Brit Grit Alley features interviews, news and updates on what's happening down British crime fiction's booze and blood soaked alleyways.
Down Brit Grit Alley this week I have a guest column from Benedict Jones, author of “Skewered and Other London Cruelties”
Location, Location, Location (or How the City Speaks to me) by Benedict Jones.
Location, that feeling we get for a place that allows a land or cityscape to be as much of a character as any human protagonist within a story. Where would Charlie Parker be without Maine or Bernie Gunther without Berlin or Jack Taylor without Galway? They would still be great characters but without those backdrops, canvases on which they work, would their stories work as well? I think not. Sometimes the locale itself tells us as much of the story as the narrator does.
In this way it is important to generate a certain sense of place for the reader as an integral part of the story. To evoke the locality so that it speaks to the reader is, to my mind, as important as having an engaging protagonist.
This is one of the few times when I would agree with the axiom of ‘write what you know’. By this I don’t mean that the location of your story should be one that you live in or have direct experience of but it should be one that you are intimate with. Recently I was writing a story set in thirties Shanghai and part of the way through I realised that I was not fully evoking the sense of place. I was not dragging the reader onto those dark, strange smelling backstreets with me. To that end I paused. I am continuing to put down the bones of the story but am reading more and gathering more firsthand accounts so that I can put the meat on those bones for the reader before I attempt to take them back to the dark and exotic bars of Frenchtown.
But how to go about creating that sense of place? As I’ve already stated research can be an important part of this. Even researching a place you feel you know well, the place you live say, can turn up surprising amounts of, what I will term, secret history. Listen to anecdotes and stories from friends, families and that odd bloke who sits at the end of the bar. Actively seek out such accounts in books and newspaper reports. In a recent interview I was reminded of a story that I passed on to a friend about a cab driver committing suicide by self-decapitation with a length of cable and a fast cab. The story garnered perhaps half an inch of newsprint and I got the rest from someone in a pub. It is these little gems that should be sought out and filed away for later use or just used to give you a flavor of the place.
Another useful exercise is one I picked up on a writing course a few years ago; imagine the place the place you are thinking of and then write down the first twenty things that the place makes you think of. Then look at those twenty words closely and try to ascertain any themes running through them. This is the place speaking to you, showing you the part of its soul that it wants you to see – all you need to do is listen and you will be able to develop its voice further from there.
Sometimes though you will approach a place with a specific tone already in mind, this too is fine as a place always has more than one voice and sense of character. We all see places in different ways. For example the London that I write about is very different to that of Zadie Smith or Nick Hornby. But a city like London speaks in a legion of voices and it is simply the job of the writer to channel those voices like a medium channels the dead.
When I first began writing the stories that ended up in “Skewered And Other LondonCruelties” I don’t think that I truly paid much attention to sense of place. I just wrote about London as I see it through my own eyes and those of my characters, the worlds within worlds that permeate my everyday life. It wasn’t until I looked back later at the stories and realized that there is one character that featured in every story, a character that molded all of the others, and that character was London, herself.
Bio: Benedict J Jones is a writer of crime, horror and western fiction from south east London. His work has appeared in magazines such as One Eye Grey, Pen Pusher, Out of the Gutter and Encounters, on a variety of websites including Big Pulp and Shotgun Honey and in anthologies from Dark Minds Press, Crystal Lake Publishing, Full Dark City Press and Dog Horn Publishing. He can be found at;
Or on Twitter: @benedictjjones