Last night I had the pleasure of attending the Rooftop Book Club hosted by Headline at the gorgeous Carmelite House. The event boasted a fabulous skyline, nibbles (best Elderflower juice, ever), and a great author panel.
The event was split into two sections; part one, chaired by Jake Kerridge, allowed us to get up close and personal with Elly Griffiths, Claire McGowan and J.S. Law. The authors discussed what some consider to be the cliche of region as a character. They all agreed that the setting is just as important as the character – without the right setting, the characters (and probably the story) wouldn’t be able to unfold in the right way.
And in part two, chaired by Antonia Senior, saw Janet Ellis, Sarah Hilary and Antonia Hodgson discuss London in its past and present state, and how it influenced their writing. All the authors have or have had a love-hate relationship with London. They concluded that it’s a huge city and it’s overcrowded, but it’s a great place which made room for the setting of their novels.
Elly Griffiths, author of the Ruth Galloway series, chose Norfolk as the setting for her novels and considers it to be a beautiful place, but at times can be scary. She wanted to bring this out in her fiction and has succeeded in making the Norfolk in her novels a haunting and desolate place.
Claire McGowan, author of the Paula Maguire series, felt compelled to write her birth place out of her system, but chose to create an imaginary world so that she had freedom over all the rules in that particular setting. For McGowan, choosing to set her novel in a particular town where she grew up would have been too limiting, so the new world allows her to deal with issues and subjects that won’t get her in trouble.
J.S. Law, whose debut novel Tenacity is set in a submarine, also had to recreate a portion of the fictional world. After a bit of fact-checking, he’d decided that sticking to fact would be a bit boring for the reader (chases on a submarine would be quite long as there are more floors than we think), and some information was classified. However, his extensive knowledge of submarines allowed for him to do what he wanted, that is to set a murder on a submarine!
All three authors in part two chose to set their novels in London, but Janet and Hodgson’s London is historical. Their stories were similar in terms of the amount of research they needed to do, but they didn’t let it bog them down or consume the narrative. Ellis, author of The Butcher’s Hook, felt that some writers rely too heavily on research and stated that we, as writers, “should trust our imaginations more” and simply write around what you know. She didn’t allow what she’d researched to cripple her creativity because she recognised that “my people [characters] aren’t making history, they’re acting in front of it”. It’s not always about historical accuracy as it’s fiction, they’re simply characters who inhabit a fictional historical world – it’s her version of London.
Sarah Hilary, author of the D.I. Marnie Rome series, shared her love for the London she left shortly after the Millennium in comparison to country living. The polarity of London life and country life influenced her novels in a big way. For Hilary there’s something about London that the countryside doesn’t quite have. She felt that to set a novel in a close-knit community with a murder would spark outrage and the characters would all be on alert in the novel. However by setting it in London, bad things are almost expected because of how big it is and everyone’s near enough a stranger to the next person.
For Antonia Hodgson, author of the Thomas Hawkins series, the London her characters inhabit is far from contemporary. Like Ellis, the research merely informed Hodgson’s writing. She was able to mix fond memories of nights out and some rather disgusting tales of people spewing in the strangest of places, and put them into her novel. London in her novel is smelly, big and written around fact, but she let her characters have as much free reign within the constraints of the period as she could allow.
It was a fantastic night and the panel were awesome. I know one thing, I’ve got a lot of books to buy.
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Antonia Hodgson – @antoniahodgson