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Category: About writing


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.


Cover sneak peek

The cover of my new, soon-to-be self-published Christmas novella is ready, and you lovely people who subscribe to my blog are the first to see it. I’ll also be sending it out to the newsletter subscribers.
And after that social media.

But you’re the first.

I’m really happy with it.

What do you think?

I’ll be talking more about the story later.

And putting up links for where you can buy it. 

I’m still on the learning curve with self-publishing, so I appreciate your patience.

Giving up on the news

A while ago I stopped reading or watching the news every day. It used to be my habit to start the day with a cup of coffee and the news, but gradually I started to realize that all it did was leave me depressed and frustrated about things I couldn’t change. 

So I did what to my family and friends was the unthinkable, and went cold turkey on the news.

And it made such a difference to my day.  I still had my morning habit to appease, so I’ve been finding blogs to read instead that are interesting and relevant and yet don’t bring me down.

I’m not saying I’ve stuck my head in the sand — I still end up keeping abreast of current affairs — things filter through anyway, and my friends like to talk about the state of the world, and sometimes I hear something and will look up more about it — but it’s no longer part of my morning ritual, and I feel happier for it.

This is one of the blogs I subscribe to. It has articles from all over the world, often quirky and interesting little stories. Here, for instance is one about the “floating gardens” of Amiens in France.  It’s a lovely article about how for hundreds of years, the marshy land near Amiens has been turned into agricultural land surrounded by canals. Here’s a photo (by VASSILCC-BY-3.0)

Now I’ve heard of the town of Amiens, but only because there was a short-lived Peace of Amiens in the middle of the Napoleonic wars. 

When the Peace was signed (1802) people in the UK thought the war was all over, and would-be travelers, starved of foreign travel, first because of The French Revolution and then the rise of Napoleon, headed for Paris and the Continent to begin their Grand Tour. But it soon became clear that the treaty was not being honored by either side — Britain insisted Napoleon was using the peace to reorganize his control of Europe and prepare for war, but they were also breaking the agreement. By 1803 the war was on again. Some tourists were trapped, some fled and escaped, others were interned or required to give their parole.

I used this situation as the background for my second novel — Tallie’s Knight. In it, Tallie, who was more or less ‘annexed’ by Magnus, the Earl of D’Arenville in a convenient marriage, ends up agreeing to the marriage, but only if she can go on the Grand Tour for their honeymoon. So off they go — but when they reached Italy, they heard that Napoleon’s troops had invaded the Piedmont, and so they had to flee. . . 

So now, thanks to this blog I know two things about Amiens, and one day I hope to visit their beautiful floating gardens. And isn’t that thought so much better than dwelling on depressing news?