A Shelby McDougall Mystery

A Shelby McDougall Mystery

Author Nancy Wood

Author Nancy Wood

Today’s host, Nancy Wood lives in Santa Cruz, California, with her family, where she’s been lucky enough to make writing her career. For many years she made her living as a technical writer, working in software documentation. About six years ago, she set up her own shop and is now a writing consultant and contractor, happy to spend every day grappling with words and sentences.

Due Date, Nancy’s first book, was published in May 2012 by Solstice Publishing. It has been optioned for film/TV. Nancy is now hard at work on the second book in the series.

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Nancy says:

When I was writing Due Date, one of my favorite things to write was the setting. Due Date is set in Santa Cruz, California, where I live. I loved exploring the landscape and thinking of isolated locations that would be perfect for the plot. For me, the setting is just as critical as characters, plot, and theme. The setting can make a book come alive and when crafted carefully, it can become as central to the story as another character.

For example, each of Cara Black’s mysteries are set in a different arrondissement (administrative district) of Paris. Donna Leon places her inspector in Venice. Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon owns the national parks; while Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan has successfully taken over Baltimore. Sue Grafton created a whole city that’s reminiscent of Santa Barbara; Sandi Ault places her mysteries in the southwest; both of J.A. Jance’s series take place in Arizona. There are countless other examples.

The setting, also called the outer container, can make a mystery unique, as well as lend credibility to the story by providing a recognizable, authentic place that grounds a character in time and space. The setting can also serve to isolate a character when that’s required for the story to move forward.

Nuances in the container can reflect a character’s mood shifts. There’s the obvious, for example, a change from sunny weather to rain, fog, or snow. There’s the more subtle variation where the character uses the weather for inner reflection. But it’s easy for this type of observation to become stereotypical, where the landscape always matches the character’s outlook or a change in the container always signals a mood shift. As a writer it’s important not to overuse this device or reduce it to a simplistic equation.

The environment in which you live and write, for example, the coast, the desert or the mountains, might influence your writing. In a discussion inspired by a post on “How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book” (, my writing teacher, Mary Carroll Moore, mentioned that living in a mountainous setting inspired her to write more conflict into her characters. Sylvia Gravrock posted that her move from the mid-west to California caused her characters to appear. I find that living in a foggy climate on the ocean brings out tension and fear in my characters, which is perfect for crime fiction.

Before you start writing, consider your setting. Make it unique, yet knowable. Make it interesting and use it as you would another character.


Here is a bit about Nancy’s book, Due Date, followed by an excerpt.

About Due Date:

Surrogate mother Shelby McDougall just fell for the biggest con of all—a scam that risks her life and the lives of her unborn twins.

Twenty-three year-old Shelby McDougall is facing a mountain of student debt and a memory she’d just as soon forget. A Rolling Stone ad for a surrogate mother offers her a way to erase the loans and right her karmic place in the cosmos. Within a month, she’s signed a contract, relocated to Santa Cruz, California, and started fertility treatments.

But intended parents Jackson and Diane Entwistle have their own agendaone that has nothing to do with diapers and lullabies. With her due date looming, and the clues piling up, Shelby must save herself and her twins. As she uses her wits to survive, Shelby learns the real meaning of the word “family.”

Excerpt: (pgs 105 – 106)

This passage takes place on surrogate mom Shelby’s twenty-third birthday. She’s living in the country without a car, in a cottage located on the property of the intended parents. Selby is killing time, waiting for her brother Dexter to pick her up and take her to lunch. She’s just gotten off the phone after an awkward, stilted conversation with her mother and has decided to go exploring, following a trail to a creek. The book is in first person, so it is all from Shelby’s point of view.


I pocketed the phone, wondering where we’d gone so wrong. Was it all my fault? I shook my head and stood, reminding myself that it was my birthday after all; I didn’t have to think about this stuff. I managed to shove this thorny issue into the depths of my subconscious on all my non-birthday days, thank you. I should be able to do the same today.

I needed something new. Something different. Jackson’s pool. Right at the oak tree, he’d told me. I found the trail, a series of sharp switchbacks carved into a steep hillside. I walked carefully. If I slipped, I could be stuck for days. But I soon forgot my worries: the ground smelled fresh from the rain earlier in the week and the leaves on the trees, now free of dust, were shiny and glossy. I heard the delicate murmur of the creek before I saw it; the sound as soothing and steady as an indoor fountain.

The trail ended at the pool. Water trickled over the five-foot drop in a thin steady stream. Neon-green mosses, as thick as cake icing, slathered the rock face behind the waterfall. Ferns clung to the rocks, growing horizontal, quivering when splashed by drops of water. Redwoods towered on the creek side above the waterfall and deciduous trees, bright with yellowing leaves, clung to the steep bank above the small pool. Birds chirped as they flitted between the trees. One small gray bird landed on a rock mid-stream, bobbed up and down, jumped into the water like a duck, and then flew off.

A leaf fell into the pool and spun in slow circles as it was picked up by the current. It straightened and floated down the stream for a few yards, then got stuck in an eddy, where it twirled aimlessly. Like me, I thought.


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