Yes, you’ve guessed it. It’s location. When I started writing, I was gripped by who my characters were, what they felt about themselves and the world around them and the sort of things they did. It only came to me slowly (well, I’m not a fast learner …) that where they did whatever they did was just as important as what they were doing or even how they were feeling about it. It’s something of a cliché, but an important one, than in many senses character is place. A personality is formed and framed by the ground people stand on, the air they breathe, the houses and rooms they inhabit, and the sights they see on a daily basis.
That said, from an instinct I didn’t even know I had, from the very first novel I wrote I picked a location I knew well by using the village in rural Essex where I spent my teenage and early twenties as a setting. It felt familiar and, although I still don’t think I made the most of it in that particular book, it set me on a path I’ve stuck to in my contemporary series of novels ever since.
My second novel, A Dangerous Man (Flame Books, 2007) was the first of my crime novels set in London, a city where I spent some time in my early and mid twenties and which has, at its heart, always terrified and alienated me. From the beginning, the voice of my protagonist, Michael Jones, was very strong in my head (worryingly, sometimes I can still hear him …) and he became inextricably linked with the places he inhabited in London, the streets he walked on, the buildings he felt stifled by. Through Michael, I learnt not to rush too fast to get the scene down and carry on, but to allow the environment where my character lived to have its say too. Because of that, both man and cityscape somehow grew into something more than I’d ever anticipated simply by means of their relationship with one another. In fact, one or two reviewers mentioned the fact that London almost becomes a character in its own right in its dark interplay with Michael, his friends, lovers and enemies. It was the hardest, and most personal, book I’ve ever written but I still treasure those comments.
Even though London felt very much like a dangerous place, I kept it as a setting for two further crime novels, Maloney’s Law (PD Publishing, 2008) and the follow-up, The Bones of Summer (Dreamspinner Press, 2009). Here, the city I think becomes less dangerous, but this ties in with the characters of Paul Maloney and Craig Robertson (respectively) who do not possess the underlying psychoses of Michael Jones, and who are both better able to interact with the society around them. That said, neither protagonist is particularly stable and I like to think that the setting continues to reflect that sense of underlying edginess. Environment, as described through the character’s eyes, becomes part of who that character is and enables the reader to understand them more fully. The same is, in some ways, true in real life: sometimes the flat where I live feels like a refuge from the world outside and sometimes like a trap (especially when I need to clean it!) – and this affects the way I see and describe it, as well as the way I see myself.
Up to this point, I’d written my novels using settings where I used to live but where I no longer did so. In 2004, I changed my approach and began writing the crime novel that eventually became Thorn in the Flesh (Goldenford Publishers, 2008, and Bristlecone Pine Press, 2008). There I placed my protagonist, Kate, in the town where I live now: Godalming in Surrey, UK. Naturally, this made the research astonishingly easy – if I needed to know how long it took to walk from the car park to the police station, I could pop along immediately, or if I wanted to check what a local café or museum looked like, I could walk down the road and find out. I’m particularly pleased with my final scene of that novel which takes place in the very tiny old town hall (known as the Pepperpot). The Pepperpot is only actually open to the public once or twice a year, and I rushed back from a friend’s wedding (yes, I know, shame on me!... And I’m still sorry about that, Sally, honest …) on a Saturday afternoon just to take down those all essential interior location notes.
However, in spite of all that apparent easiness, it did feel rather unsettling to be writing something where I hadn’t had time to filter my experiences and impressions in my mind. I knew what I felt about London and I knew the taste it had left on my skin – but I’m still here, living in Godalming, and I don’t think I’ll ever truly know what the town is like until – or if – we ever leave it. For me, setting works best when I can recollect it in tranquility, not take it out of the air as thoughts and feelings flash by.
So, in writing terms, I’ve plundered London, I’ve skirted over Godalming and I’ve looked back briefly at my rural childhood. What next then in terms of novel settings? Actually the answer to that surprised me. Most recently, I’ve begun writing a series of fantasy novels set in the mythical country of Gathandria, which is (or is becoming) a city state surrounded by more rural economies. All this means that the concept of physical research flies out of the proverbial window and I have to rely on my own imagination to create and maintain a land only I know. Even so, as I worked on it, I realised that a lot of what I understood and wrote about the landscape in Gathandria, its buildings and streets, its fields and its farms has its foundation in my understanding of medieval life – a subject I studied and became fascinated by at university. In creating my imaginary setting, I was still using fact that I’d learnt and remembered from the past. And as I did so, I saw that the characters in my imaginary world were formed too by the place where they lived – every change I made in the landscape affected them. Indeed the city folk turned out to be very different from the rural folk, in attitude and action, in beliefs, thoughts and words. The major difference now is that I must always write down in note form whatever I discover about this new environment – as I can’t rely on travel to check the accuracy! It’s also given me an enormous respect for any writer of fantasy that I don’t think will ever leave me. Having started the series in the rural lands, moved to the city of Gathandria itself for the second book, I’m now moving back to the countryside for the third and final volume. I’m interested to see how what I’ve learnt about these people and the locations where they live will change how I write the finale. Time will, as they say, tell!
In the meantime, I can only encourage all writers to allow the settings where your characters live to dwell more deeply in your pen (or keyboard) and to inhabit your mind as clearly as your characters themselves do. Yes, I know from my own experience that it can be the most difficult thing in the world to do but, believe me, it’s worth it. It’ll revolutionise your writing enjoyment and double your readers’ pleasure. Guaranteed!