Now where am I?

I set my first novel in Exeter, a beautiful city about twenty five miles from where I live. It’s a city small enough to feel friendly but large enough to support a bit of low-life murderous scum. One friend read my novel when it was a draft ms, fighting its way through several more drafts towards being a proper, finished book. She enjoyed the parts where she could ‘see’ the city, and wanted to read more- to help her get an even better sense of the place. So I dutifully had a good look to see where I could add a bit of description without boring the reader to death. And I couldn’t find anywhere.
I think that, without meaning to, I’d stumbled across one of the main differences between commercial and literary fiction. In a literary novel I would have taken the time to bring the places in which I set my novel to life. I’d have helped the reader to experience the world through my eyes. Hilary Mantel does it superbly in the realm of historical fiction, as does Clive Sansom in his Shardlake novels. Wonderful writing, which often stretches to 150,000 words. That’s a big reader commitment. Think I need to stick to a faster, shorter read.
My book’s a crime thriller; the plot ruled. It had to. It had to be tight, well-planned, and, at least some of the time, plausible. The focus on twists, red herrings and false endings just didn’t leave space for the proper evocation of place. (If I wanted to come in under 85000 words, which I did).
Unless, of course (ulp), the writing itself just wasn’t good enough. Was I focussing on other stuff when I could have been crafting a well-turned setting? Probably. Now, I’m not picking on myself- it’s a major achievement for a first-time writer to complete a novel at all, and I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. And I did get some of the places right.
But I’m now looking carefully at successful writers in my chosen genre to see how they do it. Rankin’s Edinburgh- I see through Rebus’s bloodshot eyes as he drives along the A9. MacBride’s cold, bitter Aberdeen in winter- I’m there, chilled to the bone, waiting for the body with Logan McCrae. Maybe I need to move to Scotland.
So, if they can do it….

4 thoughts on “Now where am I?

  1. Place is important to me and topographical detail need not be too intrusive if you are prioritising other things. The magic comes when the setting acquires a character of its own and works with the story. 🙂 I also really enjoy Donna Leon!

  2. MarinaSofia says:

    I have to admit I often read crime fiction for the atmosphere and sense of place – because they have just the right amount of it (when done well, as in the authors you mention above, or Donna Leon or Barbara Nadel etc.).

    • Ooh, I love Donna Leon- you can taste the Venice Canals (if you see what I mean!) You’re right, of course, many books sell well because of the strong sense of place- still learning how to do that.

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