As some of you know, I spent a glorious day in York recently. The sun was shining, the river sparkling and the gardens blooming. It was bliss. After a couple of hours lingering over breakfast and writing in various coffee shops, I popped into Treasurer's House, a National Trust property nestling in the shadow of the Minster. Apart from a fascinating interior, the house boasts an exquisite Wisteria-filled garden with a spectacular view. There is a central lawn around which a number of benches are positioned. I chose one in dappled sunlight beneath a low-hanging tree and sat down.
Whilst gazing between the majestic Minster and the abundant clusters of blue-violet flowers clinging to Wisteria shrubs, I got to thinking about the last time I was in York. It was October and the weather could not have been more different. But that was okay; I wanted it to be dank and grey and wet. Why? Because I had decided to set one of my ghost stories there.
I had never written a story set in a real place before. I mean, I'd had real locations in mind when writing certain scenes but I had never explicitly referred to them in the text. But I'd been reading an Ian Rankin Rebus novel (Saints of the Shadow Bible) and it struck me how much his stories are enhanced by the many references to locations within Edinburgh and its environs. It got me thinking about other books I had read where a real place featured heavily. Ann Cleves' addictive Shetland series, for example. The Miniaturist (reviewed separately here) draws on the atmosphere of Amsterdam. There are many, many others. I have just discovered Mel Sherratt who bases her novels in Stoke-on Trent. Whilst I haven't read any yet, I am very much looking forward to them.
None of this is anything new. Rankin, in particular, is celebrated for his gritty depictions of his home town and much is made of setting and location on writing courses and in articles. In a way I have always tried to pay close attention to it; considering how a place would look, feel, smell; how I could use the environment to emphasize a theme, or reflect a character. But for some reason it had never occurred to me to use a specific place, with references to actual streets, staying (reasonably) faithful to road layouts, the position and appearance of buildings, and any places of interest such as churches and monuments.
I don't know why that was but once the penny had dropped I was really excited. Choosing the location was easy. York is known for its ghost walks and has history and atmosphere pouring from every alleyway, gatehouse and steeple. It is also a fairly easy train journey from where I live and, well, I really wanted to go there.
And so, one Thursday morning, I dropped Matthew at nursery and hopped on a train, armed with a notepad and my phone.
I was inspired from the moment I arrived. The vast arched ceiling of the station is incredible and there is the most unusual Costa Coffee I have ever seen, perched in a small box next to a huge clock. As I strolled across Lendal Bridge, the Minster in the distance, I discreetly (I hope) filmed short bursts of the journey whilst trying to absorb as much detail as possible. I noticed the rumble of traffic, the bouncing of suitcase wheels along the pavement, the colour of the metalwork across the bridge, the birds in the distance. By the time I had reached the centre of York a story was already bubbling in my mind. I grabbed a map and headed to Cafe Rouge to scribble it down over brunch.
I have called the story 'Chasing the Tail' and it is the seventh of the eight stories which comprise 'Into Dust' and I am pleased with it. As I wrote it I referred regularly to the pictures and video footage I'd taken and also to the map (which is now falling apart from overuse). I found that the story became anchored in a way which is difficult to express but which particularly struck me when I returned to York this week. I walked the route my protagonist takes and can actually say that I felt a flush of excitement. I could almost see the characters as I crossed the bridge and entered the Museum Gardens. It was as though I was visiting an old friend.
It was a very positive experience, from start to finish. So much so that I subsequently used a real location for my eighth and final supernatural story. That story ('We All Go The Same Way Home') is set in Leeds City Varieties Music Hall and was inspired by a tour I attended (and by seeing it on Antiques Road Trip!).
It can also make sense from a marketing perspective although this will depend upon what you are writing and who your target audience is. For me, I am hoping that setting a couple of stories in Yorkshire will help. Although the book isn't out yet, I have begun approaching local libraries and it has certainly increased the level of interest.
So if you haven't tried it yet, why not give it a go? Instead of: 'she strolled past the park', why not: 'she strolled along Princes Road, the park dark and empty to her left.' A place has atmosphere, a history, a life and you might just be surprised where it takes you.
Happy hunting x
I love most types of fiction - crime, mystery, fantasy. Oh, and historical fiction of course and middle-grade books and, well, you get the picture.
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