Novel set in the Norfolk Broads
Travel the globe with author Sara Sheridan
6th April 2014
Historical novelist Sara Sheridan has written books set in lots of different locations – some more exotic than others – so what attracts a writer to a specific place?
I love the moment when you know you’ve found a story – it’s like holding treasure trove in your hands. For me, that kernel of an idea is almost always linked to somewhere specific. Researching a location doesn’t always mean going there, though. Especially when it’s an historical location. Some places just don’t exist in the same way as they did. In the first historical series I wrote which is set 1820 – 1845, writing locations for a modern-day reader means going back to the archive and poring over old maps, historical journals and letters from long-dead travellers. Writing historical fiction means spilling the beans – so the sounds, sights and smells of contemporary accounts are vital to getting that place absolutely clear in the reader’s eye. Recreating lush markets in Zanzibar or the silence of the desert were big challenges when I was writing Secret of the Sands. Sometimes, to get myself in the mood, I’d brew strong coffee and crack out the Turkish delight. Most of the time I work at home, in Edinburgh, so magicking up relentless baking heat and the luxury of fresh water took some doing. Similarly, when I was writing The Secret Mandarin I ordered dim sum for lunch on a regular basis and I’d eat it poring over Robert Fortune’s original account of his forbidden trip inside post-Opium War China.
When I decided to write the Mirabelle Bevan Mysteries 3 years ago, they couldn’t have been set anywhere but 1950s Brighton. Mirabelle (my Miss-Marple-with-an-edge) washed up there after WWII. Like many women she found herself valued during the war and had a job that she loved. But after the fighting was over women were crammed back into the kitchen – a location Mirabelle never enjoyed. Having lost the love of her life (tragically, after the war) Mirabelle is 37 and at the start of the first story in 1951, she considers herself on the shelf, and would be diagnosed by a modern-day doctor as suffering from depression. Depression shrinks your world so for that first book, Mirabelle (who is a London girl) had to be sucked into Brighton (the small town down the road). Over the series (and I’ve planned 11 books) that world will slowly expand as she recovers (solving mysteries on the way.) Book 2, London Calling, is set mostly in London and Book 3, England Expects, takes Mirabelle as far as Cambridge. I have big plans next year for Book 4 – British Bulldog – during the course of which Mirabelle will be heading for (wait for it) Paris.
Sometimes though I get a sneaky wee trip here and there. I love wandering around London for the Mirabelle books. I map it in my head according to which buildings pre-date the Blitz and which ones don’t. Like many other cities during WWII, London suffered horrific damage but the carnage wasn’t evenly placed. Some areas were decimated and others escaped barely grazed. In the past I’ve got into trouble. Mirabelle is always breaking into houses or eavesdropping below windows. I scout those locations to make sure she’d really be able to get in or overhear things. Recently in Belgravia an old man strode out of his house.
‘What are you doing?’ he demanded.
‘I’m a novelist,’ I smiled, expecting him to be delighted. ‘I’m using this street in a story I’m writing.’
‘We don’t want your sort here,’ he snapped. ‘Clear off!’
It’s not always easy getting the locations right but yes, I did use that street in London Calling!
England Expects, Sara’s new book is out now, set in Brighton, London and Cambridge. You can connect with Sara on Facebook and Twitter, and check in with her character Mirabelle Bevan on Twitter too. Let Sara take you to some wonderful places around the globe!