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Talking Location with author Harriet Steel – Sri Lanka

26th June 2017

#TalkingLocationWith…. author Harriet Steel, who shares the details of her research trip to Sri Lanka.

The Pearl of the Indian Ocean, the Cinnamon Isle – whatever name you choose, Sri Lanka is wonderful and I fell in love with it when I holidayed there in 2016.

People are friendly and seem to have recovered extraordinarily well from the tragedies of their recent past. The majority are Sinhalese, who see themselves as the original owners of the island, then come the Tamils who migrated over the centuries from South India. Add the legacy of the Portuguese and Dutch settlers and you have a very rich culture.

The Ellerton Guesthouse, high in the hills above Kandy

My books are often inspired by my travels and I’d been planning a detective series for some time. When I saw the hill country where the tea grows, I realised I’d found my setting for The Inspector de Silva Mysteries. Nuwara Eliya, the model for the fictional town of Nuala, is a little piece of England but interpreted with Sri Lankan flair. I decided to place the action in the 1930s when the island was still the British colony of Ceylon because I felt that even though the series sits firmly in the mystery genre, colonialism raised issues that provide an extra layer of interest.

Gathering the tea

If you like to walk, I highly recommend Horton Plains where you can follow Inspector de Silva’s footsteps through the cloud forest to the precipice at World’s End. It’s worth booking a guide to take you up there early to beat the mist that, by mid-morning, obscures the jaw-dropping view. World’s End plays a crucial role in Dark Clouds Over Nuala and, in the cause of research, I was up at five!

Sri Lanka has lots of exotic wildlife and you won’t just see it in the national parks. My favourites were the elephants and I simply had to have them on my covers. There’s stunning scenery everywhere too but, for me, the Ellerton, near Kandy came top.

Elephant at Yale

Kandy, to which Inspector de Silva pursues one of his suspects, is unmissable. In the Temple of the Tooth, the relic is kept in a sealed casket, but visitors and worshippers are allowed into the shrine in the late afternoon, at the time of prayers and offerings, to view the golden Buddha. The hordes of people and the din of the drums are dizzying and bound to get your adrenaline racing; to make sure you see everything, book ahead with one of the many private guided tours on offer; it’s worth the expense. After the drama of the temple, a stroll along the lakefront promenade or tea at the historic Queen’s Hotel are lovely ways to cool down.

Royal Palms at the Botanical Gardens

If you’d rather not find your own way out to Peradeniya, you’ll find it’s included in many tours of Kandy. The Botanic Gardens there are splendid. I like to think of garden-loving Inspector de Silva going there for inspiration when he’s in town. The busy railway station where you catch the hill train is a Victorian gem. Try to take a peek in the signal box. It still houses the original equipment shipped out from England in the 1860s.

It would take years to do justice to all of Sri Lanka’s archaeological sites but Polonnaruwa, capital city in ancient times, and a UNESCO World heritage site, is high on most people’s list. It hasn’t featured in my series yet but I’m sure it will. The combination of antiquity, romance and mystery is a gift to a novelist. Even if you’re wilting with the heat, don’t leave without seeing the stunning rock temple where the four statues of the Buddha, carved straight into the rock, are rightly reputed to be supreme examples of Buddhist carving. There’s something irresistibly serene and conducive to contemplation about them.

Inspector de Silva likes his food and it’s easy to eat well in Sri Lanka; the local dishes are wonderful and the produce very fresh. Some places tone down the fieriness for tourists, but if necessary, you can always add a dollop of yoghurt. Things have moved on since the 1930s. If you want a rest from spicy food, you’ll probably have better luck than de Silva does finding a decent Western meal. Cream teas are a delightful survival from the colonial era. The Stafford, where we stayed in Nuwara Eliya, served a delicious one. In the interests of research, of course, I had to force myself to try everything!

Sri Lanka

Teatime at The Stafford!

Thank you so much to Harriet for sharing her research trip to Sri Lanka, such a fabulous, I am sure many people will want to visit! You can follow Harriet on Twitter and via her blog. You can buy all her books (including The Inspector de Silva Mysteries) here

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  1. User: andrewmorris51

    Posted on: 27/06/2017 at 1:09 pm

    Great #TalkingLocationWith post – thanks for sharing, Harriet.

    I haven’t made it to Sri Lanka yet, but you have just moved it up my “to visit” list. Perhaps by way of being #OnLiteraryLocation with you and your characters, in the same way that we have just done in Sardinia, with Rosanna Ley and her Little Theatre by the Sea book…?

    Wildlife, nature, tea, railways and great food. Sounds like a winning travel destination to me.

    Andrew for TripFiction


  2. User: Harriet Steel

    Posted on: 26/06/2017 at 10:10 pm

    It was great fun sharing my memories of Sri Lanka here, thank you to all at Trip Fiction for the opportunity. It would be lovely to hear the views of other TF followers who have visited or have the island on their list.


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