Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Wish you were here? by Cathy Ace

CRAFT: When it comes to creating a sense of place in your work, how do you do it? (Research and real places? Invention and fictional ones?) What’s worked for you, and what hasn’t?

I am one of those writers for whom the tales I tell couldn’t possibly happen anywhere other than where they do. They are rooted in place, and – for me – place is often where a story starts, and it’s certainly where it develops and grows. So it’s critical to me.

I’m also one of those writers who will not set a story in a place I’ve known only fleetingly. Because the location is so important to me I’ve only ever set books in places where I have lived, or worked over a considerable time. I know some authors have set books in places they have never visited, or where they’ve had a quick look around over a few days/weeks on holiday (or even on a specific research trip), but I just cannot do that. Even all the far-flung places where Cait Morgan has solved her puzzling closed-circle cases are places I’ve lived or worked. And I've eaten and drunk everything she's eaten and drunk too. All in the cause of research, of course! 
Caviar tasting at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant in Vegas - for research purposes, for The Corpse with the Platinum Hair
It probably means I have a hopeless imagination – but I need to know how a place feels, rather than just how it looks – and I especially like to know how a place smells. Also, you cannot beat knowing a place as a way to get to know its real secrets.

So, since I clearly tend to the “realistic vs fantasy” how do I research the places I use as settings? Well, given that I already know them, my “research” is more about updating my knowledge, or disguising the specifics. For example, if nothing dreadful is going to happen in it I don’t mind using the real name of a restaurant/bar/pub, and the name of the real street it’s on. If it's the scene for a murder, I'll change a great deal about it.

Now, I might have forgotten those specifics (I have a terrible memory for names!) so I find google maps useful for that aspect. The lovely restaurant where they’d cook a whole suckling pig to order in a little back-street in Nice is a case in point – I knew I wanted characters to eat there (in The Corpse with the Silver Tongue), and I know its all-enveloping fragrance of roasting meats and garlic, as well as the weaponized tablecloths that are always stiff with starch, well enough to use them. I could even take you there from my apartment above Mori’s Bar on Rue de France with my eyes closed…but what the heck was it called? And what’s the street name? A few minutes on google earth and I can find it – magic! Then I can decide if I want to use it as it is, or merely as a point of inspiration.

This is the process I have used in all my books. Most recently I set The Wrong Boy in the real clifftop Welsh village of Rhossili – but I changed enough to protect the innocent! As for Budapest (in The Corpse with the Ruby Lips), I used the real city, which I adore. I worked there, off and on, over about five years, and managed to see a lot of the surrounding area, as well as staying at the stunning Gellert Hotel (on occasion).
When it came to the Pacific coast of Mexico (in The Corpse with the Emerald Thumb) I used a real location (the rugged coastline between Puerto Vallarta and Bucerias) but a totally fictitious ex-pat development…which I needed to invent because it was inhabited by a particularly suspicious group, and I didn’t want anyone to believe it might be real (though the locals’ antipathy to vacation developments and their concerns about the effect on the local water supply were real enough). 
Posing in the garden of our apartment in Bucerias LOL!

This is a part of the world I’ve visited on many occasions, and I was fortunate enough to be able to spend time with local police PR people (yes, they have them!) who helped me with the procedural elements necessary for a book where the arrest on suspicion of murder of one of my protagonists was a main storyline.

For me, it’s the little details that make the description of place “realistic”: the nature of the light; the way it smells; is it dusty/dank/muggy/stinky/noisy/quiet; how does it feel at certain times of day/night/year; when and how the sun rises and sets; what the rain sounds like there. I might sound utterly pathetic, but I don’t think I could do a good job of representing place in my work if I didn’t know all this…even if not all of it gets into the final version. 

And that's another point -  I really do believe less is more when it comes to creating a sense of place in a reader’s mind. Too much detail and it becomes a bore – but the right details…the ones that would impact the character/s experiencing it…these are what count.

When I was a mere slip of a thing - back in 1995!
And, in case you’re wondering, I based Henry Deveraux Twyst, eighteenth Duke of Chellingworth (in the WISE Enquiries Agency books) on an ex-boyfriend of mine (I met him in Egypt...he took the photo of me here at the temple of Queen Hatshepsut!), so I know exactly what an ancient pile that’s been in the family for many, many generations feels and smells like! 

If you fancy a bit of armchair travel, why not check out my books? You really can travel the world with me and my characters: just click here.



Cathy Ace said...

Fun to dig up photos of places I miss. Anyone else use their writing or reading to travel?

Paul D. Marks said...

Fun piece, Cathy. It is hard to remember specifics about a place. But even a place I know well like L.A. changes so much that I sometimes need a refresher. And I have used writing as an excuse to travel or travel as an excuse to write about some place. But the one place that I really wanted to go as I was working on a script about it was the Amazon. Which I didn't get to go to. But a little more on that when I post on Friday.

Susan C Shea said...

Even without the excuse to revisit the places I love, I can conjure up streets, views, trees and seasons...If I loved it, it stays with me. Not that I don't love the chance to rebisit France, Santa Fe, New York city!

Kathy Reel said...

Cathy, you know how much you've made me fall in love with Wales from your books. I'm a big fan of place being important in a story, so you always hit the mark for me.

Cathy Ace said...

Yikes...the Amazon sounds a bit challenging for me

Cathy Ace said...

Revisiting is a treat

Cathy Ace said...

So pleased to hear that Kathy