M.K. Graff, "The Challenges of Setting a Novel in a Different Country"
Many writing books tell writers that setting often functions as a character in itself. For me, it’s the world that my character’s inhabit and will affect their actions, so it’s a very important decision I make when choosing where my stories will unfold. I’m a big fan of writers who manage to bring me into their setting, and I feel most writers truly wish to have the place a book’s characters move in feel real to their readers. Kaui Hart Hemmings, the novelist who wrote The Descendants, set in Hawaii and made into a recent movie with George Clooney, states: “The setting should do more than sit there—it should infiltrate the plot.” And my personal hero, P. D. James, always starts her novels by deciding on the setting for its influence on the story she’ll develop.
Choosing to set my mystery series in England was a deliberate choice, yet one I knew would present challenges. My American protagonist, Nora Tierney, is a writer who has been living and working there for years, so while it’s fine to have her appropriate common Brit words like “loo,” her voice has to remain distinctly American versus the other characters in her circle. It’s one reason I read UK authors continuously, to keep the cadence and slang of that country in my ear for my other characters. But the challenges go far beyond language.
Having a lifelong affinity for England and its environs, I originally chose Cumbria, the county containing England’s glorious Lake District, as the setting for the opening of the Nora Tierney series. My visits to the land of Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter hold a fascination for me. It is one of the most beautiful natural areas I’ve ever seen, and the book series seemed to belong there. On my last visit, I took photographs and came home armed with maps and brochures to use.
Then life intervened with an opportunity to study at Oxford, and I found myself in the hallowed halls of Exeter College, studying Wilkie Collins and Daphne Du Maurier, two of my favorite writers. Sworn in as a reader at the Bodleian Library, I was able to read the original broadsheet reviews of The Woman in White.
Oxford is a jewel of a town encircled by the lush green countryside of the Thames Valley. Its mellow limestone “dreaming spires,” as described by 19th C. poet Matthew Arnold, change color with the light and weather. Magnificently preserved architecture reflects every age from Saxon to present, all exhibited somewhere amongst the federation of forty-odd independent colleges which make up the University of Oxford.
This mix of “town and gown” is noticed at once when visiting: the university has its dons lecturing in sub fusc, scouts bringing students morning tea, an historic tutorial system, and those forbidden grassy quads (with their tradition of only being walked on by dons), while the town has its own muddle of traffic-choked streets, packed with bicycles and pedestrians, pubs and shops. Both exist alongside green meadows with grazing cattle, and rivers teeming with punters and canal boats.
Small wonder then that I fell in love with the place. I could picture Nora here, too, and suddenly the idea for a new mystery, one that had Oxford at its heart, took over. I set aside my original idea for a Lake District manuscript and started writing The Blue Virgin, a combination of cozy and police procedural. Trying to clear her best friend, Val Rogan, of the suspicion she has murdered her partner, Bryn Wallace, Nora quickly becomes embroiled in the murder investigation, to the dismay of DI Declan Barnes, the senior investigating officer. And did I mention Nora is four months pregnant with her dead fiancé’s baby?
I took great care to be accurate in describing Oxford’s history and the colleges, as well as the various locations and sites my characters visit. After all, this is the town that gave the world Lewis Carroll, penicillin, two William Morrises, and graduates spread across the centuries whose influences are still felt. A very short list includes: Shelley, Tolkien, Browning, C. S. Lewis, Oscar Wilde, T. S. Eliot, and Christopher Wren. More modern grads you will recognize include Dorothy Sayers, Stephen Hawkings, Richard Burton, Indira Gandhi, Hugh Grant and Val McDermid.
And Oxford exudes mystery, as any Inspector Morse fan can tell you. I knew that readers would be quick to point out any factual errors I made. I carefully described favorite student pubs, shops, and the wonderful Covered Market, and tried to give the reader the sense of that ancient town, and how living in it affects Nora’s actions.
When I came home to write The Blue Virgin, I kept an enlargement of the town map taped to my desk--no sense describing a cobbled lane if I had the name wrong. I’d brought home research material with me, which I referred to often, as well as my photo album from the trip. My characters move within the real town, have tea at The Parsonage, and brunch at The Randolph Hotel. Only a few settings, such as Nora’s flat, are fictional.
One sticking point was details of the police station. The series is a mix of police procedural and cozy; the main points of view are from the detective who is the senior investigation officer on the case, Declan Barnes, and my gal, Nora. I’d walked past St. Aldate’s station and noted its position on my map. But now I needed to get inside it—and I was home in North Carolina at this point.
Google to the rescue. I found the email for the Thames Valley Police Constabulary, andemailed someone with a request that went something like this: Would someone in the Oxford St. Aldate’s station be willing to answer a few questions via email for my mystery novel, in return for an acknowledgment in the completed novel?
Two days later I had my answer: The Chief Superintendent himself would be happy to answer my questions. With my contact established, I was able to accurately describe the interior of the station, and learned that the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) suffered through the summer heat on a non-air-conditioned upper floor. When one of my characters is detained in a holding cell overnight, she is kept awake by the clang of the noisy gates that lead to the station’s parking lot. Now I felt secure, but my Afterword in the book indicates which areas are fictional, so that readers won’t be sending me emails that the Artist’s Cooperative I’ve described doesn’t exist.
When I left Oxford, I stayed in the Lake District for an additional week to gather information for the future sequel and took updated pictures to refresh my memories from my previous trips there. I’d chosen the village of Bowness-on-Windermere on the shore of England’s largest lake for the next book and stayed in a B&B there. I talked to shop owners, visited pubs, and wrote down some of the Cumbrian slang I heard.
By the time The Blue Virgin was in print and I started writing The Green Remains, I’d moved Nora back to this Cumbrian setting. One of the first things I accomplished this time was to find my local contact. Newly retired Steve Sharpe of the Kendal Station, Cumbria Constabulary, did the honors, and here I struck gold.
Steven had grown up in the area, and is something of a local naturalist and fisherman. Besides being able to answer my questions about policing and proper titles for everyone from my detective to the pathologist, he gave me wonderful information about things like: what is in bloom in autumn? What birds would be around? What is the weather like at that time of year? Steve has become a long-distance email friend, is now retired, and is still answering my questions, as I start writing the third book in the series, The Scarlet Wench.
The last bit of assistance I’ve had in both of these books is a terrific copyeditor. She will be working on my manuscript and I’ll get an email along the lines of: “Google maps says that walk Davey takes is really over a mile and he couldn’t get to the bakery in three minutes”—and I am smart enough to adjust my text accordingly.
There is a wealth of information available on the Internet about anywhere in the world, and a writer with a good imagination can probably do any setting justice. I do feel experiencing the real place at least once gives a writer the smells, sense of color and light, and discreet feel for a place that research would deny. Setting isn’t just good description—it is the world your specific people inhabit, and it has to support them and define them. But backed up with good research, a detailed map, and a cooperative local contact, any writer can make a setting come to life.
A former writer for seven years with “Mystery Review” magazine, Marni Graff has interviewed Ian Rankin, Deborah Crombie, Val McDermid, and her mentor, P. D. James, amongst many others. A member of Sisters in Crime, she runs the Writers Read program in NC, and is a founding member of Coastal Carolina Mystery Writers.
She is also the co-author of Writing in a Changing World, a primer for modern writers to find their writing group. Her poetry was most recently published in A Tribute to Amelia Earhart and her creative nonfiction most recently seen in Southern Women’s Review.
Graff’s English series features American children’s book writer Nora Tierney. The Blue Virgin is set in Oxford; The Green Remains is set in the Lake District.