When I started writing my novel, I was virtually certain that it was going to be set in a non-specific location (i.e. a fictional city) – after all, Susan Hill does it in the Simon Serailler novels and it works well – she creates a sense of realism in her place. My tutor however was pretty fictional-location averse and urged me to have a specific setting in mind. At first I was a little dismissive (sometimes I’d like to kick myself for paying lots of money to do a Masters in Creative Writing while at the same time not leaping to action as soon as my eminently wise superiors suggest something!) but then I came to realise that he was right.
For the majority of novels, a strong sense of place really helps with plausability as well as helping engage the reader. I keeping reading the Stephen Booth books not because of the characters or because of the plot but because it quite often mentions places I’ve been too – a body at Masson Mill? I’ve shopped there with my Grandma!!! It’s like being at an actual crime scene! And wow… when Jackson Brodie in Started Early, Took My Dog visits one of my favourite inns in North Yorkshire, The Black Swan at Helmsley it’s like I’m actually there, having afternoon tea with him – a brush with famous people, albeit fictional ones!
It also gives the writer something to latch on to – let’s fact it, as imaginative as we all are, it’s much easier to describe an actual place than one that only exists in our minds. It’s a more complete image which helps it be a more plausible image. I’ve just reread Chemistry of Death for my course – I’d read it a while ago of my own volition and hadn’t rated it much so I was a bit bemused at being asked to read it for a literature course. I still didn’t think much to it and one of the reasons was that the setting felt so implausible. It was set in a fictional village in Norfolk but seemed to be from a bygone era instead of a contemporary one. Our ‘hero’ walks miles from the station, the vicar has one local Church and still wields considerable power, there’s a village doctor with a woman-what-does and woods and rowing boats and… who knows what else? It wasn’t an authentic place and that really detracted from the story. Think Midsummer Murders if you like – but twinned with supposedly high-tech forensics that just didn’t match!
So, unsurprisingly, my tutor was indeed right I think – most novels need a realistic, not necessarily entirely faithful, setting. The eagle-eyed amongst you (or those who possess both eagle-eyes and a more than passing knowledge of a certain Yorkshire city) may have noticed that my posts have been featuring photos taken of Sheffield. Next post I’ll explain just how I came to choose this fantastic city for my story-location.