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Talking Location With author Leigh Russell – YORK

23rd July 2021

#TalkingLocationWith... Leigh Russell, Author of Deep Cover (DI Geraldine Steel Thriller Book 16)

The challenge of researching locations 200 miles away during lockdown

I first visited York several years ago, and was immediately enchanted by the beautiful city, with its fascinating mixture of medieval and modern architecture. The local people are friendly, and it is really lovely spending time with them. So halfway through my Geraldine Steel crime series, I decided my detective should relocate to York. It gave me the perfect excuse to keep returning there!

Leigh Russell

My research has taken me to many locations all around the UK from Glasgow to Portsmouth, and further afield to places like The Seychelles, Rome, Paris, Marrakesh, Venice and Budapest. Literary festivals and lecture tours have taken me overseas to equally thrilling places like New Orleans, Venice, Turin, Athens and the Greek islands, and other places we might never otherwise have visited. We were even flown out to Denmark to watch one of my books being printed. Exciting as all those places are, York has never lost its attraction for me!

Leigh Russell

Before lockdown, my husband and I visited York regularly, usually staying for a couple of weeks to allow time to explore. I’ve visited many locations in York in the course of my research, including, among others, a private tour of York Racecourse, an invitation to the Changing Lives Shelter for rough sleepers, a look behind the scenes at Yorvik Viking Centre, an interview in the office of the Vice Chancellor of York University, and a chat in the office of a market supervisor. In addition to such visits, like many authors I’ve also spent time in the ‘Staff Only’ areas of bookshops and libraries.

And then came lockdown. In common with others who travelled for work, my excursions came to an abrupt halt, along with the life we all once knew. The world became a different place. For over a year, appearances at literary festivals happened from home, on zoom and similar online platforms. We kept going, doing the best we could, with technologically adept people producing some innovative forums for talks, panel discussions and debates. But researching locations in the real world became impossible.

As well as going out and about for research, like most writers I also spend hours sitting at my desk, living in my own invented worlds. There are times when the demands of real life feel even less important to me than the need to establish – and equally importantly to conceal – the identity of a fictional killer. How long I sit at my desk varies from day to day, because writers don’t have regular work schedules. From planning, through writing, to working on edits and final proof reads, no two weeks are the same. Readers of my series will know that Geraldine Steel works in York. Some research of the locations she visits can easily be conducted online. Google maps, with its satellite pictures, is an invaluable tool for a writer sitting at a desk at home. The internet can take you a long way, but is no substitute for firsthand experience, especially when writing about a place readers might know in the real world.

Every year I used to spend a few weeks in York, prowling the streets, looking for suitable places for my characters to commit a murder and deposit a dead body. Satellite images on google maps provide two-dimensional pictures, but they cannot give a sense of atmosphere and perspective, or show the sights, smells and sounds that help make up the essence of a place. During lockdown, writers have been forced to rely on their existing knowledge. Unable to rely on my patchy memory for locations, I was forced to limit my descriptions of York in books written during lockdown. Character and plot have always featured more prominently in my books than location, but I was still disappointed.

Perhaps because it was impossible to go to York, the sixteenth story in my series, Deep Cover, takes place in both York and London. This story is, unusually, split between Geraldine’s murder investigation in York and a case that her colleague and partner, Ian Peterson, is working on. After falling out with Geraldine, Ian disappears. Unknown to her, he is risking his life on a mission of his own in London.

Writing without visiting the scene of my crimes has been an interesting challenge. But once we’re able to travel freely again I’ll be back walking the streets of York with my detective, Geraldine Steel, hunting for locations to conceal bodies, and the killers who stalk the pages of my books…

Leigh Russell

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Enter the 2021TripFiction 'Sense of Place' Creative Writing Competition!

A story in which the location plays as important a role as the rest of your words.

2,500 word maximum, 750 word minimum

Judges include Victoria Hislop and Rosanna Ley

First Prize of £1,000 / US$1,350

Prizes total £1,750 / US$2,362 

Winning entry published on TripFiction site and publicised on Social Media

Entries close 6th November 2021