So many books I read are set in major cities, especially London, so when I decided to set The Cruelty of Lambs in Birmingham (UK), some people were really surprised. ‘Birmingham? What on earth for? There’s nothing there!’ Or worse, ‘Nobody’s going to want to read a book set in Birmingham.’
In my thinking aloud this week, I’ve decided to talk a little bit about choosing a setting for your novel, although I could have a rant about how Birmingham is as good as anywhere for a book and the fact that the city has got over a hundred green spaces including 2,400 acres of parkland in Sutton Park on the north side of the city. The Future Can’t Wait, my new novel coming out this September, features this treasure of a woodland complete with ponies and deer.
Right now I am writing this from the village of Olden in Nordfjord, with snow -capped mountains in the background, a mixed hillside of conifers and birch trees and multi-coloured wooden houses nestled into the clearings, a sliver of a road connecting them to the village. Already this is giving me some ideas of a possible short story. Check out my new 1 min video Where to Set your Novel which shows the scenery I’m describing.
Choosing an unfamiliar backdrop can be fun as it means you can travel to do some research. I tend to visit a place to write in the atmosphere which you can’t get from secondary resources. It’s the sounds, the smells and the chatter of the locals that provide the depth to a story although many people have successful written about places they’ve never visited, the danger being you can make major errors that are picked up by people with local knowledge.
Try being a tourist in your home town and see it through the eyes of a stranger. Look above the shop fronts at the architectural gems or study a cluster a trees at the end of your road and see what makes them a bit special. Focus on anything that you might take for granted but that a visitor to your story might find fascinating. A medieval building tucked behind a factory of block of 60s flats might go unnoticed by people passing on the bus to work but you can throw a light onto these hidden gems and write a whole story around them. Consider the different periods of time and the changes in everyday life and work. What are the connections between then and now? One of the best ways to do this is by taking a walk with a local guide or talking to the staff at the tourist information centre.
I’ve lived overseas, including Iran which I prefer to call Persia and could write several novels set in different time periods which would now doubt fascinate and appal some people. For my third novel, I chose to return to my Peak District roots which still requires going ‘home’ to get a renewed feel of the place and check up on what’s changed over the passage of time.
My holiday reading has included The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanne Cannon, a fellow Derbyshire writer. She could have set her story anywhere but the mere mention of some places I know gave me a cosy feeling. I felt we could have gone to school together in the sweltering summer of 1976 which is one of the key time period for her debut. What I really liked was that all the characters live in the same street.
I guess my message is this. Don’t think you have to make a setting exotic or dangerous or that you should write like a travelogue. Leave that to the tourism marketers. Write a good story even if it’s about life at the end of your road.