I’ve always found novels with a strong sense of place compelling, and been fascinated by the powerful effect setting can have on an unfolding story. Of course, it’s a crucial aspect of all forms of fiction, but where suspense is involved, the right setting can help the writer in all sorts of ways.
A character’s immediate surroundings – the house they live in, for instance – can point to a person who’s off balance. Suspense builds as the reader anticipates the effect their skewed world view might have on developments. You don’t have to go as far as Dickens went with Miss Havisham to introduce unease.
Wider setting is also a huge bonus when creating mood and tension. Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn comes to mind. Mary Yellan’s awful journey in appalling weather, from her familiar village, to the remote moorland home of her aunt and uncle, remains vivid. The reader is immediately sucked into a threatening and oppressive atmosphere.
And then there are the physical practicalities of a location. Because Mary’s geographically so far away from help, and the landscape around her is so harsh and unforgiving, we’re intensely conscious of her isolation.
In my own debut novel, You Think You Know Me, I used two locations: London and the Lake District.
When the novel begins, Anna, the heroine, has just moved to the capital. London was a good location on practical grounds. It allowed her plenty of glamorous opportunities to pursue her career as a freelance journalist, and was a realistic setting for a story focussed on crime in the art world. But beyond the practical, it was also perfect in terms of atmosphere. I love the bustle of London, the frenetic pace, the crowds and the buzz. And as Anna’s caught up in a passionate love affair, pulled along by excitement, uncertainty and the first hints of danger, this pacey backdrop worked.
And then, as the mystery deepens, her desire to find out the truth leads her to the Lakes. You Think You Know Me is set in winter, and Anna finds herself driving through dark, deserted lanes, caught in torrential rain, her mobile dropping in and out of coverage. I’m always staggered by the beauty of the area when I visit, but on dark, stormy days, the awe-inspiring masses of mountains like Skiddaw and Blencathra become menacing. The hairpin bends, steep inclines and the narrowness of the roads mean any escape is going to have to happen at an agonisingly slow pace. What’s more, there are plenty of places where there’s no mobile coverage at all, so calling for help can be tantalisingly out of reach.
My next novel is the start of a mystery series, and has a Cambridge setting. I find the city endlessly intriguing, but realise there are dangers with writing about somewhere I know well. I need to make sure I can still see what’s unique about the city, even though I’ve become an insider. Luckily, Cambridge is full of surprises, and sometimes things that shock, so it’s not hard to see it afresh, even after all these years.
Clare Chase writes fast-paced romantic mysteries, inspired by what makes people tick. She reads everything from Jilly Cooper to Sue Grafton, and finds romance complements crime perfectly, doubling the intrigue.
Clare wrote dodgy whodunnits in primary school, read English at London University, and honed her creative writing skills working in PR.
In her spare time, she enjoys drawing, cooking and wandering round the pubs and galleries of Cambridge, where she lives with her husband and teenage daughters.
Thank you, Clare!
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