Made-Up Noir: Writing a place that only you know, by Paul Gitsham
How important is a sense of place? It’s a question that many writers have pondered. Should you set your novel in a real place or invent a fictional setting?
Many writers choose to use a real-world location. The benefits of this are many, not least the connection that readers can make with a place with which they are familiar, or might one day become familiar.
It’s an approach that serves writers well, with the setting becoming an integral part of the story. What would Morse be without Oxford, or Rebus without Edinburgh? I’ve never visited Los Angeles, yet through the eyes of Harry Bosch I feel as though I’ve tramped the Hollywood Hills and caught the Angels Flight funicular. How many of us, upon visiting London, New York or so many other fascinating cities for the first time, feel a sense of familiarity having walked those streets alongside our favourite heroes and villains?
But what about those of us who set our adventures in made-up places? Towns or cities that exist entirely in our imaginations?
Creating a fictional locale in which to tell our tales has a long and noble tradition. At one end of the scale, there are entire worlds and universes. Common in fantasy and speculative fiction, these imaginary places can become as complex and rich as the author desires. Pratchett’s Discworld and Tolkien’s Middle Earth are two incredible examples, both taking on lives of their own beyond the original books. At the other end of the scale are fictionalised versions of real places – citing Morse again, the University of Oxford has incorporated several new colleges over the years.
But that approach doesn’t work for everyone. Since leaving Coventry at eighteen to go to university, I have lived a rather peripatetic lifestyle. I’ve rarely settled in one place for more than a few years and have never really become ‘part’ of the places in which I lived. Read Kate Rhodes’s Alice Quentin series and you can tell that Kate has lived in London. Many of John Rebus’ favourite haunts are famously places that Ian Rankin knows well. But I would struggle to conjure that sense of belonging and familiarity. So, it made sense for me to set my books in the fictional north Hertfordshire market town of Middlesbury.
For me, the main advantage of this decision is that I can give Middlesbury whatever I need to tell my story. At the time that I started writing the novels, I was living in a real north Hertfordshire town, and it was somewhat… lacking for my purposes. A few pubs, a town centre given over to coffee houses and charity shops, and two supermarkets. The most useful amenity for a townie like me was a decent A road and a fast train-line heading to more interesting places. So, I used its location, but changed its details.
Good manners prevent me from naming the town (it was a pleasant enough place, and I’ve no desire to bad-mouth it), but regular readers of the series, familiar with the area, could probably figure it out from its proximity to other, better known municipalities.
Because of this, Middlesbury has everything I, and my characters, need. The first in the series, The Last Straw, involves a murder at The University of Middle England, a mid-size institution that lacks the history and prestige of its nearest competition (*cough* Cambridge *cough*), but hides as much skull-duggery as I need. In later books, such as Silent as the Grave, Middlesbury Common becomes a useful dumping site for a body, and it transpires that the semi-rural land that falls within Middlesbury CID’s patch provides plenty of opportunities for killers to try and conceal their crimes.
Most recently, in Forgive Me Father, the beautiful, ruined, medieval Middlesbury Abbey takes centre-stage. And this is where making your own imaginary town becomes really good fun. I started planning the book some years ago, and my partner and I have enjoyed the excuse of ‘research’ to justify days out to visit plenty of ruined, and not-so-ruined, churches and abbeys. Bury St Edmunds, Tor Abbey in Torquay, even the bombed Coventry Cathedral, have all provided inspiration for Middlesbury Abbey. I now have a crude ‘then and now’ ground-plan on my computer for future reference.
More prosaically, necessity has made me something of a town planner. A simple map of Middlesbury town centre was needed for me to describe the scattering of far-right activists as their planned rally ends in a deadly confrontation in The Common Enemy, although as the book is set in the summer of 2014, the BHS won’t be featuring in later stories!
Along the way, I’ve given the town both Sikh and Islamic community centres, different housing estates (naming them is always good fun, I’m particularly pleased with the ‘Chequers Estate’, so called because of its tower blocks named after early 20th century prime ministers), and numerous pubs. And yes, for those of you wondering, The Feathers, with its appallingly bad chicken Kiev, is based on a real place, and no, I won’t be telling you where it is located in real life.
It’s been eight years since I first started writing about DCI Warren Jones, and I recently realised that I have ‘lived’ in Middlesbury longer than anywhere else since I left Coventry. So, just as Warren Jones has come to regard Middlesbury as his adopted hometown, so have I. Now which end of town shall I put the cinema?
Find out more about Paul Gitsham here