Where To Set Your Story

Reading & Writing

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?

16 comments on “Where To Set Your Story”

  1. SteveB says:

    A writer who can make home exotic, who looks up at the roofs and down to the tunnels and all round instead of only straight ahead, is the best for me.

  2. Denise Treadwell says:

    Home for me is California, but London is exotic for me now.

  3. Brooke says:

    What SteveB said.,, rare qualities in writers.

    About having shpilkes in the US. When Alexander McCall-Smith was asked why he choose to write about two women in Botswana, he said that upon first visiting the country, he immediately felt peaceful, that he was in a ‘good” country with well-meaning people. He then asked interviewer/ audience: “Haven’t you felt in some countries you visit, they’re not good or well meaning?” Here… we’ll piss on your back, tell you it’s just rain, and if you give us 100, we’ll clean it up for you..

  4. Wayne Mook says:

    For me it doesn’t matter, it’s about the story first and then characters, although I do like character driven stories.

    I never left the UK until I was 30 and still have not been outside Europe, I’d like to travel far afield (income & responsibilities have so far stopped me.) but it’s not something I lose sleep over. I have a good imagination and disappear off to world that will never be.

    It would be interesting to see Bryant and May going to some far flung place as part of Interpol or to a British Protectorate. Just a thought, or they maybe meeting some famous author and friend in a little village.


  5. Peter Tromans says:

    I agree with Wayne, characters first. If the location is a character, as London is in B&M, then the author should know it well. And Mr F never lets us down.

    Even as children, we could see the out of town road anywhere in the world, Switzerland, England…, in ‘The Man from UNCLE’ was a dirt road in California. It didn’t spoil the show as it wasn’t a factor in the story. Though the actors sometimes struggled to keep a straight face.

  6. Denise Treadwell says:

    Most of my books I read including Mr Chris, are based in the UK. Stephen Booth – Derbyshire, Peter Lovesey – Bath , Ellie Griffith – Norfolk ( where I was born and lived ) and Brighton, Simon Brett – south downs. Elizabeth George ( whom I have actually met) although an American writer who likes to keep her facts straight. You of course supply my love of London. I have been to all of the places described in the books written by the writers above. And I love them !

  7. Martin Tolley says:

    As others have said, character and story come first, but it is interesting how environment (in it’s broadest sense) influences individual character. Living in a particular area shapes and fashions our experiences and our stories, often more than we perhaps realise.
    A good author weaves the story in its context seamlessly. And maybe you only notice when the author gets it wrong, or has done imperfect research. An author who has a character in a real place and who then gets the character walking along real streets or driving real roads which cannot get them where they end up in anything like a realistic time, just jars, and starts me wondering about other plot holes and spoils the experience.

  8. Ken Mann says:

    That studio backlot street in The Man from Uncle made for a particularly surreal London. Somebody responded to the need to fill it with non-American cars by having every single car be a Hillman Imp, presumably a job lot. That kind of unreality gives films atmosphere – not sure if the same can be said of literature.

  9. Ken Mann says:

    I do like novels with a strong sense of place irrespective of location. Your books are set in a London I recognise, the only time that has happened except for the works of Mike Ripley.

  10. David Ronaldson says:

    I loved Paul Theroux’s Kowloon Tong. The novel was as claustrophobic and humid as I recall Hong Kong being and is full of bestial and food-related imagery. I didn’t enjoy Alex Garland’s Manila-set The Tesseract as much, but still got a strong sense of place from it, while E.Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News drags the reader to an unfamiliar Newfoundland. Place is only one aspect of good writing, but when done well, it’s powerful.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    The place should be clear if it’s specific, the way Chris’ books are, but then so should the characters be. We know the PCU from the outset, its members are consistent and we just learn more about them as time goes on. Another author who does this is Laurie King, whose Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell are extremely vivid people. The places are equally vivid but very varied, ranging from rural Sussex to small Himalayan princedoms and from Tokyo and San Francisco to Australia.
    I read Paul Theroux’ Mosquito Coast and will never forget the heat, exhaustion and frustrated anger in that book. The characters were good but it was the river and the surrounding jungle that got me.
    The Shipping News had a lot of Newfoundland that made sense and was recognisable when we visited there. When you have roots in a place you really want a book about it to ring true as much as you do the characters.
    I want the whole book to “make sense”, which means that I believe the place can exist and so can the characters. I really enjoyed Desmond Bagley’s books, even though Wyatt’s Hurricane has “facts” about hurricane damage definitely wrong and Landslide has the university in Vancouver named wrongly. Since the University of B.C. is my alma mater I really didn’t like that error, but Snow Tiger was exciting and you learn about roller bearing snow structures.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    In The Game Laurie King takes a known place, India on the fringes of the Himalayas, gives you a short course on that area in the 1920s, and then steps off the edge into a fantasy country that is still very recognisable. Add in the search for Kim the lost British agent and you have a terrifyingly realistic story. I have developed a quite definite fear of tigers after reading it.
    The best writing seems to come out of a setting that is at least initially real and characters that are generally familiar. It is in those edgy areas, the physical border countries and the twists of human psyche that tension comes.

  13. SimonB says:

    As a fan of fantasy I do love to find new settings that aren’t basically 13th to 16th century Europe with the serial numbers filed off, but when rooted in reality the place has to be reasonably accurate or I also fall out of the world and look for other flaws as per Martin above. But that only works if I know the place well enough myself.

    What I enjoy most though is a rattling good tale. You could put three people in an empty room and still end up with an interesting story.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Definitely, Simon. The empty room is a basically familiar setting, of course. It would be a character led story unless the room became a character – but still character led.

  15. Ian Luck says:

    The classic example of course, was the prolific writer of Westerns, JT Edson, from the badlands of… Melton Mowbray. He wrote dozens of books on characters in the old west, and made a questionable hero out of real-life gunslinger, John Wesley Harding. I read somewhere, that the furthest west Edson had been was Aberystwith. A school friend used to read his books, but I found them deadly dull; I think he only read them, as a great many feature lovingly described fights between women. Yes, I’m sure of it.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Merciful heavens, Ian! Decent books with fighting women? They sound like hair pulling, kicking and screaming fights. Doesn’t sound like the sort of thing a nicely brought up boy should have been reading.
    If Edson had been to Aberystwith perhaps that was enough. Edson. You know, the street next to us is Edson, named after a family descended from a member of the Royal Engineers who did a lot of early road work in the province. Wonder if there was a relationship. Might have explained his interest in frontier life.

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