When I started creating my Pickled and Preserved series, one of the first things I needed to decide was the setting. A real town or a fictional one? Large or small? Well, that was easy. Since I was writing a cozy mystery—which almost always takes place in small towns— my setting would be a fictional small town.

Mary_Ellen_Hughes_author_picFor an author, having a fictional town makes things so much simpler: no need to check maps for names of streets that intersect at such-and-such place, or wonder how far from City Hall the court house might be. I can put City Hall wherever I want, and build the court house—or any house—any place I choose. I just can’t move them once I put them in place. That tends to confuse things.

But with a small town—real or fictional—there comes a problem: you start to run out of people. Think about it. If in every book at least one person is murdered—often two—and a third person, the murderer, goes off to prison, then the town population is steadily reduced with every book.

Jessica Fletcher’s small town of Cabot Cove began to have this problem. With that long running series, the population began to shrink down to Jessica, the sheriff, and a few regularly-appearing friends—none of whom anyone wanted to kill.

The TV show solved that by sending Jessica off to the big city. It certainly broadened their options, but it also, in my opinion, lost much of the cozy flavor. Jessica was glamoured-up (no more bike-riding around town in floppy clothes), and she acquired more sophisticated friends. I don’t want changes like that to happen to my town of Cloverdale, NY, so this is what I’ve done and intend to do to avoid them:

Since my protagonist, Piper Lamb, was new to Cloverdale when the series began with The Pickled Piper, she definitely couldn’t meet everyone at once. My town is large enough so that involving twenty or so characters with each story insures that a  new set of twenty or thirty will be available for the next story.

Of course, I plan for certain characters to be in every story, such as Piper’s Aunt Judy and Uncle Frank, and her assistant Amy Carlyle, along with Amy’s father Sheriff Carlyle. Nate Purdy is Amy’s boyfriend, and they seem to be on the path toward marriage, so Nate appears in the first two Pickled and Preserved books. But, as we all know, anything can happen to relationships, so who knows if he’ll be around in more? The same with Piper’s boyfriend, Will. He seems a steady sort, and their relationship has been growing, but again, who knows what the future will bring with Will?

Cloverdale, like most places, is a town in flux. People move away and new residents move in. Another way to keep my fictional population from being decimated by murders is to insure that new neighbors move in—not necessarily to the very homes vacated by my victims or murderers, but you know what I mean.

Piper could always take a brief vacation (maybe a honeymoon?) someday. This would give Cloverdale a little rest from crime (and let Sheriff Carlyle take a breather, too), but I might want to pack up a few of my Cloverdale regulars to go along as well. A bus tour? Cruise? Both work, and  that would keep the town population in a nice, healthy state.

In LICENSE TO DILL, I brought a whole busload of visitors to Cloverdale. This was an Italian soccer team that came to play a tournament against the Cloverdale All Stars. That plumped up the population a good bit for a while, and though somebody was murdered, I eventually kept somebody from the bus behind, so that evened out nicely.

However, if worse comes to worst and we’ve finally met everyone in the town, people stop moving there because of the high murder rate, and Piper can’t leave on a trip because the last ten surviving townspeople are begging for her help, I could perhaps, in desperation, create an alternate universe. Remember Fringe, the TV show that went that route? The entire cast of Fringe turned out to have doppelgangers in an alternate universe that Walter, the half-mad scientist, discovered the portal to. Even Walter had his mirror image, whom he called Walter-nate, and everyone’s twin was slightly different from the originals, some in a faintly evil way.

Could I do that to my town? Find a portal from Cloverdale to, um, New Cloverdale? Have Piper’s doppelganger fix marinated meats instead of pickles and turn Aunt Judy into a wicked stepmother instead of a loving aunt? Jessica Fletcher was only sent to New York, not outer space, to provide her with new murder victims and suspects. That worked for Cabot Cove. But Cloverdale, you see, is not Cabot Cove.

Hmm. A New Cloverdale. I wonder …