My Trip to York
People often ask me how I choose a setting for my books. Well, I'll let you into a secret . . .
where I set a book really depends on where I'd like to go. As I said in my For Writers post on Setting, there are lots of ways that writers approach picking a location for their books. For me, it's generally somewhere lovely that I'd like to spend a few days wandering around. Three of my novels are set by the sea, proof positive of this fact. Did I mention that I love the seaside?
My latest book, Impossible to Forget, is set in York, the county town of Yorkshire and about an hour from where I live. If you haven't been to York then I can thoroughly recommend it. It is a beautiful city and simply oozes history which, with all its interesting nooks and crannies, really lends itself to being a story location.
York has everything - Roman archaeology, medieval streets, modern shopping and the majestic Minster and the River Ouse winding through its heart. The ancient city wall is still intact and you can follow it pretty much all the way round, dropping down to street level as you wish. One of the key scenes in Impossible to Forget is set up on the walls. When I was writing it, I was struck by the idea of my characters beneath huge unbroken skies and with the city bustling beneath them as they unravel a secret from their past. It is is an important moment for them, changing what they thought they knew about the world and their place in it. But of course, these things are insignificant when compared with the two thousand years of history that York has seen. We are all merely passing through.
River Ouse at Twilight
When I go on a research trip, I generally travel on my own and without a plan. My aim is to just wander and absorb the feel of a place so that I can capture on the page the parts of it that speak to me. I have absolutely no sense of direction so, for the first day at least, I will be lost. As I spend so much of my life not knowing where I am this really doesn't bother me, and I do have google maps to bring me back to where I should be if I get really stuck.
But I think not knowing where you are brings with it a kind of freedom. I take each street as I find it, without any preconceived ideas, and so I see things I might otherwise have missed if I'd had a particular destination in mind.
As I wander, I take photos of places that catch my eye and these often prompt part of the story when I get back to my desk. When I was in York much of the city was underwater. York often floods following heavy rain and the river was just starting to recede as I arrived, although the flood barriers were still up around my hotel.
I stumbled across the Hospitium, a 14th century hall sitting in the Museum Gardens. The river had risen right up against its walls and I was amazed that such an old building should cope so well with the water. I spent some time in the wintery sunshine, watching the waves lapping onto the building and wondering. When I was back at my desk and looking for a venue to set a smart party, my memory took my back there and I was able to imagine it, not with the flood, but on a warm summer's evening with fairy lights and candles.
The Hospitium, York
Sometimes when I go on a research trip, I know that there are certain places that I have to find. For example, in Where the Story Starts I needed to choose the house that kicks the whole story off. For Impossible to Forget, I was more interested in the University than the houses. I had last visited the university campus in 1987, when the characters in my book would have been in their second year. Much has changed over the intervening years, but the parts that I remembered - the lake, the covered walkways between buildings etc, were all still there. A little online research and a chat with the friend I was visiting back then helped me with the details that I needed to bring those corridors to life.
York University Campus
I had visited York many many times before I went on this research trip, but going without a particular aim in mind allowed me to explore parts of the city that I had rushed past before. And that is what I'm looking for on these jaunts - the quiet corners of a place that make me ask questions. If I have whetted your appetite, then Impossible to Forget will be published on 3rd February 2022.
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