When one writes a series, no matter what the genre, which repeatedly uses the same community or town as its setting, readers eventually begin to fear for the lives of anyone visiting or living there. Their fear makes them question the reality of the world the writer is creating. This problem is often referred to as Cabot Cove Syndrome. The fictional syndrome, whose name was coined from the television show, Murder She Wrote, is attributed to the finding of bodies repeatedly in the small town of Cabot Cove, Maine. After running for twelve years, not to mention the books and movies the show spawned, the BBC calculated Cabot Cove’s murder rate at 1490 per million, which translated to about two percent of its residents.
Number like that, if the town existed, would definitely make one leery of spending time in Cabot Cove. Readers feel the same way when reading a series. They want a cast of repeated characters who become like family, but they also want the character roster expanded enough that the dead victim(s) and the guilty party aren’t always characters introduced for the first time in that book. Consequently, to keep readers attracted to a series, authors must employ different methods to vary their stories.
Obviously, the town can easily be avoided by having the protagonist take a trip. That may work well in a thriller or suspense novel, but not in a cozy where the small town setting itself becomes a character. Neither Murder She Wrote nor Louise Penney’s books would be the same if they weren’t repeatedly set in Cabot Cove or Three Pines.
Another method is to introduce characters in minor roles and let them evolve in subsequent books in the series. For example, in One Taste Too Many, the first book in my Sarah Blair series, I introduced Grace Winston as a culinary student interning with Sarah’s sister, Chef Emily. Grace has several scenes in One Taste where readers learn about her personality, health, and history. Because Grace is referenced again in Two Bites Too Many, she remains one of many familiar characters in the reader’s mind. Her scenes become important in Three Treats Too Many, where Grace is now the sous chef for Emily’s restaurant. In fact, the title of the book comes from an idea she raises with Emily, Sarah, and Emily’s boyfriend, Marcus, during a menu brainstorming session. Although she still is a secondary character, the reader learns about Grace’s partner and sees Grace caught in a culinary job dilemma between restaurant rivals.
Four Cuts Too Many begins a few days after Three Treats Too Many ends. Grace’s dilemma is the impetus for a meeting between Sarah and Grace. Within pages, the reader sees Grace’s role expand as now, besides being a sous chef for Emily, Grace is teaching a knife skills course at the community college. After she has a run-in with her department head and he is found dead with one of her knives protruding from his neck, Grace becomes the primary suspect.
The importance of Grace taking a major role in Four Cuts Too Many is that her character is known and liked by readers. Consequently, they want Sarah to help vindicate Grace. Although the corpse may be someone new to the community, there is enough familiarity for the story to feel like a continuous extension of a discussion between friends. This developed continuity and affection for the characters is what lets readers suspend the impact Cabot Cove Syndrome might have.
For a chance to win a print or e-book copy of Four Cuts Too Many (U.S. only), tell me, how do you feel about Cabot Cove Syndrome in the books you read?
Four Cuts Too Many
Sarah Blair, who finds kitchens more frightening than murder, gets an education in slicing and dicing when someone in her friend’s culinary school serves up a main corpse. Sarah soon finds that there’s no time to mince words when it comes to finding the real killer.
Includes quick and easy recipes!
Judge Debra H. Goldstein writes Kensington’s Sarah Blair mystery series. Her short stories and novels have been Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, and Silver Falchion finalists. Debra is on the national board of MWA and is president of SEMWA. She previously was on Sisters in Crime’s national board and was the Guppy Chapter president.
Learn more about Debra at https://www.DebraHGoldstein.com .
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