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Donna Rewolinski asks What are the Positives and Negatives of Setting a Mystery in a Foreign Country?

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Donna Rewolinski is the author of the Novice Mystery series. You can find out more about her here and see her books here.

My writing came out of a purely accidental statement. My husband and I share a dream that once retired we will pick a foreign country and rent a home in a small town or village. We will live there for several months and see it as a wonderful way to immerse ourselves in the local culture as well as site seeing. One night my husband, a police detective, was called in on a case and worked all night. Ultimately ruining our plans for the next day. As he was falling asleep, he proceeded to say, “It goes to the retirement dream of living in foreign countries.” I responded, “Yeah and with my luck you’ll end up investigating a crime there, too.” A seed was planted. A story arose, but it took many years for me to finish the final draft in order to be published.

Thinking about which country to choose for a book, developing characters, and ultimately how the murder(s) take place is the life blood of mystery writers. Places my husband and I have visited are a starting point. Since starting my first book, whenever I’m in a foreign country, I take notes on foods served, architecture, scenery, cars, and people I’ve met that make complex characters. Some friends have asked to be characters as suspects, victims, witnesses, even murderers. Maybe I should be more concerned about the people I hang around with.

The Challenges

The joy of writing about travel and exploring another country’s customs, food, myths, and history is fun and exciting. However, it brings with it challenges.

My two main characters are always the outsiders. Either because they don’t speak the language, or they’re viewed as foreigners. That can lead to misinterpretation of people’s motives, the validity of the information being shared, or where a character’s beliefs are coming from. No matter what the belief, it does require respect in how it’s presented, so I spend a great deal of time in how I write it in.  Also, how the characters become involved in the investigation, how official police information is shared, and how evidence is collected must be believable.


Fun is derived from using the misinterpretations to misdirect readers in the form of a ‘red herring’. Information can come from an unlikely sources, such as a ‘physic goat’. Also, the fact that much of the dialogue reflects the interplay I have with my husband, dialogue flows relatively easy. My husband is my ‘expect’ on procedure and evidence gathering. Much of his training early in his career was ‘old school’ which helps with the reality that small or remote communities don’t have the budget for the latest technology or high-priced equipment. Basic police work solves the crime or gathering forensic information. Whether that’s the retired detective in the story or his partner/wife.  

If the main characters get something wrong or misunderstand, it can be used to tease out other’s reactions as a catalyst for moving the story along, setting a mood, or uncovering motivations. I love nothing more than watching a movie or television program and seeing a place I’ve been to. It floods me with positive memories and a longing to return.

I’m curious as to your favorite travel locations with or without the murder plots.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    Donna — I thoroughly enjoyed reading your Novice Mystery about IRELAND.

    You asked about favorite travel locations. Pre-Covid, I traveled extensively. One of my favorite adventures was walking 211 miles across Scotland, climbing Ben Nevis at the mid-point.

  2. Margaret Mizushima
    Margaret Mizushima

    I love this post, Donna! It makes me wish I could get out there and travel more. My husband is a vet and we also are cattle ranchers, so we’re tied to our property with animal care much of the time. When we find someone who will feed cattle for a couple weeks, we’re so grateful, and we also get to travel occasionally during the summer when our cattle are getting fed on pasture. But to answer your question, there are two places I dearly love to go: Kauai and Seward, Alaska. Both satisfy different needs. I’ll be happy when we retire (getting very close) and when Covid slows down, so we can start to travel again. Like you and your husband, we also share the dream to go to a different country and live there for a month or two.

  3. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    I enjoyed your article, Donna, and look forward to reading your books. The book I’m writing currently finds my four teen detectives in Hawaii solving a mystery that started in California. Your point about the misunderstandings that can arise with characters new to an area–three of my four detectives are–can, indeed, create some fun plot points or out and out humor! To address your question, I would like to set one of my Botanic Hill Detectives mysteries in Scotland since I love that country and want to return after the pandemic ends. I’m hoping to have many of the books in my series set in other countries as a way to break down cultural and racial barriers for kids.

  4. Joy Ann Ribar
    Joy Ann Ribar

    Great article, Donna! My husband and I were lucky to travel around Southern Ireland in 2016 and we intend to return. We loved every minute of it! I’ve been to Mexico several times and to Guatemala — absolutely fell in love with the culture and people there. I look forward to reading your Mexico novel.

  5. Avatar
    Saralyn Richard

    Traveling and novel-writing go together so well. I think travel opens up the imagination to new cultures, new ideas, new people more than any other activity. That’s why so many authors are feeling stifled by restrictions during the worldwide pandemic. When it’s safe to do so, I predict mass numbers of authors journeying to exotic locations. (And I hope to be one of them.) Until then, I’ll have to be content reading about your travels! Thanks for this post, traveling Donna!

  6. Valerie Biel
    Valerie Biel

    Donna — I cannot wait to read your books. Love the premise — and it is so smart to take notes as you travel. I always think I’m going to remember things, but I’ve learned my lesson that my memory gets hazy on the details after we’re back from my vacation. My series is set in Ireland and I love incorporating the things I’ve learned from my travels there into my books. (And a nice perk is that my accountant lets me write off travel expenses.) 🙂
    – Valerie

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