Wales as a Setting for Crime Fiction by Cathy Ace
“It’s not all rugby, sheep and singing…” was the title used for a panel in which I participated at this year’s CrimeFest convention (held in Bristol in May) and it’s certainly true that not all crime fiction set in Wales features all, or even any, of the abovementioned…but some does, and that “some” includes mine. Why? Well, I choose to use parts of my own reality when I write fiction (as well as all the fictional bits): at least 75% of all the Welsh men I know (and probably 25% of the Welsh women I know) have played rugby at some point in their lives, and continue to follow it at national (or even club) level long past their playing years; where I grew up (Swansea) you couldn’t go out for the day in the car (or even on a bus, unless it was just to the centre of town) without seeing sheep in the fields; finally, I come from a family – and have therefore become part of a community – where singing is second nature (I have belonged to at least twenty different choirs through my life). So – yes – in my books there’s a fair amount of rugby, sheep and singing mentioned – though not all at the same time, nor involving all the characters (because that would be a bit much!).
But the panel title was true in that Wales is much MORE than just rugby, sheep and singing. Crime fiction being written today that’s set there displays its rich – and sometimes desperately tragic – history, as well as the current socio-economic and political challenges faced by the people who live there. Much of this depiction flies in the face of the “tourist” version of Wales with it sweeping beaches, stunning coastline, precious natural and rural resources, and awe-inspiring castles (all of which exist, but are probably viewed quite differently by the people who live with them than by those who merely visit them).
I don’t live in Wales any longer – I migrated to Canada aged 40 – which means I am not faced with its realities on a daily basis (other than in the phone calls I have each day with Mum and my sister, who both still live there). I use this absence of the frustrations one encounters living one’s daily life anywhere in the world as an opportunity to allow myself to be inspired by Wales as a setting for the tales I want to weave, rather than trying to reproduce its total reality on the page.
Interestingly, I’ve come to realize that – given where I live, most of the readers I meet are either American or Canadian – few people beyond the UK have any realistic idea of where Wales is, let alone what it is, so I do at least try to sort that one out for them. (FYI: Most people I meet have a vague idea that “Wales is in England somewhere”. Sounds odd? OK – I dare you to point to Saskatchewan on a map…and Saskatchewan is more than 30 times the size of Wales. To save you looking it up, Wales is almost 21,000 square kilometers, Saskatchewan is almost 652,000 square kilometers…England’s a little over 130,000 square kilometers. Or what about Idaho, which is over 213,000 square kilometers? Go on – I dare you.)
Many of us don’t really know where places are, nor do we really know what they are like. As crime fiction authors our job is to engage the reader in the type of crime fiction they’re buying into – traditional puzzle mysteries, police procedurals, psychological suspense, etc. The setting needs to work for the book in question – but how real does the setting need to be?
My most recent book, The Wrong Boy, is set in the fictional village of Rhosddraig which sits atop a costal landmass known as The Dragon’s Head. There’s an ancient pub, a Norman church, the village shop, a newly renovated tearoom-cum-restaurant/coffee shop and the deadly eruption of a hotbed of gossip when human remains are found nearby. Rhosddraig is NOT Rhossili, which sits atop The Worm’s Head…but it’s based upon its natural, and some man-made, elements.
Rhosddraig is a “village-of-the-world” in that it contains all the elements required for secrets and lies to worm their disruptive and ultimately catastrophic way through the lives of multiple generations. So why “spoil” a perfectly good Welsh village by using it as the inspirational setting for this book? Because I know Welsh people – inside and out – and they’re what the book’s really about. Yes, setting plays an important (and, in this book, a critical role) but it’s the story of the people that I’m telling. And don’t you find that people born of a place are that place, and have made that place what it is? Of course, there are also the incomers who – despite the fact they’ve been there 30-odd years – are never quite accepted as locals…and feel that resentment, that difference. And what about the recently arrived, who seemingly want to change everything it was that first attracted them to the place, often creating havoc as they do so? Oh yes, these are rich pickings for the crime fiction writer, and are universal truths when considering any village setting – some would argue the same is true of suburban and even urban settings too.
So I make no excuses for using Wales as a setting. I’m just delighted people want to read about Wales at all; I had a long conversation with “someone” who wanted me to move my WISE Enquires Agency Mysteries from Wales to the Cotswolds, which he thought would “sell better”. But I stuck to my guns, and Wales is where the fictional Chellingworth Hall and village of Anwen-by-Wye now exist in those cosy PI books…which – alongside my new psychological suspense standalone – mean I have more chances to at least let readers around the world find out where Wales is, even if they don’t meet a 100% true-to-life Wales in my fictional recreations of parts of it.
You can find out more about Cathy Ace and her books here:
And also here: