It’s been a few weeks since my last blog, because I’ve been unable to tear myself away from editing the new book. I’ll do a post specifically about that in the next couple of weeks – I’m aiming to get this round of edits finished by the end of the month. And although I’m desperate to get back to it, I thought I’d take a little break to tell you about a talk I did last week as part of the Off-The-Shelf literary festival here in Sheffield.
As you can see from the flyer, the talk was called A Slice of Sheffield, because although I talked about my books and writing in general, I wanted to focus on the importance of setting. My first two novels are set in London, where I grew up, Sheffield, where I live now, and Hastings, a seaside town I fell in love with when I lived down south. The new book, which is still untitled at the moment, is set in south-east London and Scalby, near Scarborough. I do like a bit of seaside in my books!
For me, setting is massively important. As a reader, I really want to feel the place I’m reading about; I want to see it, smell it, hear it, and understand how I might feel while walking around it. So as a writer, that’s exactly the experience I want to offer my readers.
It was lovely to be able to talk to a group of Sheffield people about how I’d used Sheffield in the novels, and during the Q&A session and discussion afterwards, I discovered lots of lovely little titbits about Sheffield that I wish I’d known earlier!
There were some interesting questions that came up in the Q&A, and I thought I’d share three of these with you:
1. Question: What sort of research do you have to do? Do you need to approach organisations or individuals with certain areas of expertise, or do only need to research the location?
Answer: For The Things We Never Said I needed to know how DNA evidence is used by the police when reviewing ‘cold’ cases. I read a lot about actual cases where DNA was used in evidence to help prosecute perpetrators many, many years after the crime. I also talked to police officers and forensic scientists so that I understood (after a fashion!) how it actually worked.
For that book I also needed to know about psychiatric hospitals and treatments in the early 1960s, in particular, electro convulsive therapy. Again, I read widely, and included in my reading actual accounts of patients who had been treated with ECT at that time.
As for location, I relied on memory for my descriptions of south-east London, I’d taken a lot of notes when I was last in Hastings, and I wrote about Sheffield as a newcomer to the city, so I probably noticed things then, that I wouldn’t notice now – more of which in a moment!
For The Secrets We Left Behind I talked to a coroner, and a former scenes-of-crime police officer officer (even though it’s not a crime novel!) Apart from that, it was just the location. By the time I wrote this novel, it was several years since I’d been to Hastings so I arranged a short research trip during which I took photographs and made notes. I was still able to write the London sections from memory, but I made the mistake of assuming that, having been in Sheffield for a few years, I now knew the area well enough to write it from memory. When my editor read the first draft, she pointed out that, while she felt she could ‘see’ the scenes set in Hastings and London, she wasn’t ‘getting’ Sheffield.
I learned a valuable lesson here – don’t assume that just because you’ve walked through the city centre many times you will be able to recreate it meaningfully on the page! So, I took my notebook and I went and walked around the city centre again, really looking this time, taking notice of what I could see, smell, hear etc. And it worked – the setting came to life.
2. Question: Do you do your research before you start writing or as you go along?
Answer: A bit of both. Research can be an excuse to procrastinate, and believe me, I can procrastinate with the best of them! But I try to restrain myself and only research as much as I need to in order to start writing. In the early stages of the book, I won’t know everything that is going to happen and therefore I won’t know what I’ll need to research until it actually happens.
So basically, I do the minimal amount of research before I get started, I do a few little bits as I go along, and I do a fair bit at the end of the draft – I put notes in the MS in capital letters along the lines of: ‘check how this would happen’; ‘find out how much this would cost’. Stopping to research these things along the way would detract from the writing and if I don’t need to know in order to carry on, then researching at this stage would probably be an avoidance technique.
3. Question: Would you ever set a novel in an imaginary place?
Answer: No! Again, this is based on my preferences as a reader – I love to read about real places, preferably places that I know or have visited. I’m sure writing about imaginary places would make my life as a writer slightly easier, but it’s just not something I ever see myself doing. I am slightly worried that I might run out of real places, though – the new book was originally set in York, but despite several research trips, I just couldn’t get the place right. Maybe I’m just not good enough at research, but I think I need to either live in a place or know it very well indeed before I can write effectively about it.
There were lots of other fascinating questions as well, but too many to go into here. One thing the audience wanted to know was which of my books was the most difficult to write. They were slightly surprised when I replied that, though I found them all incredibly difficult (the writers among you will know that you have no idea just how very, very hard it is to write a novel until you actually do it!) the most difficult has definitely been the most recent one – the one I’ve been blogging about for well over a year. There were some expressions of dismay that it doesn’t necessarily get easier!
Ah well, onwards and upwards!
If you’d like to know more about me and my work, or if you’re interested in attending a novel writing workshop (currently planning a series of these for 2016) please visit my website. You can also follow me on twitter or like my Facebook page