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Settings

The other day a friend asked me how I come up with the physical settings for my books and scenes — the locations, the houses, and so on.  And as it happened I’d just been working some of that out for my newest book, which has barely begun. For me, settings are very important, even if they’re only imaginary. So I thought I’d share my process here.

In this case, I wanted to find the country house in which the heroine lived as a child. There will only be one scene set there (I think, though that might change) and that’s in the prologue (which is what I’m writing now.) But by the time I’ve finished it, there might not be many setting  details left in the scene. So why research it?

The setting feeds into the heroine’s backstory, the places she loved and hated as a child—it’s part of who she is. So many of my own childhood memories are inextricably linked to the places where we lived; the tree in which I sat, meaning to read, but instead dreaming among the leaves;  The pine-trees under which a friend and I built forts of piled-up fragrant dry pine-needles; the rock-pools I explored in summer, peering into tiny perfect complicated worlds; the attic window I gazed out of in Scotland, looking out over the rooftops.

I wanted to find those kinds of places for my heroine — not necessarily because I’d use them in the book, but because it would help me know more about her and what makes her tick. And particular settings rather than generic ones throw up particular and individual aspects of a character’s personality. And sometimes the spark events that help shape her as a person.

I usually start by deciding on a county, and then narrow in on the map. Often in a series, I like to site my people’s country houses not too far from each other so they can get together for Christmas etc. without too much trouble. But in this case, she won’t ever be going back to that house (probably), so her childhood home could be anywhere.

I chose Hampshire because as I was poring over a 19th century map of the counties of England (borders change over time so a historical map is necessary) I looked at Hampshire and the phrase from My Fair Lady popped into my brain — “In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire hurricanes hardly ever happen.”  So I chose Hampshire. <g>

Then I did an image search for stately homes in Hampshire. And I scrolled through the various pics until one jumped out at me, and my subconscious said — that’s it. Then I explored that place and if several features jumped out at me I’d grab them for my imaginary heroine’s imaginary childhood home. 

It doesn’t even have to be one house — this is not history I’m writing, but fiction set in historical times, so I’m free to assemble features from several houses.

When I was collecting images for The Perfect Kiss, for instance, this photo jumped out at me of an old stone staircase with hollows worn by generations of feet climbing it. It also had a lovely gothic feel, which suited the story, so it became a part of the story– a few lines only, but it added to the atmosphere in my mind, which was its main purpose.

The stairs also had meaning for me, because in one of the many places I lived as a child, I attended a very old school that had stone steps with dips worn in them by generations of children. They fascinated me. I was very aware of stepping into the hollows made by the feet of generations of children before me.  So I used that ancient staircase in my story, but the house they were in was quite a different one — though also quite gothic.

This process, believe it or not, helps me to understand more about my character. For instance the minute I saw the image above,  of a walled garden, I thought — this is where she hides out, reads her books, dreams her dreams. I hadn’t planned it — the image sparked the thought. And those feelings she has about the garden will feed in later to the part of the book that’s set in London.

There’s a turret — I love turrets. So then I wonder, maybe the house has a turret room in which she has her bedroom. Or maybe the turret is haunted. Or maybe she wants to go there but it’s in disrepair and she’s forbidden to go there, and so the question arises, will she go there? And what will be the consequence of that? And until I saw the turret on the house, none of that even occurred to me.

Even so, the images you see in this post will not be the same as the place in my story. In my story the house is a little bit shabby and run-down, the garden wilder and more tangled, the turret might be taller and quite crooked. My heroine, you see, is a little bit lonely and neglected, and she escapes into the garden and the hidden corners of the house in a way she couldn’t if everything was efficient and well run. It’s all to do with creating the atmosphere I want — I’m a big believer in “landscape as metaphor.”

So that’s a little bit about how I explore settings for my books. If you found this interesting and you’d like to read more about this process, here’s a blog I wrote a few years ago on the Word Wenches.

 

A snippet — The Christmas Bride

Here’s a little snippet of my novella, The Christmas Bride.
Ash (Blake Ashton) is riding to Davenham Hall to meet up with his business partners.  It’s dark, it’s freezing, it’s sleeting — and he never wanted to come in the first place . . . 

Ash pressed on. It started snowing again, not the soft, gentle floating flakes of white that he remembered from childhood, but hard, sleety pellets of ice that stung his face. His mood worsened.

Rounding a bend on the edge of a thicket of trees he came across fallen branches strewn across the road, blocking his way. He swore and slowed his horse to a walk, narrowing his eyes against the darkness, looking for a pathway around the blockage.

“Stand and deliver!” The voice rang out. A short man in a long coat stepped forward. He was muffled to the eyes with his hat pulled low. “Throw down your valuables.” His voice was hoarse. His pistol showed in brief silhouette against the snowy background.

Ash was cross, cold, tired and in no mood to be robbed. He pulled out his own pistol.

The footpad’s pistol wavered in surprise, but he did not lower his gun. For a moment the two men simply stared at each other.

“I’ll wager I’m a better shot than you are,” Ash said. “Drop your gun or you die.” 

The words were barely out of his mouth when a small figure rushed out at him from the other side of the road yelling “No! No! No!”  

Something stung his cheek, Ash’s horse shied in fright, there was a loud report from the footpad’s gun, and Ash fired his own pistol in response.

Ash brought his horse back under control. The footpad was a still, dark huddle on the ground, and a small figure was bent over it. “Charley! Charley! Are you dead, Charley?”

A child? Out here in this weather? At this time of night?

“Charleeeeey!” the boy wailed. He turned to Ash, his face a pale shape in the darkness. “You’ve killed her, you’ve killed Charley.”

Her? Ash pocketed his pistol and leapt from his horse.

The boy flung himself at Ash, pummeling him in terror and fury. “Don’t you touch her! Don’t you dare! You’ve killed her, you’ve killed her!”

“Stop that, boy!” He caught the boy’s fists in his hands. “Let me look at her—you did say she was a girl, didn’t you? Your mother?” 

“My sister.”

Dear Lord, what the hell was a girl doing, playing footpad? “Let me see. You don’t know if she’s dead or not. She might have only swooned.” He released the boy.

The boy looked to be about eight or nine, skinny and distraught, and dressed in a coat too big for him. “She’s bleeding.” He held up a small bare hand and even in the gloom, Ash could see the dark stain of blood

“Let me look.” Ash thrust the boy to one side, and knelt down in the mud beside the girl’s body. He pulled the muffler aside and pressed his fingers to the side of her throat, searching for a pulse. He held his breath and concentrated. 

“She’s alive. She’s breathing.” Ash breathed again. He hadn’t meant to kill anyone, let alone a girl. But his hand came away sticky with warm blood. She might die yet.

The Christmas Bride goes on sale on November 9th.
You can buy the e-book at Amazon, Apple, Kobo, Barnes and Noble or use this universal link to find it at your favorite e-book store.

Cover Magic

The Christmas Bride is up for preorder!

At least it’s up on amazon and pending on some other e-book sites (Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Google Play) and it should be ready on all platforms by launch day, which is the 9th November. (Fingers crossed.)

It’s been a fascinating journey, this self-publishing, and I’m learning so much along the way. For instance, when I was thinking about the cover, I knew I wanted something a bit Christmassy (which is tricky for the Regency-era, as Christmas trees etc weren’t in until the Victoria era) so I knew it would mainly be greenery and red berries. And snow.

I also wanted the image to fit in with the Chance Sisters covers, as the novella is part of the same series. I trawled through a lot of cover image sites and finally I found this image (on the left), which had the simplicity I wanted and a dress that looked like a real Regency-era dress, and I loved the lushness of the red velvet spencer.

And I know some people don’t like headless covers, but I do, because I hardly ever see a face on a cover that is anything like the hero or heroine I’ve imagined. So this way, we can each imagine our own heroine. What do you think? Are you in the headless or full-face camp?

So I bought it, and then sent it to a cover designer — who transformed it from a nice picture of a girl in a red spencer, and a green leafy background (not so likely in winter), to a lovely snowy Christmassy scene with a smatter of red berries. All we fiddled with after the first draft was the lettering of my name — making the edging a bit darker. And as you can no doubt tell, I love it to bits.

I’ll write some more about the self-publishing process and the things I’ve learned next time. And of course, I’ll tell you more about the story.  Feel free to ask me any questions.