>Location, location, location.


I would like to continue the discussion started by my colleagues on the process of writing. First, I should start by reaffirming that every writer has their own method. The only way to learn to write is to write – and to try to develop your own ‘style’ .

I tend to develop a character first and let them talk to me and tell me their story. Yeah, I know that sounds pretentious or even barmy but it works for me: the plot comes out of the characters rather than the other way round.

Today, though, I would like to focus on something that I think is almost as important – the story location.

My dear old dad was an estate agent. He gave me two important pieces of advice. The first was that I should never borrow money on an endowment mortgage and the second was location, location, location.

American companies have a tendency to buy British TV programmes , not to show, but to relocate to America with a new script and actors. Sometimes this works (for example, how many Americans know that Sanders and Son is actually a British comedy about two London rag and bone men with a horse and cart) but often it doesn’t. Fox bought the 90s hit British urban fantasy drama Ultraviolet, which told the story of the Inquisition’s vampire hunters in London. They changed the location to New York, which meant using American actors and a plot rewrite. Apparently the result was so bad that it has never been screened in public. Ultraviolet was a London story about 1990s Londoners.

Location is a key part of the creative process. It creates the atmosphere for the story. I ask myself what sort of people I would find in this place and how they might interact with my heroes? Why would my POV characters be there? I go to the place, or look up pictures if that isn’t possible. I study the buildings, terrain, climate, vegetation, machines. I try to soak up the colours, the smells, the very taste of the place. I focus on details. That’s where I get ideas for sub plots and twists.

The short story I am currently writing is even named after its primary location.

Location-specific writing works for me. I have no idea whether this technique will work for you, but have a look at the work of Ian Fleming. Go back and read the Bond thrillers and imagine them relocated elsewhere – Casino Royale reset in a Wigan Bingo Hall? – naaagh!



  1. >Hi John,You are lucky to live in a place with such a depth of history! Here, in Australia, we European settlers don’t have history that goes back thousands of years. No grand monuments or buildings older than 200 years. And it is considered politically incorrect to draw on the Aboriginal culture. In fact, when applying for a grant to write a book that involves Indigenous people or their mythology, you are supposed to get written permission from tribal elders. The argument is that Aboriginal people don’t want outsiders ripping off their culture.As a child growing up in a Queensland sea-side town I longed for history and devoured books. So, apart from one trip to the UK, my research is all done through books and films.Cheers, Rowena

  2. >Rowena, you’re an Aussie?? I’m homesick for Milo, Barbecue Shapes and a Cherry Ripe. 😀 Oh, and the smell of gum leaves…I live in America now. And am writing about my protagonist in England. Lots of research! John, great post, sir!! Your dad was an estate agent? Perfect! Can I pick his brain for some backstory for my murder victim – it’s set in 1970, Leicestershire/Rutland area? It’s taken me awhile to get my general area together for my fictional village, but I’m getting to know a fair bit about Rutland/East Midlands now. 😀 And if I don’t, I google it or buy a lot of books. Got a nice reply from the Commander of the Leicestershire/Rutland Constabulary, too – nice lady, but very busy. :-DThe area suits my protagonist. I’ve been having some trouble finding a name for my fictional village, though. Have just spent the afternoon under a fluffy rug on the sofa with note book and the Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names – it goes very well with ‘How to Read a Village’. :-DI’m Aussie, my husband is American, and his mother is British – confuses the hell out of people. 😀 Cheers,Marianne

  3. >Hi RowenaYah, you can’t turn over a piece of turf in Kent without finding some unique historical site. The new high speed railway line work found an unknown Roman villa and a Saxon chieftan’s burial.London is the most incredible place. You can stand in a garden devoted to those who fell in some farflung part of the Empire looking at a 21st Century financial centre overtowering a Roman wall. I live in a town founded by the Romans on an important river crossing between the Thames valley and Europe. The first known battle site in British History occured here between the troops of Claudius Caeser and the British. The crossing is guarded by the first stone Norman castle built in Britain, Elizabethan forts built by John Hawkins to guard the new anchorage, Napoleonic forts to guard the base at Chatham, and flak towers to catch Luftwaffe raiders flying under the radar, up the river valley. We also have bronze age tombs.John

  4. >Dear MarianneWe anglo-saxons do have wide family relationships. Most of my family are Australians (my wifes are Kiwis).Afraid my dad died some years ago. I don’t know much about the Midlands. I am a southerner and we believe barbarism starts at the Watford Gap 🙂 ). However I know a great deal about 70s England. In 1970, I was 18. I left Newquay in North Cornwall to go to University in West London. Email me if you need any info.Happy days.John

  5. >Hi John,I’m terribly sorry about your dad. 😦 Hope I didn’t stir up any sad feelings. I kind of thought about that after I hit the send button. Urp.Yeah, my dad’s family is from the Buck’s area, and some from Kent. Kent is on our family crest. :-DMum’s is full French on one side and English on the other. Dad’s other side is full Scots. So I’m a bit on the mixed side. :-DBless you John. 1970s England info would be great. Mostly only want impressions you remember from then of the general atmosphere, brands, trends, feelings, etc. Author, Jacqueline Winspear who was 15 in that year is doing the same thing for me. I’m missing England this year: we’re usually on our way back from Torquay about this time. Mind you, we may need to dash across the pond to see a publisher in Newton Abbott next year – and that I won’t turn down.So I’m working on my manuscript in the meantime. :-DThanks so much,Marianne

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