Thursday, February 4, 2021

Setting the Scene

Use your memories to help you write with assurance

Many crime writers believe the setting is one of the most important elements in a novel and that it almost becomes an additional character in the story.

The fishing village of Marina di Puolo gave me the idea for my novel, The Shooting in Sorrento
The fishing village of Marina di Puolo gave me
the idea for my novel, The Shooting in Sorrento
Whether it is a country house in the case of Golden Age novels, a big city such as London or Edinburgh, or the island of Sicily, as in the novels of Andrea Camilleri, where the crime takes place has a big impact on the story and the investigation that follows.

A lot of writers become inspired by a particular place they have visited and their minds immediately start inventing a mystery to happen there.

When I interviewed the crime writer P D James in the 1990s she told me that her novels were almost always inspired by somewhere she had visited.

If you are a new writer you should try to set a story in a place you know well so that you can describe it convincingly and be accurate with the geography. Your murderer should be able to get from one place to another in a realistic amount of time, otherwise readers who also know the location will feel let down.

It is tempting to choose a glamorous setting for your book so that readers can become armchair travellers and enjoy visiting the sights along with your detective.

I was intrigued by the gated entrance to some caves just outside Marina di Puolo
I was intrigued by the gated entrance to some
caves just outside Marina di Puolo
But many writers have picked abattoirs, factories, power stations and crime ridden inner city housing estates. As long as they have really known and understood their location, they have been able to use it effectively.

Wherever you decide to set your novel, you must visit it and get to know it well so that you can present it authentically.

There are exceptions, of course. I have read that H R F Keating wrote an entire series of books set in India, featuring his character, Inspector Ghote, an Indian police officer, and yet the writer himself had never been to the country, but had done all his research from maps and books.

But on the whole, it is better to know a setting well to be able to describe it accurately. After all, it is one of the perks of being an author to have a good excuse for frequent days out or holidays abroad.

For years, I enjoyed holidays in Sorrento in southern Italy, vaguely thinking it would make a beautiful setting for a detective novel or film and that no British crime writer had ever used it.

But it was only when I discovered some caves, while walking along the beach of a small fishing village just outside Sorrento, that I got the beginnings of an idea for a plot.

The caves were at sea level and would have been below what was once a Roman villa, providing the owners and their guests with access from the sea thousands of years ago.

The caves looked the perfect place to hide a kidnap victim
The caves looked the perfect place
to hide a kidnap victim
There were some kayaks, paddles and some old fishing nets being stored in the caves now, behind locked metal gates, but it occurred to me that a body could also be hidden there, or a kidnap victim could be kept there. People could bring in contraband items by sea and hide them in there. Or, a character could be imprisoned there by someone who wanted to keep them out of circulation for a while.

When I visited Positano by boat I saw that the coastline of Sorrento had many such recesses at sea level that could be used in this way. They were places that were inaccessible by car and even difficult to get to on foot, but were perfectly accessible by boat if you knew the area well. That’s when the plot of The Shooting in Sorrento occurred to me.

The book, my second Butler and Bartorelli mystery, starts with a bridegroom being shot, seemingly at random by a sniper, while posing for pictures in Piazza Tasso with his bride after his wedding in Sorrento. 

It was a sight I had often seen over the years while on holiday in Sorrento, although, of course, I had never seen anyone actually shot.

Journalist Kate Butler and her partner, retired detective Steve Bartorelli, are staying at the same hotel as the wedding party and Kate feels she has to help the family, who speak no Italian and are traumatised by what has happened.

The years I had spent sightseeing and shopping in the historic centre of Sorrento  helped me enormously in devising my plot as I was able to easily recall how quickly you could get from one location, such as the Franciscan cloisters, to another, Chiesa del Carmine, a baroque church that overlooks the main square, Piazza Tasso.

The cover of my mystery novel, The Shooting in Sorrento
The cover of my mystery novel,
The Shooting in Sorrento
With my family I had regularly visited the beach of Marina di Puolo, which is out of town on the Sorrentine peninsula, and I had great fun inventing an historic villa with a terrace that overlooked the seafront as the home of one of my characters.

Most people will have a favourite city or holiday resort in their memory bank that they can use as a location in a book and they will find it is a big help to be able to know instinctively whether a character has to turn left, or turn right, to reach a particular place. Also, they will know whether or not it is practical to allow a character to run up a steep hill quickly to reach a place in time for the murder.

If you don’t want to use a real town or village as a setting, you can imagine one of your favourite places that you already know well and move it to another part of the country, or to a different country, and give it another name, but you will still be able to rely on your memories of it to write about it with assurance.

Readers frequently say they will put up with a lot provided a novel has a strong sense of place, so the best settings to choose are the ones you know well and for which you have genuine feelings.

The Shooting in Sorrento is available as a paperback or Kindle ebook on Amazon.




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