Building the World of The Penningtons Investigate by C.T. Collier

Launched in June 2016 with Planted, The Penningtons Investigate is a traditional mystery series focused on a troubled college in the Finger Lakes of Upstate New York. Co-sleuths Kyle and Lyssa Pennington are a brainy young couple who love to match wits with each other and, occasionally, with murderers. Both have PhD’s and both have roles at Tompkins College, she an economics professor, he a computer security consultant.

I started in 2012 to build the world of The Penningtons Investigate—Tompkins College, Tompkins Falls, and the founding families, the Cushmans and Tompkins—as I drove along one of the Finger Lakes on a frigid blue-sky day. That’s when I had an idea for a romance series.

Wait—what’s romance got to do with mystery? Simple. I wanted a soupcon of romance in the mysteries, but I needed to learn plotting, character development, suspense, publishing, marketing—so many things!—before I could craft a whodunit that engaged, sustained involvement, and surprised the reader.  So I took my cue from others, like mystery greats Tess Gerritsen and Earlene Fowler, who started as romance authors.

My world building began with Lakeside Porches, a cluster of white gingerbread-clad apartment homes, on a bluff overlooking fictional Chestnut Lake. To the south were the Cushman grounds, acres of lakefront with a bizarre Romanesque mansion that housed generations of Cushmans, the financiers of the once-flourishing textile industry in Tompkins Falls. In between, Overlook Park was gifted to the town by the sole heir of the Tompkins fortune, young Joel Tompkins Cushman, as a place of relaxation for families. Farther south, Joel himself was managing the Manse Inn and Spa, a reincarnation of the elegant Tompkins family home.

Joel was also serving on the board of trustees at his legacy, Tompkins College, and slowly realizing the college was on the verge of collapse, riddled with corruption and abuses. If the college failed, the struggling town would lose its major employer, and he was determined that would not happen.

The four romances of the Lakeside Porches series were well received, and they gave me a fully formed world for murder—the town of Tompkins Falls, its power brokers, its economics, and its heart, Tompkins College. The town is really a blend of three Finger Lakes towns, beautiful Canandaigua, Geneva, and my hometown, Seneca Falls. Chestnut Lake and its marina resemble Canandaigua’s and feature a two-mile willow-lined path at the north end, borrowed from Geneva. The falls and the mills it once powered are lifted from Seneca Falls.

At the conclusion of the Lakeside Porches romances, Tompkins College was reinventing itself under uncle Justin Cushman’s leadership, with a few skeletons still tucked away. While the college is entirely fictional, it emerged from my twenty years in higher education and is representative of many small colleges in its financial and academic concerns. Tompkins College is no college and every college, with murder and intrigue on the schedule every semester. Drop in, meet the Penningtons!

 Author Bio:

C. T. Collier was born to solve logic puzzles, wear tweed, and drink Earl Grey tea. Her professional experience in cutthroat high tech and backstabbing higher education gave her endless opportunity to study intrigue. Add to that her longtime love of mysteries, and it’s no wonder she writes academic mysteries that draw inspiration from traditional whodunits. Her setting: fictional Tompkins College is no college and every college, and Tompkins Falls is a blend of several Finger Lakes towns, including her hometown, Seneca Falls, NY (AKA Bedford Falls from It’s a Wonderful Life).

Book Blurb:

Planted is book one of the new mystery series, The Penningtons Investigate, from award-winning author C. T. Collier. The Penningtons, Lyssa and Kyle, are both PhD’s, and when their clever minds start asking questions, clever killers can’t hide.
It’s Monday of spring break when Professor Lyssa Pennington’s backyard garden project unearths a loaded revolver. With no record of violence at their address and no related cold case, the Tompkins Falls police have no interest. But the Penningtons and a friend with the State Police believe there a body somewhere. Whose? Where? And who pulled the trigger?
The Penningtons’ canvass of their quiet neighborhood turns up disturbing secrets about the family who lived in their house for decades and another ill-fated family a few doors away. No one seems to know how to contact the only sons of either family. The few facts they have about them don't add up and, since the gun was buried about the time both young men disappeared from Tompkins Falls, the Penningtons feel compelled to find them and make sure all is well.
Lyssa follows the money story and finds twenty million dollars, a neighbor who’s not what he seems, and a long-buried rivalry. Kyle goes after homicide data in six states and finds a body. Their next surprise is a murderer who will go to any length to conceal the crime.

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C. T. Collier said…
Marilyn, it's so good of you to host the Penningtons and me today! I hope readers will share about favorite settings and how important the setting is to a mystery. Thanks, everyone! Kate, writing as C.T. Collier
Steven said…
Thanks for the advice. I will keep it in mind as I try to create an Elvin world of 100 and 600 years ago. (And a current time book store that "looks" ancient.)
C. T. Collier said…
Steven, fascinating concepts. Good luck building your Elvin world. I especially like the ancient-looking book store idea. :-)
Sandy Cody said…
This sounds so good. Love the Fingers Lakes area. Our family has spent some of our best vacations there.
Roz Murphy said…
Can't wait to read your second Pennington, Kate! You do such a great job portraying the lovely (and deadly!) Finger Lakes area and I enjoy the way your characters are not picture perfect people. Great reading for a blustery winter's day!
C. T. Collier said…
Sandy, Roz, great to hear from Finger Lakes fans. Gentle snow falling right now (we call them Lake Flakes), but Roz said it: a blustery winter day in store for us. Happy reading!! --kate, writing as C. T> Collier
C. T. it was so nice to have you visit me. Loved the post.
Anonymous said…
C T, I'd like to see a map of tThompkins Falls. Always love a book with a map. Maybe if one of your books depends on the geography
Robbi Hess said…
Great advice and helpful to me as I build the world for my cozxy mystery series that will be set in the Thousand Islands region. I love the hometown feel of the cozy and love the sound of the world you've built!
Beverly Wells said…
Nice post as always, Kate and such great and very useable advice to all upcoming writers to give them a guide of how to form environment and setting for their stories. Wishing you much success on the second in this series. Sorry I was a bit late to reply. Hoping you have lots of copies of this great book with you for our upcoming book signing.
cj petterson said…
Thanks, C.T., for your lovely insights into world building. Definitely adds good info to my "how-to-write" file.

Marilyn Johnston (aka cj)
C. T. Collier said…
CJ, Bev, Robbi, and Anonymous,

So good of all of you to respond! To think it all started with brunch on the porch of the Belhurst Castle 5 years ago, and yesterday I was back there for my friend's 95th birthday! It gives me joy to know my post was helpful and interesting.

Marilyn, I'm so glad to meet so many or your readers! Thanks again for the opportunity!

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