“A Sense of Place” (by Christine Poulson)

Christine Poulson’s first crime novel was published in the U.S. in 2004, and she has been contributing stories to EQMM since 2007. Before becoming a full-time fiction writer, she was an academic who wrote widely on nineteenth-century art and literature. During that period, she worked at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and at the William Morris Society at Kelmscott House, London. Later she was a lecturer in Art History at a college in Cambridge. The city of Cambridge and the surrounding Fens (whose atmosphere she describes as “unique and sinister”) provide the setting for her popular series starring Cassandra James. Her latest book, Invisible, is a standalone suspense novel, and it includes settings as various as the north Devon coast, Sweden, and Hong Kong. Nowhere does setting play a more important role than in her upcoming story for EQMM, “Roller-Coaster Ride” (December 2014), which was inspired by a trip to Copenhagen and the Tivoli gardens.—Janet Hutchings

All around dense woodland crowded in. The trees were mostly conifer and the foliage began high up, so that the bare trunks rose like columns. Beneath them lay lines of graves, marked by simple headstones. The place stretched out in all directions as far as the eye could see. It wasn’t a conventional cemetery with long open vistas. It was a forest in which you could wander for hours, a place so huge that it was patrolled by a courtesy bus, like the ones at airport car-parks.

We were in the Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm, a World Heritage Site, one of the masterpieces of the great Swedish architect, Gunnar Aspland.

My husband is an architectural historian and we were spending part of the summer in Sweden so that he could do research for a book on Aspland.

Our trip was supposed to be a holiday, as well as a research trip, but architectural historians are never really on holiday. And nor are writers. As my husband and I wandered among the graves—coming by chance on Greta Garbo’s, set apart and marked by a heart-shaped evergreen wreath—I knew that I would one day set a scene in a novel here.

Readers often wonder where writers get their ideas. They might be surprised to know that for some crime writers—and I am one of them—it is not the characters or the plot, but the setting that comes first.

P.D. James gave an interview in which she admitted that “the first inspiration is usually the setting. I have a very strong response to what I think of as the spirit of a place. I can be at a lonely stretch of beach or a sinister house or in a community of people such as a forensic science laboratory or a nurses’ training school and feel strongly that I want to set the book there.”

Ruth Rendell, too, is a past master of atmosphere and place. In A Fatal Inversion, which she wrote as Barbara Vine, three men in their thirties are forced to confront something that happened ten years previously, when they lived together in a commune in a Georgian mansion in Suffolk that they call “Ecalpemos.” The house and the sweltering summer of 1976 have remained in my memory longer than the characters or the plot, brilliant though they are.

A sense of place is important to me as a reader: I love to visit Tony Hillerman’s New Mexico, Donna Leon’s Venice, Andrea Camilleri’s Sicily, Martin Cruz Smith’s Russia, Magdalen Nabb’s Florence, Simenon’s Paris. Recently I’ve been enjoying Quentin Bates’s Reykjavik and Martin Walker’s Périgord, home of Bruno Courrèges, police chief in the little town of St. Denis. Judging by the success of these writers, other readers feel the same.

I realised for the first time while writing this that I particularly enjoy novels set in places that I’ve visited. I don’t read with a guidebook and a map beside me, but I love it when, for instance, I’m reading the Martin Beck mysteries by Sjöwall & Wahlöö, and I recognise places that I know. At one point Martin Beck has a highly desirable flat in the old town, which I covet. I don’t suppose a policeman could afford to live there now.

H.R.F. Keating famously wrote the Inspector Ghote mysteries without setting foot in India. Martin Cruz Smith had spent only a week as a tourist in Moscow before writing Gorky Park. Lawrence Block says you need go no further than the library to research your settings. I take my hat off to them, but to walk around a place in my imagination, I first have to walk around it in reality. I can’t recall ever sending my characters to places where I’ve not been myself.

And why would I want to, when research trips are one of the best parts of being a writer? I know Cambridge well—for seven years I lived and worked there—but we were living in the Peak District when I started to write the Cassandra James mysteries. I often went back to decide exactly where my fictional college, theatre, and library were located. I’d buy the local newspaper, visit museums, the botanical gardens, looking for places to set scenes. Wandering around I’d often get ideas for furthering the plot or bits of dialogue would float into my mind. I’ve even used bits of conversation that I’ve overheard in the street.

And it’s not just the locale. I have to know what kind of house my characters live in and how they furnish them. It tells you so much about them. After all, Travis McGee just wouldn’t be the same person if he didn’t live on the Busted Flush, a houseboat moored in Bahia Mara, Florida. Nero Wolfe couldn’t live anywhere but in that brownstone on West 35th Street. Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder lost something, I feel, when he fell in love with Elaine and moved out of that down-at-heel hotel in Hell’s Kitchen.

Many writers think long and hard about the houses that their principal characters inhabit. But I’d love to know how many of them actually draw floor plans as I do. Perhaps I’m an architect manqué. For the Cassandra James novels, I’ve designed a Cambridge college, a theatre, and an independent library. In the first, Murder is Academic, I pinched Cassandra’s house, the Old Granary, with its brick and weatherboarding, from a book called New Homes from Old Buildings, discovered in a second-hand bookshop in Stamford. But Falling Water, the house at the heart of my new novel, Invisible, was all my own work, even if I did lean heavily on Frank Lloyd Wright.

Situated on a lonely part of the North Devon coast, the house is Lisa’s sanctuary, but it is also where she grieves for her dead architect father and her lost lover. I had to know everything about it, not least because Lisa’s son, Ricky, is in a wheelchair and I had to know how he would get about.

The Swedish sections of the novel came much earlier. When we got home from my husband’s research trip, I pored over maps and guidebooks. Lying awake at night, I’d walk the streets of Stockholm. It’s not too much to say that I was obsessed with Sweden. I’d find myself brooding over the novel while I was cooking, or out for a walk, or on train journeys. I couldn’t decide: Should I set the Swedish scenes in midsummer when the days seemed endless and the nights barely deepened into twilight? Or during the short winter days when snow lay on the ground and night came early?

Finally, early one January, I went back to Stockholm and revisited the Woodland Cemetery. I could have guessed that there would be snow on the ground and evergreen wreaths on some of the graves. But I needed to be there to see the innumerable little lights flickering on the graves as the early winter dusk closed in beneath the trees. They were candles protected from the wind by lantern-holders. The dead had not been forgotten or left out of the Christmas celebrations. It was so homely—and so touching.

And that in the end was how I chose to have it in my novel.

 

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4 Responses to “A Sense of Place” (by Christine Poulson)

  1. Lou manfredo says:

    Christine,
    Fascinating perspective. As to drawing your floor plans, I have a detailed hand drawn map of the small town I use as home base for a short story series of mine. It helps immeasurably as I write, as well as providing a consistency of location reference from story to story. Whatever works!

  2. Christine says:

    Thanks, Lou, good idea. I’ve tended to use real towns and cities so far, but the idea of creating my own small town appeals.

  3. Jack Erickson says:

    I’m fascinated by novel settings, and especially how writers arrive at that place that inspires them.
    I was in Milano’s Stazione Centrale in August 2011, taking photos of the neofascist architecture. My wife, luggage, and passport were on the train before we departed to Paris.

    A lightening bolt struck. All of a sudden, it wasn’t me in the station, but an American woman, commercial photographer, whose daughter and finance were awaiting departure to Paris. She has inadvertently taken photos of three people who entered Centrale to assassinate a politician coming to see Berlusconi at his villa.

    The terrorists whisk her off, discover her father’s a wealthy Wall Street investment banker, and the DIGOS anti-terrorism unit from the Milan Questura search for the terrorists and their American hostage.

    All this happened in minutes, standing alone in noisy Centrale. My inspiration became the book “Thirteen Days in Milan.” I’m back in Milano this summer to oversee the Italian translation and research the sequel.

    All because Stazione Centrale’s frenetic setting inspired me.

    Ideas won’t rest until the story is written. And sometimes not even then.

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