I was recently interviewed on a local radio station and one of the questions put to me was “Why did you choose the label A Cheshire Love Story for your books?”
My reason was purely a marketing ploy. Although my stories are all stand-alone, I want the flexibility of offering box sets in the future. Having been in an upmarket magazine, called Cheshire Life, I thought A Cheshire Love Story sounded…lovely. I live in Cheshire in the North West of England. It is a relatively prosperous area with some beautiful mansions, luxurious cars and private schools. Of course ordinary people live here too.
It got me thinking. Does it help the author to know the towns, roads, restaurants, landmarks, etc. that appear in their stories?
An obvious answer to that has to be “Yes.” Many authors set their stories in places they have some connection with, perhaps somewhere they grew up, or where they now live. I know of many who write about a holiday location, some even lucky enough to own a holiday home. But that doesn’t mean you are “stuck” there.
So what tools are available to us in this twenty-first century?
1. Good old local knowledge.
In a novella I’m writing, there is a scene set on the way to Manchester Airport, which isn’t far from me. I needed to get my protagonist from a hotel in a village I know, to the airport, and I needed to know how long it would take. Being able to do that journey, checking out the surrounding area at the same time, meant I could write the scene with confidence. Many readers love it if they know the area you are writing about. Likewise many will be delighted to correct you if you get it wrong.
However, beware. You can get caught out. In Keeping You I wrote about a bookshop near where I used to work. My hero had the nerve to park his car illegally in front of the shop. When I held a book reading in said shop one night, I discovered that there was no longer a road in front of it – it had been pedestrianized. Makes the offence of parking outside even worse J
Another advantage of naming actual places, hotels etc. is the connection you can make with the community. It could be the local library, a bar in a hotel (particularly nice setting for an evening discussing erotic romance) or a book group. Some people love that, and you may be able to use it in promoting your work. For example, I often use #Cheshire in Twitter posts, and can gain retweets and likes from organisations in the vicinity – even getting invited on the local radio station.
Although personal experience is of great value, it doesn’t have to be a limiting factor when it comes to setting scenes. The internet has opened up virtually the whole world. And Google Earth is an added bonus when it comes to an author’s use of location.
2. Google Earth and the Internet
All of my stories have some connection with Cheshire, but they also include additional locations, including London and Manchester, and further afield in Kenya and Australia.
Keeping You takes the reader to White Chapel in London. Even though I have been to London many times, I have never been to White Chapel. But with the help of Google Earth, I was able to locate a high-rise apartment block in a very rundown area, with a phone box on the corner and smaller houses across the road. It was the perfect setting for my hero to be holed up while he sought revenge for the killing of his best friend, and it was a far cry from the luxurious mansion he lived in near Crewe in Cheshire.
Another of my books still to be published by my publisher, Black Opal Books, involves a trip to Melbourne in Australia. I have never been to Australia, let alone Melbourne, but I did my research using the internet and Google Earth. I needed a seedy location where sex workers resided, with a nightclub, and betting premises. Internet searches gave me St. Kilda, and Google Earth helped me house a young woman who never wanted to be a nice one… I was also able to confirm there was a cycling track nearby, as my protagonist was a keen cyclist. I backed up my research with requests to a friend who did live in Australia, leaving me confident enough to write about the area. Further research involved checking local facilities for paternity testing. This was all carried out from the comfort of my own home.
3. Websites selling houses
I confess to being someone who trawls, more nosily than thoroughly, through internet sites offering all sorts of homes to buy. I need to know what type of places exist in the location I have chosen.
On one such site I found the perfect mansion, with its own swimming pool, gym, and amazing grounds, for Lawrence in Keeping You. I named it The Sway. I even used the floor plan to walk my heroine through the house when she was left there alone near the beginning of the book. I find it a great help to visualise the layout of homes in my stories. However, I never use the images on any promotional sites – you have to be vigilant about copyright etc. I purchase all my photos or use Google free “labelled for reuse” images.
So I don’t restrict myself to places I know or have visited. I broaden my horizons and “travel” with no expense spared.
3. Mix and match
Of course, your location doesn’t have to actually exist. (I’m not just talking scifi/fantasy here.)
In The Secret At Arnford Hall I decided to use a fictitious village in Cheshire, and broadly based the Hall on a castle, which was for sale in the Channel Islands. I located Arnford next to a real town called Knutsford, and mention several places that exist there. Again I have been caught out when Gabriel Black takes Grace for lunch in a restaurant in Knutsford, which has since closed down!
Why don’t you share with us the tools you use for the settings in your stories, and maybe confess to the odd faux pas? After all, we are lovers of writing romance and entitled to have our heads in the clouds every now and then J
Images of some of the homes in my books