A lot of fans ask me about the places in my books. Some of them are real, but most of them are figments of my imagination inspired by real places and changed to fit what I need for the story.
Following the mantra of writing what you know makes it easy to describe real places, but what to do when those real places limit your storytelling ability? How do you overcome that limitation to where your imagination wants to go?
In After It Happened, I did just that and based the early stories on places I knew well which allowed me to give that element of realism it so deserved. When the story evolved and moved on I found myself increasingly reliant on the internet to give me the visual backdrop of a canvas where I could paint my brushstrokes for the readers.
What to do when you’ve painted yourself into a corner? Two words.
Minor spoiler alert, the story that starts in the rural centre of England moves south through the continent where pictures needed to be painted for the characters to play out their own story. I had to construct a set in which my imaginary actors could perform, and that required inspiration.
Now I’m not much of a people person – shock horror for a writer, I know – and even more so that I’m nervous of new places and not having a set pan to follow. I’m that person who arrives at the airport five hours early in case I don’t make the flight.
After a month of meticulous planning and creating an itinerary, I set off from home just after midnight to head south for le Chunnel.
From there, after half an hour sitting in my car as the train thundered along beneath the English Channel I emerged in the early hours in northern France with the same bizarre disorientation you get coming out of the cinema in the dark when you’d entered in daylight.
There I began what became an intimate and long-lasting personal relationship with the voice commands of my car’s navigation program. We very nearly split up when she unnecessarily took me on the Paris ring road as part of the return leg where I believe they were filming a new version of Death Race.
The first foreign leg, fraught with the confusion of being on the wrong side of the road, saw me driving from Calais to Bordeaux over about ten hours, with an additional ten percent of that spent stuck on a one-way system that gave me tantalising glimpses of the hotel I was supposed to staying at.
The following morning, setting off bright and early after three too many fresh croissants, saw me taking a stunning drive down the Pyrenees towards the first of my research locations.
That drive will forever be etched into my memory as the challenging, twisting mountain roads left my face aching with repetitive strain injury brought on by continuous grinning.
Due to the many errors made by my navigational companion, which may have been me ignoring her for the sheer enjoyment of driving, I found myself crossing through into Spain accidentally and then back to France before an inspiring tunnel lead me to a wonderfully inexpensive fuel station.
Trying out my (appalling) best French, I was shocked to be answered in Spanish and found out I was, in fact, a visitor of Andorra. That happy accident led to an hour of exploration and the inspiration for the seventh book of the series, even if I didn’t know that yet as I was researching book five.
Reluctantly getting back to my plan, I took to the mountain roads again to race the course of one of the rivers leading to my objective, Villefranche de Conflent. Literally the confluence of two rivers where a medieval walled town sat beneath a high hill crowned by an impenetrable defensive position called Fort Liberia.
These two places became so influential, so crucial to the story that without being there, without climbing the hundreds of steps carved out of the mountain itself and without walking the same ramparts my characters defended, I would never have created the story as it now exists.
Twice more I visited the town, getting by with my best (still appalling) French along with much pointing and smiling, until I’d walked every inch of the town until I could feel the cobblestones under my feet as I slept.
On what became my last visit there I saw a painting in the museum of a watchtower in a place called Sahorrewhich captured my frivolous attention enough to create yet another vital element to my books.
After a quick google I set off, opting to take the long walk as I had with the steps leading to Fort Liberia, and climbed that steep hill to spend a long time looking out over a cloudy-filled valley offering me line of sight for miles. I soaked in every detail I could, letting it infuse me in a way that sounds far too bohemian even to me, but that’s what I did.
Waking the next day with a number of aches to remind me that climbing two mountains on the same day was ill-advised at my age, I headed south for the sea.
I may not live anywhere near the coast now, but I grew up near it and always felt an affinity for a sea view and can still recall the calming sensation I experienced when I dropped out of the high ground to look down on what would eventually become the place I call Sanctuary.
Looking at the seaside town of Collioure, with the crown jewel of another medieval castle sitting proudly to loom over the entrance, I saw how these places would come together in my mind to create the perfect setting.
Wandering through the town again, earning odd looks from locals, I sat on the sea wall looking inwards to the town to form every wall, every rampart, every building in my mind until I could see it clearly. Even as the sun set there I still sat, drinking it all in until it became, and always will remain, my ultimate happy place.
So my answer to the readers when they ask if the places are real? Yes, they are. Only not in the literal sense.
My advice to other writers? Get out from wherever you sit to write. Chase your story to the places it takes you and don’t be afraid to change the world to make it what you need it to be. You never know what your imagination will create.