Where To Set Your Story
So I’m sitting in a seafront restaurant and friends explain why we’re here at this awkward location; a scene from John Le Carré’s ‘The Night Manager’ was set here.
It never occurred to me to set books anywhere other than London. I remembered the opening chapters of John Wyndham’s ‘The Day of the Triffids’, in which a character says ‘Here you are, Piccadilly Circus, the hub of the universe!’ and took it to heart.
I love travel, but I’m not a loner, so I end up waiting for my partner or friends to become free, when they can travel with me. Plus I’m a liability, the traveler most likely to board the wrong train/ plane/ boat in any given situation, so it’s good to be with somebody trustworthy who has a sense of direction.
London is never a boring city, but for the majority of us it’s surprisingly consistent and safe. There’s an innate politeness that infects everyone who lives there, and I worry that this nice warm safety net will dull my senses and make me a boring writer, so I travel whenever circumstances allow.
I’ve never felt completely safe on American streets, although I have been made more welcome there than anywhere else. The German word unheimlich meaning ‘uncanny’ has deeper connotations that suggest the unease caused by being away from home, literally un-home-like. The Jewish word shpilkes catches how I feel in New York – to be on shpilkesis to be jittery, walking on needles, unsettled.
Europeans travel more than most because the distances are smaller. I have friends who work in Belgium, live in France and weekend in Spain. This surprises visitors because they have to get their heads around all kinds of odd facts; Switzerland has four official languages – German, French, Italian and Romansh. You can be Italian but be from Albania. Spain speaks Castilian, Galician, Euskarian, Aranès and Catalan, and they’re all quite different. Europe is rainforests and wild boar, elegance and poverty, Disneyland and Vegas rolled together.
The stories in my collection ‘Red Gloves’ take place in Poland, America, France, Russia, the Middle East, India and Thailand. I never write about any place I haven’t been because I want to get the details right, although I tend to concentrate on the atmosphere more than the minutiae of exotic locales.
My parents never travelled much. I count myself lucky that I’m part of the generation that is able to move about, but I’m still appalled at how little of the world I’ve really seen. We are creatures of habit and tend to stay in our tribes, so we pick destinations where friends have been before us because it reduces anxiety. But a little anxiety can be a good thing.
I don’t like bucket lists, but I’m aware I have never visited Central America or China (although I’ve written a short story set in China). HRF Keating wrote the India-set Inspector Ghote stories for ten years without setting foot in India. Setting books overseas can take the reader somewhere new even if they’ve been there.
I would not have been able to write ‘The Sand Men’ without visiting Dubai because it would never have occurred to me that a man could freeze to death in such an infernal hot country. Similarly it helps to have been to Spain to write ‘Nyctophobia’, to be able to describe the atmosphere in a small Spanish village.
Do you prefer your books set in exotic locations or close to home?