Behind the Veil of Rural Life: Setting a Mystery Series in a Small Town

Read Susan Oleksiw's take on setting a mystery series in a small town, then make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of her first Pioneer Valley Mystery, Below the Tree Line!

The first mysteries I read were those set in small towns, which convinced me this was the perfect location for a murder. The apparent disadvantages of this setting turn out to be advantages in storytelling—a known geographical area, a limited set of suspects, and a protagonist of any profession or livelihood.

Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations, and any farm or farm store carries enough equipment and material to wipe out half the state. But a rural setting also includes both shops and municipal government—small though it is—as well as large spaces such as forests and fields and bodies of water where people can hide. New England is still home to individuals who live unknown in the woods, able to survive without going to the hardware store every week. In addition, the changing New England seasons—beautiful as they are—bring a variety of physical challenges. Without the infrastructure built into cities and suburban areas, a rural community can be crippled by heavy weather, taking all the available resources and challenging individuals living farther out from the town center.

The limited number of suspects is also an asset. From the outside, residents of a small town may appear dull and all the same, willing to live where nothing ever happens. But the first rule of journalism is that every person has a story, and getting that story out of them is the job of the investigative reporter—or the mystery writer. In a small town, everyone may know your name, but that doesn’t mean everyone knows your secrets. Except, everyone fears that one person might know. One careless word, one misunderstood step, can set into motion an act that will upend stable relationships and long-established reputations, forcing characters to act according to their underlying weaknesses and fears.

The changes in the larger world also show up, in smaller numbers, in rural America. With young people following the well-worn path out of the village to the big city, newcomers willing to work on farms, in small industries, or anywhere else are needed and welcome. Each rural area has its smaller community of recent immigrants who landed where the bus line ended or followed the advice of a resettlement agency. They give New England towns a contemporary link to the larger world.

This is the world the sleuth knows well. When a murder occurs, she may know or be related to the people under suspicion and perhaps even recognize links to the quietly tucked-away history of earlier years. But she is equally open to suspicion by the authorities. This gives an edge to everything she does and everyone she talks to. The protagonist can begin with the assumption that the murderer is likely someone he or she knows, but this could also be the bias she has to overcome before she gets at the truth.

One of the most interesting aspects of a murder is uncovering the motive. Even in the most outrageous, complex crimes, the motive is often local and personal, and uncovering this, getting beneath the obvious, is the real challenge. To do so, the sleuth must look beyond the carefully crafted codes of social behavior that govern the smallest community as well as the interaction among social groups.

But the best part of writing about small towns are the quirky people. In suburban areas and cities, residents are more likely to have their rough edges smoothed out. Not so in small towns and rural areas. Beneath the superficial similarities among residents are people living out some of the most unexpected private lives. A foster mother manages a dairy farm while her husband recovers from a heart attack, and she looks strong enough to take on a gang of bikers by herself—which is good because the local biking club passes her place on weekend runs and she can ride with the best of them. Farther out, hidden in the woods, lives an old woman, the last of the swamp Yankees. She will shoot anything that “worried her pigs,” including purebred dogs that escape their owner’s leash. No one has ever persuaded the police to confront her on this issue, though the town has a leash law.

The phrase “small town” may conjure up an image of tidy homes with well-behaved families in a sleepy community, but that’s an illusion. These are enclaves rich with history, unusual personalities, and layered stories just waiting to be revealed to the reader. With my core group of residents in West Woodbury, my protagonist Felicity O’Brien—healer and farmer, heir to her multi-generational farm—opens the barn door to adventure in the Pioneer Valley.

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Below the Tree Line by Susan Oleksiw!

To enter, make sure you’re a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

Below the Tree Line Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at beginning at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) September 3, 2018. Sweepstakes ends at 12:59 p.m. ET September 11, 2018. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

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  1. katevocke

    This sounds fantastic. I love reading about authors choices on why they wrote things the way they did.

    • Mary Costea

      Sign me up

  2. Pearl

    Fascinating post and wonderful mystery which I would enjoy greatly.

  3. Jean Barber

    I definitely want to read this one!

  4. Anne

    Intriguing and memorable mystery. Extremely interesting feature.

  5. Robin Brock

    Would love a new mystery series to settle into! This sounds wonderful!

  6. Cheri Ruble

    I do want to read this one!

  7. Cindy Hamilton

    Sounds like the start of a interesting series! I love mysteries set in small towns where you get the feeling you know the characters and can picture the setting.

  8. Jackie Wisherd

    I was born in a small town and so in reading what the author said about the characters in a small town I was reminded of those where I came from. So true…

  9. Stephanie H.

    Thanks for the giveaway. I am just starting to read mysteries and thriller books. So far, I have enjoyed some stories more than others. This mystery story sounds like a great one to add to my list of books to read next.

  10. Christina Sparks

    I like in a rural area and love these types of books. Thanks for the opportunity.

  11. Ruth F

    Agree that you can find more quirky characters per block in a small town.

  12. Darlene

    This sounds like my kind of book! Would love to win it!!

  13. Kari Fulk

    Looks like a great read! Awesome cover!!

  14. Elena Y.

    I love a mystery and this book sounds very gripping! Thanks for the chance 😉

  15. Lori P

    Small towns are like snowflakes; no two are alike. Lots of subject matter to plumb and surprises abound.

  16. Linda Vourlogianes
  17. Misch Brannock

    Looks like a great read…

  18. Sara M Lontcoski

    Always looking for a new series to read.

  19. Laurie Bartels

    I enjoy books set in small towns, across genre lines. I believe mysteries in particular lend themselves to setting up out-of-the-ordinary characters. Suburban life has a way of white-washing everything while small towns can be a beehive of activity, both good or bad! I would enjoy reading about this cast of characters and really like that this book is the first in a series.

  20. joel timmons

    Love. Small. Town. Mysteries. Bring. It. On

  21. Rena

    Interesting. Would love to win this.

  22. Paula Adams

    I would love the chance to read your mystery about a small town. Thank you for the chance.

  23. CarolT

    Small towns are large towns writ small. Places a writer can get her arms around.

  24. Michael Carter

    Looks good!
    Yes, please enter me in this sweepstakes.
    Thanks —

  25. Jason Carlson

    Looks like a very interesting read, would love to win!

  26. Susan T.

    Small towns are definitely full of colourful characters. I live in one so I should know!

  27. Mary Gilles

    Susan Oleksiw must be well acquainted with Miss Marple, one of Agatha Christie’s famous sleuths! This book looks terrific.

  28. Joye I

    I am always looking for new authors to read. This book sounds like I would enjoy reading it.

  29. Missy Block

    Love small town reads!!!

  30. Rachel

    I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of this book, sounds like a delicious mystery I can lose myself in!

  31. Jim Belcher

    The mean are often worse and more obvious because there are fewer of them and fewer people to stand up to them. I love small towns if they are still fairly “clean” and unspoiled.

  32. L

    Wow! Small town life never sounded so rich and interesting! I look forward to seeing the nuances revealed in the mystery of this book.

  33. Kathy

    I can’t wait to read Oleksiw’s book. I’m always looking for new stories set in New England.

  34. Darlene Slocum

    I read other books set in small towns and really enjoy them. The people seem friendlier than in larger cities.

  35. Melissa

    I like finding out how writers come up with the settings for their books.

  36. susan beamon

    Small towns are only small if you limit them to the town limits, especially farm area towns. I remember one town I lived in where the population doubled on Saturday, when all the farm folk came in to visit and shop.

  37. ravensfan

    I would love to win this book. It sounds fantastic.

  38. Karen Barnett

    New author for me. I’m always up for a new series.

  39. Marisa Young

    Interesting article. Would like to read book.

  40. Anita Sue Hamilton

    My roots are in farming and small town communities. Like this

  41. Carolyn

    Looks like a great book!

  42. Diane Seitz

    This book sounds intriguing. It’s always fascinating to me to know how and/or why an author has chosen to write what they have written. Enjoyable!

  43. Reine Harrington

    I like that, “The limited number of suspects is also an asset.” I just finished reading a mystery that had so many characters and locations to track, I almost didn’t finish reading it. The only reason I did is that each section was interesting. I’m looking forward to reading your new series. I’m a series lover, and of course I love your writing, so win or not I will buy and read this new series which I hope is a raving success!


    Sounds intriguing. I love discovering authors I haven’t read before!

  45. Mayrlene thompson

    Would❤ to win😍

  46. Mayrlene thompson

    Would love to win❤

  47. Karen Mikusak

    Sounds great! Would love to win.

  48. Carol M

    This sounds like a book I would really enjoy!

  49. Andrew Beck

    Small towns also allow the author to bring back some of those younger people who have left, say over the holidays or for a wedding or funeral, which can add some variety to the list of suspects (as well as victims)!

  50. Barbara Lima

    Even though you have thrown out a possible suspect, the old lady in the swamp. I suspect it’s someone else.

  51. Anastasia

    I do love a small town story 🙂

  52. Mary Costea

    Sounds good.

  53. Laurent Latulippe

    I grew up in a small town. This is very fun to read.

  54. Randi Oaklief

    I love a good mystery especially one that is part of a series!

  55. Beth T.

    That’s so true, that in a small town everyone may know your name but not your secrets. I live in a very small town and can attest to it.

  56. Amy Donahue

    You make a lot of very good points. I live in a tiny town and we have our fair share of characters lol

  57. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  58. Pat Murphy

    Intriguing concept of small town life.

  59. Valerie Wiesner

    I love mysteries set in small towns!

  60. Carol Lawman

    Nice article! Small towns can be deceptively “sleepy” but most of us know what goes on if we look deeply enough.

  61. Tina Chavez-Caddey

    I love a good thriller/mystery.

  62. JJ Wong

    I’m a big fan of mysteries! This book sounds really good.

  63. Estelle W

    Looking forward to reading the book.

  64. Emily Catan

    Sounds intriguing!! Would love to find out what lies below the tree line..

  65. Janet Gould

    interesting article

  66. Andrea

    Sounds good!

  67. Deb Philippon

    I’m looking forward to reading this book – the article gives more texture to the story.

  68. Catherine Winslow

    Sounds good!

  69. Sherri Ashburner

    I live in a small new england town, complete with a town green and a first selectman(never a mayor!). This novel intrigues me, in all the right ways.

  70. Christine Goulet

    I have always loved small town mysteries..if u grew up in one you know there is always the chatter of the grapevine going on and everyone knowing everyone else’s business..Lil rivalries, who hates who, love triangles, town bigwig names, town clicks, etc….oohh, the things that go on that visitors/outsiders don’t see..Win this sweepstakes or not, Below the Tree Line, will be a must read for me..Thank you for giving all of us a chance to win…

  71. Susan Morris

    I live in a rural community and grew up in a small town. Yes, we have all sorts of characters as neighbors. Can hardly wait to follow Felicity’s quest in Pioneer Valley!

  72. Margit Curtright

    Thank you!

  73. Beth Lechman

    I enjoy trying new authors and this is just the type of book I enjoy reading. thanks for the chance to win this.

  74. Rhonda Barkhouse

    Sounds good to me!

  75. Lisa Thomas

    Would love to read

  76. Karen MInter

    I agree that uncovering the motive is one of the most interesting aspects of a murder! Hope to win your book because it sounds terrific!

  77. Marilyn Sieb

    I am a librarian in a small town which sounds much like the one the author describes…can’t wait to read this mystery!

  78. Alan Stoskopf

    I love how both the idea of and the lived reality of a small town generates so much rich potential in story telling. The setting seems perfect for excavating the secrets and hidden stories of those living tucked away from the urban/suburban landscape most of us live in. I can’t wait to read this novel.

  79. Sheila Broocke

    Would love to win and read this book.

  80. Saundra K. Warren

    going on the tbr list!!

  81. John Smith

    This sounds interestingly rural!

  82. downeaster

    Certainly sounds interesting!

  83. Joanne Hicks

    Thanks to criminal element for introducing me to author Susan Oleksiw. Reading the article made me appreciate mystery/thrillers genre.

  84. lasvegasnv


  85. Linda Cosby

    This appears to be a great read. Thank you for the giveaway.

  86. Rhonda Stefani

    I really enjoyed this post. Reminded me of a place a bit like Castle Rock, albeit not as creepy lol. Would really like to read this one!

  87. Carol Salyer

    I’m from a small town so this book would be a perfect for me!

  88. vicki wurgler

    I grew up in a small town and agree about the history, unusual personalities, and layered stories

  89. Debbie Flynn

    I love mysteries especially ones set in a small town.

  90. Mary Dobson

    Since I grew up and still live in a Midwestern small town, I know the value and fun of our
    quirky residents!

  91. kid39

    Add me to the list. kid39

  92. Jane Schwarz

    It sounds like an interesting read. Small community, limited suspects. Thanks for the opportunity to win.

  93. Daniel M

    looks like an interesting one

  94. traciwatts

    I am so excited to read this book!!

  95. Joan

    Definitely want to read

  96. Jeanine Wiater

    Sounds like a great read.

  97. teresa sopher

    Smaill town mysteries are the best.

  98. Marjorie Manharth

    Very interesting article – things you don’t think about. Should enhance one’s reading experience.

  99. Rachel Carter

    Love small town mysteries!

  100. Dianna Young

    One of my favorite genre’s!

  101. Mary Carter

    I grew up in a small town & live in a small town – sounds interesting.

  102. Elena

    I love a mystery and this book sounds very gripping! Thanks for the chance =)


    Thanks for the opportunity to win!

  104. rebecca ward

    Grew up in a small town on a farm….Excited to read this book.

Comments are closed.

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