Dream up a cast of interesting characters, shovel plenty of adversity at them, and how they cope makes for the bones of a story. This was my mind-set around seven years ago, when I made my first serious attempt at writing a novel.
Despite being a Northerner, I chose London as the backdrop, largely due to spending significant periods of time there with my day job. What I failed to appreciate at the time though, was just how important the choice of setting can be. It’s one thing to simply state to your reader where events are taking place. It’s another entirely to make that place come alive, complete with the sights, scents and sounds that drop a reader smack bang in the middle of your scene.
I’d done enough to attract the attention of a few agents with my first draft, but looking back now, I realise that my characters were playing their parts against a bland backdrop. One of the key changes I believe made the difference for me, and helped me find an agent, was making the setting pop off the page like a character in its own right. It makes everything more vivid, more three-dimensional. You need to view your setting through all of your character’s senses, not just their eyes.
There are some great examples around at the moment, like Ian Rankin and his Inspector Rebus novels set in Edinburgh, or Ann Cleeves and her Shetland series. And hopefully I’ve used my experience of working on London to capture enough of its character and spirit in my own writing.
Since then, a lot of what I write has, like me, moved back up north. I grew up near the coast, and as a North East writer, I’m spoiled for choice when it comes to location. Whether you need urban or rural, you’ve got some great contrasts to choose from with the stunning stretches of coastline and castles, towns and cities, and let’s not forget the people. They’re another means to help you bring your setting to life – the culture and atmosphere that your story plays out in.
Nowadays, I like to visit the places that my characters do wherever possible to walk in their footsteps, but thanks to tools like Google street view, you can even bluff your way through it to an extent. However you do it though, never underestimate the role that setting can play. Whether it’s a big city, tucked away somewhere rural, bounces from one country to the next, or even another planet, learn from my mistakes, choose carefully, and give it as much thought and TLC as you would one of your characters. You’ll not regret it.