Thursday, 5 November 2009

Researching Place


To what extent should writers research the settings for their books? Opinions vary – after all, Harry Keating famously never visited India until long after his series about Inspector Ghote had won widespread acclaim, not least in India. I gather that the recently deceased Lionel Davidson didn't visit Tibet before writing the Gold Dagger winning The Rose of Tibet. But I think most writers nowadays like to be pretty familiar with their settings, and that’s certainly true of me.

But how do you acquire that familiarity? Sometimes it’s easier said than done. Many years ago, at a crime convention, a member of the audience from Liverpool expressed the view that the fact I hadn’t been born in the city disqualified me from writing about it. Working there for 20 years wasn’t enough. I think the general reaction from the audience was that this was absurd, and in fairness the chap in question (whom I decided to talk to later) eventually seemed to realise this.

With the Lake District, the challenge is different. I’ve never lived or worked there, although I do visit the area as often as I can to try to soak up the atmosphere – and get the details right. But with the Lakes as well as with Liverpool, what I suppose I’m really aiming to do is to convey my personal take on the setting. There is bound to be a degree of subjectivity. I was, therefore, especially gratified last year when The Arsenic Labyrinth was short-listed for Lakeland Book of the Year - the reaction from local people at the Awards lunch to my portrayal of the Lakes was very positive. The same was true this year, when I did a short tour of the area as the guest of Cumbria Libraries.

And finally, though I’m writing about real places, I also make up some of the component parts of those places, partly because I don't want to libel anyone unintentionally (easily done in a murder story set in a real place) and partly because a writer needs a degree of freedom with his or her fiction. You won’t find Brackdale, where Daniel Kind lives, on any map, just as you won’t find Empire Dock in Liverpool, where Harry Devlin has his flat. Authenticity is very important, but with fiction, ultimately the facts have to suit the story.

12 comments:

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I think there are some readers out there who would like to catch us out in a mistake. I don't live in Memphis, but I have a series set there and I was very, very careful to get my facts straight.

For my other series, I made up the town. :) Much easier that way.

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

Lewis said...

For my first novel I have managed to set myself the challenge of not only having to research the location - Manchester - but how it was in the time the action takes place - 1912. I know the city reasonably well. As I visit locations I try to transpose a picture of what it was like in my mind's eye. Not always easy to achieve.

Rob Kitchin said...

To some extent it depends on how important the place is to the story, or whether its simply a passive backdrop wherein the story could have been set anywhere. I like fiction to be contextualised geographically and historically and that means it being embedded in places (even if the specifics of a localised site are made up).

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - You raise a very good question! How does an author convey the sense of place without really knowing the place, and how much research does that take? Like you, I've acquired the familiarity with the setting for my Joel Williams stories by being in the parts of Pennsylvania where they take place. I was born and raised in Pennsylvania, so that helps, too. Even so, like you, I try to spend time in places I write about so that I can get a sense of the place to share with the reader. As a reader, too, I have to say that I like novels where the writer can convey that sense.

There's no reason, either, that the writer can't add fictitious aspecets to a place. James Michener did it all the time. For what it's worth, I do that, too. The university where my protagonist teaches is fictitious, as is the small town where it's located. I don't see that as a problem, provided it fits in with the general setting. Like you, I think the setting should serve the story.

And finally - I love the Lake District that you describe; you've done a wonderful job of conveying it to me.

Maxine said...

It's funny, isn't it? I remember all the fuss about Steph Penney when she won the Costa prize for Tenderness of Wolves, about the frozen Canadian wastes, when it turned out she'd done all the research in the British Library and had never been to Canada. (Or something like that.) I read another book set in the same sort-of area within a few months of reading Steph Penney's, and you certainly could not say as a reader which author had lived in the region and which had never visited it! And I don't suppose Colin Cotterill ever lived in Laos in the 1970s? ;-)

That having been said, I do love reading novels that have a strongly authentic sense of place. I can't imagine Peter Temple not having lived in Melbourne or Michael Connelly Los Angeles. The cities and neighbourhoods are so central to all aspects of their novels' details.

It is certainly true that as a reader, if you know a place well and are reading about it and the author gets it wrong, it does jar. This often happens concerning London. I even remember in SpyCatcher, which were memoirs of that Peter someone who had lived there during his career, he gets the name of a tube station and a street wrong on the first page, and even mislocates (by accident) MI5. That really does make you wonder about the rest of the book!

But I know the Lake District pretty well and always love reading about the locations in your series. Not that I am reading trying to pick up any errors, I am not that kind of reader, but the books always seem to convey an authentic locale to me, which is part of the reason why I enjoy them.

Paul Beech said...

Atmosphere and a sense of place add greatly to my enjoyment of a story, so I appreciate it when an author takes as much trouble over this as over plotting and characterisation. And the subject of location authenticity is one upon which Stephen Booth, author of the Peak District mysteries, has had interesting things to say in response to readers’ queries on his Forum.

Edendale, where DC Ben Cooper and DS Diane Fry are based, is an amalgam of several real places – Bakewell, Buxton and Castleton, with a dash of Chesterfield for good measure. His characters can be followed on the Ordnance Survey map until they approach Edendale, then they drop off into a fictional universe.

“The Peak District is one of those places that look completely different according to the season, and there are different things going on. A location that’s deserted in the winter can be packed with tourists in the summer!”

Sometimes he’ll go looking for a particular kind of place, as with Pity Wood Farm in ‘Dying to Sin’. Other times he’ll just wander around and see what he stumbles across – then the setting might suggest a story. He uses a notebook, takes photographs too, and hopes he isn’t recognised! “I tend to think I might look a bit shifty and suspicious.”

In contrast, Sophie Hannah, at her Knutsford gig last month, emphasised that she was not a regional writer and was more inspired by people than place. She had set her Waterhouse and Zailer crime mysteries in the fictional town of Spilling, which could be anywhere in the UK.

I like your “personal take” on the Lake District, Martin – as well as the whole Daniel Kind/Hannah Scarlett thing – and I eagerly await publication of ‘The Serpent Pool’ next year. Glad to hear that book five in the series is in progress too.

Regards,

Paul

Ali Karim said...

That's an interesting post.

I once told Harry Keating that my father who was born in India, loved his books for their authenticity, but didn't dare shatter the illusion that when Harry started the Inspector Ghote books he'd never been to India!

Goes to show the power of storytelling

Ali

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these exceptionally interesting comments.
Elizabeth, making up towns is less usual in UK mysteries than it used to be, but it still happens - an example is Eborby, Kate Ellis' take on York in the Joe Plantagenet books.
Lewis - I guess the historical research adds yet another dimensison.
Rob - yes, my taste is much the same as yours.
Thanks, Margot - now, here's a confession. I've never read Michener - do you like his books?
Hi Maxine - thanks for your remarks. I have heard very good things about The Tenderness of Wolves, but have yet to get round to it.
Thanks, Paul. Stephen Booth is a good example. And I've just sent the synopsis for Lake District Mystery 5 to my agent....

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - I actually like Michener very, very much. He does his homework, so to speak, so that the historical and geographical details he gives are more or less accurate, and he admits the characters and places that are fictional. He and Edward Rutherford are my two favorite authors of historical novels.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Margot. I'm afraid I haven't read Rutherford either....

Maxine said...

I haven't read Rutherford but I read quite a few of Michener's when I was a younger-end teenager and loved them. Have not read any for many, many years though. I think I read Leon Uris at the same time - some similarites between the two. I think, though, that Michener is a bit "looked down on" by proper historians, etc, isn't he? I remember very much enjoying his book "Space" but various science types said it was a travesty of real events. I liked it, though! (And many of his others.)

Dorte H said...

To what extent should writers research the settings for their books?

Difficult to answer. The place certainly means a lot to several of the series I love, but it has never been a ´must´ for me that the writer describes a real place, or that he/she checks every detail. After all, some authors can make up the most wonderful places.

So to demand an environment which is realistic in every detail sounds to me nearly as silly as demanding that the author write about real people or real crime.