information about the uniqueness of Florida, pick up any local newspaper and read about water pollution, runaway development, dirty politicos and dirty cops—oops, you can find those in any state, sorry; we just do them so much more colorfully here—destruction of habitat, invasion of non-indigenous species other than tourists, and sinkholes. Speaking of sinkholes, I used a large one to hide a still in a book, but I should really consider using one as a place to toss a body. There is no end to what Florida will encourage a writer to conjure up to keep the reader entangled in the story.
Oh, and did I say I write cozy mysteries? Humorous cozy mysteries? Somehow that seems fitting in a state where running into a land developer on the sidewalk may prove as dangerous as an alligator in your pool.