The Power of Place in the Fictive Dream

Mottley & Baker’s second adventure, Mister Mottley and the Dying Fall is set in October of 1932, six months after Book 1.

My stories always have a lot of humor in them, but since his one was set just before Halloween, I wanted to bring in an element of spookiness, danger, a moody atmosphere and the sense of something lurking in the shadows.

I knew the setting would have to carry a lot of weight.

A satisfying story depends on creating the “fictive dream.” We don’t just read books or watch movies. We go inside them. We become engrossed and lose time, in a kind of hypnotic state.

Setting, plot and character all work together to immerse you, the reader, in the world of a story. We know, intellectually, that we’re reading fiction and we play along with the “willing suspension of disbelief.” But that suspension is like a rubber band – you can only stretch it so far before it snaps.

Years ago, a friend told me a story about a little boy she used to babysit. She was reading him a Christmas story about Santa Claus, and the book was illustrated with elves, snowbanks, reindeer, polar bears, and adorable penguins. The little guy got very upset and slammed the book shut saying, “That’s fake! That’s not true!”

She wasn’t sure how to handle it, because she didn’t want to be the one to burst his bubble about Santa Claus, so she said “What’s not true, honey?”

“Everybody knows penguins belong at the South Pole.”

The penguins broke his fictive dream, and he couldn’t enjoy the story anymore.

The same principle applies to novels. The more relatable and realistic your story is, the less detail you need to draw the reader in. But when you have to really work the reader’s imagination – science fiction, historical fiction, exotic locations, stylized characters, a convoluted plot – the more concrete sensory detail you need to create a powerful fictive dream.

Paired with that, we have the classic Aristotelian unities of a good story – unity of time, place and action. A strong story needs one driving narrative line, and all the events must connect so we can follow the plot and digest it in a satisfying way. Again, this is a rubber band. You can stretch the unities,

especially in novels, and create epics or family sagas, or multiple perspectives. But if you stretch it in one direction, you have to make up for it somewhere else.

That’s why classic puzzle mysteries are so often set in a country house, or a small town, or a cruise ship, or a speeding train. When you’re introducing multiple possibilities, multiple unknowns, moving the focus of suspicion from one character to the next, you want to limit the scope of the story. Like on an island.


There’s no better place to find ideas for a Golden Age classic mystery than by reading Golden Age classic mysteries! So as I developed my ideas, I went back to one of my favorites, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

I tend to remember the puzzle and the solution of a mystery, but I was blown away when I rediscovered the creeping sense of menace in this book. Just in case you don’t know, it’s set on an island owned by an eccentric millionaire, and most of the action takes place in his ultramodern Art Deco mansion, as the characters get picked off one by one.

A bit of research led me to the information that Christie’s book was set on the Isle of Lundy, in the Bristol Channel off the north coast of Devon. It turns out that citation was wrong!

Christie’s “Indian Island” is actually based on an island she had visited in real life, located in the English Channel off the south coast of Devon. But the wonderful thing about researching fiction is that there are no truly dead-end trails. That wrong piece of data led me down the right rabbit hole, and the real island of Lundy became a perfect inspiration for my imaginary island of Brackmor.

Speaking of rabbit holes, would you like to take a tour of my Wonderland? If you missed my previous post with the photo-tour of Lundy Island, you can read it here.

Have you ever had a happy accident lead you to just the right outcome? Share a comment, or get in touch on my Facebook page. I’d love to hear your story!

Mister Mottley and the Dying Fall launches on Halloween. Sign up in the sidebar for my Reader’s Circle, and you’ll receive my first book free, as well as a special early-bird discount on the new release!

PS: Check back for more posts in this series. Next up – pirates!

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