A Question For Readers

Reading & Writing

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Recently someone asked me if my books were set in America, because she didn’t want to read anything that wasn’t set in places she couldn’t recognise and identify with. I had to admit that the Bryant & May books were mostly set in London. I can sympathise with this point of view. Comedians often use observational humour to get laughs. If I make a joke on Twitter about the difficulty of opening packets of biscuits, it will get more response than if I discussed visiting Iceland.

We live in a time when travel was never cheaper or easier. But it’s partly a generational mindset. Easyjet even termed its users ‘Generation Easyjet’. Now, as cruise companies unveil their largest-ever people carriers, some popular destinations in Europe have started voicing their concerns about their ability to absorb visitor numbers on such a vast scale. The cruise ship ‘Oasis Of The Seas’ is 40 per cent larger than any other vessel to ever dock in the UK, and has the capacity to house 5,400 passengers and 2,394 crew.

The sheer grind of ploughing through tourists in the summer isn’t something featured in vacation brochures. Certain museums and popular attractions are all but off-limits in the holiday season. But do we still enjoy reading about people in far-flung places when it’s now possible to go there?

In the last few years I’ve been stepping off the beaten track more and more. I still harbour a grudge after staying in what must be the only unpicturesque village in Provence, which had one tobacco-stained bar and a filthy cafe run by a fat bloke smoking roll-ups and wearing a stained wife-beater, but at least it was quiet. And it provided material to write about.

There are two ways of escaping the hordes – go somewhere well-known out of season (I spent Christmas Eve in Venice a few years ago and it was empty and beautiful) or visit a place you know little about. High on my list are Romania, Moldova, Slovakia, Slovenia, Norway, Belarus and Lithuania. I can safely skip any of the Stans for now, and I won’t go to Russia while it has anti-gay laws, but in January I’ll be back in the Baltic, this time to Estonia, where Tallin faces Helsinki.

We grew up being fed ignorant misinformation about other countries that levelled Borat’s. But for those who don’t travel much, the world is a confusing place. My New York copy editor just asked why I have a character in my book using his passport to get to Spain ‘when the British don’t need passports in Europe’. This is an understandable mistake, unlike the one made by the CNBC TV presenter who last week guffawed at the idea of Ireland using Euros, on an unfortunate clip that went viral.

So here’s my question; how much do readers mind reading about places abroad? The British have a long history of enjoying novels set in other countries. I have no idea how my Spain-set thriller ‘Nyctophobia’ is doing, and it concerns me because my next standalone novel is set much further afield.

So, do you prefer reading about home comforts, or are you happy with exploring other countries on the page? Let’s discuss.

27 comments on “A Question For Readers”

  1. Rachel Green says:

    I grew up reading novels set all around the world and, indeed, other worlds, but these days I actively seek those set in Britain but I still read others. The same with films. Given a choice at the cinema, I’m more likely to see a film set in the UK than one set in the US, but I’ll still see the US one the following week.

  2. Elizabeth Endicott says:

    Home for me is Vermont, but I prefer novels set elsewhere: for instance, Fred Vargas (France, with occasional forays to England); Ann Cleeves (Shetland Islands); Qiu Xioalong (China and a bit of US); and, of course, Bryant & May novels. I should divulge that I am a historian who writes about Mongolia which I have visited regularly since 1978. My reading habits may not fit any particular model.

  3. Colin Stanton says:

    Much prefer books set in the U.K

  4. Vivienne says:

    I read to learn as much as be entertained, so I am not constrained by any geographical place. As a child I enjoyed Treasure and Coral Island without having been further than Ramsgate, sea-wise. Then there are books from the past – I can’t really visit Dickensian London, although I do my best to narrow my vision occasionally when visiting his locations. Recently finished Iain Sinclair’s Downriver and now need to go and explore Tilbury properly, so it’s not as if it’s a foreign country that is totally unfamiliar. Have read plenty of American stuff – I ask the occasion US citizen to describe a live oak to me (mentioned in more than one book), but have been unsuccessful in getting a good description. However, it’ll be something to look out for when I get there, and I do feel I have a sort of an idea of lots of the world I’ve not yet visited. Started Nictophobia and feel the description of the house is incredibly vivid: need to continue. I suppose it’s annoying when authors write about places they don’t know well and I feel I do but, provided the plot holds, it’s OK. We are all probably quite ignorant of some stuff going on down our road.

  5. Stefan M. says:

    I guess the answer is strongly influenced by the kind of country you grew up in. For readers from countries with a lot of foreign books translated into the local language, foreign locale in a story is nothing unusual. So, I suspect it might be a problem mainly for British or North American readers.
    By the way, I just remembered the passage in “Hell Train” where one of the characters explains that although many Hammer films were set abroad (some kind of Eastern Europe), they were in fact about England and English society. I don’t think the same could be said about the many German crime adventures of the sixties set in exotic places (or in England).

  6. Stefan, I remember seeing the ‘crimes’, some of which are specifically set in Soho – it’s strange seeing them, rather like looking into a kaleidoscope. They’re good fun, though.
    Right now I’m reading Hans Fallada, whose books are set in Germany and have just been reissued – they’re superb, if bleak. I’m learning a lot about the German mindset, though.

  7. Stefan, I remember seeing the ‘crimis’, some of which are specifically set in Soho – it’s strange seeing them, rather like looking into a kaleidoscope. They’re good fun, though.
    Right now I’m reading Hans Fallada, whose books are set in Germany and have just been reissued – they’re superb, if bleak. I’m learning a lot about the German mindset, though.

  8. Maggie B says:

    What is fiction to a reader? For this reader, it is an escape from wherever I happen to be both physically and mentally. Please continue to be my travel guide.

  9. J. Folgard says:

    I just want a good story and characters to latch unto -I read a lot of “genre” fiction so about half the novels are about made-up places, with influences and parallels more or less apparent. Heck, I’m french and loved ‘Malniveau Prison’, Ariel Winters’ fun Simenon pastiche (from ‘the Twenty-Year Death’), even when some “french” details were off, including some locations I know (the author admits artistic licence anyway). I loved the story nonetheless. Same with Bryant & May: I’m in Britain maybe three or four days a year tops, yet I fell in love with your detectives and your London.
    Sometimes (but I’m no writer or academic), when a particular emphasis is placed upon a specific location, be it for mood or plot, I’ll check it out on the Web, but I like reading about places I know or visited as much as foreign or imaginary locations -it gives variety and spice, and challenges you a little bit. It’s all part of the fun, I like both!
    I don’t read fiction for an endless reinterpretation of places or things I’m already familiar with, there’s so much more to it, I think.

  10. Stefan M. says:

    Chris: Those “Krimis” were probably part of the series of German Edgar-Wallace-adaptations that were very popular in Germany in the sixties (they did almost forty films before they realized that there wasn’t much interest in them any more – and there were other films more or less based on novels by Wallace’s son Bryan Edgar).
    And yes, Fallada doesn’t paint a very cheerful picture of German society, but considering his personal experiences and the time when he was writing – the thirties and forties – that is not very surprising.

  11. Jacqueline H. says:

    I have always read to be transported, via the imagination, to worlds I can inhabit in a parallel universe; places or times that enrich the here and now. I am reading Nyctophobia and it evokes memories of Spain, which I visited as a child, but also the universal feelings of trepidation which were evoked by Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (book and film) and the film Blancanieves. In both of them, primal fears were stirred by the excellence of the writing and the film-making. Nyctophobia is doing the same thing – it is evocative of a place which supersedes geographical locations, and exists somewhere in the dark recesses of childhood nights when sleep wouldn’t come and something was definitely hiding in the walnut-patterned wardrobe, whose doors just wouldn’t close … However, I love the Bryant and Mays and can’t wait for the new one. Recognising the locations can add to the pleasure in a subtle way (but Hastings, where I have lived for several decades, comes off very badly!)

    It is interesting that the first person narrator in Nyctophobia is female. Although I am female, I identify very strongly indeed with the world of Paper Boy, having grown up just a little later, in a world which in retrospect was like black and white television, before colour. I share the feeling, so wonderfully expressed, that my father was not a bad person, just differently wired, “like a continental plug”! I don’t think gender or geography impair the joys of reading when the reader just can’t wait to be carried along for the ride, and wishes it would never end.

  12. Jo W says:

    Quick comment before I pad freezes again- stories set in UK or near Europe,past or present. Can’t concentrate if books are written/published in ‘American’. Sorry all those across pond😉

  13. Cindy Land says:

    I am American but have lived in many countries including England, near London. I am on my tenth Bryant & May and have pre-ordered the new one coming out. My A to Z is old but invaluable when it comes to these books. I just wish I had one for many of the other books I read.
    Good characters and a not unbelievable story are my criteria no matter where the book is set. These guys and their cohorts have become old friends. Just don’t mess them up and you have me forever.

  14. snowy says:

    Don’t care, doesn’t even have to be set on this planet or the characters human, it’s all about the story. But that may just be me!

  15. Jon Masters says:

    Happy to read stories in any settings,so long as I feel that the writer has got the details right ( or internally consistent for completely created settings ). However, nothing pulls me out of a story more rapidly than when I know the setting and the writer hasn’t got the important details correct or fails to get over the feel of the place.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    No, not just you, Snowy.It’s definitely the story and, of course, most novels are exotic for me. I have lived all my life in west Coast British Columbia and until recently hadn’t an opportunity to travel. American cities are just s foreign to me as British ones. I’ve been reading Diana Gabaldon and searching Google images for North Carolina maps and pictures. I’ve done the same for other books. No, the setting can be anywhere as long as the characters make sense. I understand the problem with “N. American”, Jo, although Canada and Mexico are very different. English terminology and practice take a bit of adjusting to.

  17. m says:

    Like others have said the story matters more than anything else but I have a slight preference for books set outside the country where I live, the US. I grew up in Hawaii and the setting of most US books was already so different from anything I recognized that reading book set in London or other foreign cities didn’t seem like such a huge stretch.

  18. Matthew says:

    Having read Science Fiction and Fantasy novels all my life, I have no problem reading stories set in places I am not familiar with, be it Japan, America, or a disc spinning on top of 4 giant elephants who themselves are standing on an enormous turtle.

    As long as the author helps the reader understand how the place works, and not leave them floundering, it isn’t an issue.

  19. Mark Taylor says:

    I must admit. When I first saw the title “Nyctophobia” I did wonder whether we would be transported to New York City.

  20. Ken Mann says:

    I’m happy with stories set anywhere – and if they’re set in places I know the author has the added problem of getting it right to avoid distracting me and pulling me out of the story. Currently resident in Harrow happily reading novels set in Wyoming.

  21. Gary Locke says:

    I live in the U.S. and I rarely read books set in this country, although I make exceptions for authors like Dennis Lehane. I read to be taken away, to feel that I’m a citizen of this vast world. I may become interested in a region, or a historical event that I previously knew nothing about, and it will compel me to learn more. This is how we grow. How dull it would be to take a parochial approach to my reading habits.

  22. Russ Varley says:

    To me it is not the place that matters, it is how well the author evokes it. One of the reasons I love the B&M novels is the sense of London you capture on the page. Deon Meyer does this for Cape Town as well. I don’t what it is that makes you both able to create such a strong sense of a place but it takes more than simple description. Take Jo Nesbo, he describes many parts of Oslo and the surrounding area in his novels but I get absolutely no sense of Oslo as a place to live and grow. Perhaps that sense only comes from someone who loves the place they are writing about. Your love of London shines through in the B&M books as well as Roofworld and other earlier titles. I could name any number or others authors who manage the same feat (Aaronovitch, Mankell, Meyer, Peace, etc) but referring to Matthew’s comment, anyone reading the Discworld novels cannot fail to know that Pratchett absolutely loves the place, even though it exists only in his head.

  23. Chandon says:

    I have always enjoyed reading book set in far flung places. There is a whole world outside the UK, and reading books set in different parts of it is one way to gain some experience of it, especially if you don’t have the time or the means to visit it all. Growing up in London, I did not venture outside the capital for many years, but that did not stop me picking up books from the likes of Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, John Masters and countless American novels from the local public library, all of which gave me a tantalising glimpse of another world. Maugham made me want to visit the Far East, Nicholas Freeling made me want to visit Amsterdam, and many of the books I read all those years ago have inspired my travels as an adult.

    I am also very pleased to see that publishers like Serpents Tail are actively promoting foreign novels in translation in the UK.

  24. George Mealor says:

    Books in english that are well translated are my only requirement. I enjoy stories from thru out the world.

  25. Wayne Mook says:

    For me it does not matter where the story is set. I’ve been reading short stories; William Hope Hodgson’s sea tales, the Sargasso Sea features heavily, as well as some US set tales from Steve Rasnic Tem. I’m also about half way through Graham Joyce’s Year of the Ladybird set in Skegness and I am reading The Wizard of Oz to my 2 year daughter, so a few different places there.


  26. Thomas says:

    The point of reading for me is to learn something I did not know before. Sending me away to a far-off place in a good book is a richly satisfying experience.

    By the way, I ordered your new standalone, “Nyctophobia,” and am looking forward to a good-old creepy ghost story set abroad.


  27. Michelle says:

    I am currently reading Nyctophobia and it is very good.

    I have many American novels, and the location doesn’t bother me but what started to grate was the constant product placement and cliches which detract from the story. I think because of this when I read a book blurb and it is obviously American it feels stifling and i have tendency to look for a British alternative.instead.

    We all love to read about areas we know about. I recently read a Paul finch book that had its first murder set on the old mine that has been converted into a nature park, that’s ten minutes from my parents house. So I spent the rest of the book looking for further references to that area.

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