How to write a (crime) novel #5: settings

The lighting is subdued, the weather is stormy, the landscape bleak, a lone car travels along a winding single track road. The scene is set, is it not? It feels as if since the introduction of Nordic Noir to our TV screens, the landscape has become an essential character to any crime novel. However, this is not a recent device. In his novel, The Moonstone, published in 1868 and considered by some to be one of the first of the crime genre, Wilkie Collins created the shivering sands. In his description he said it was as if it had ‘hundreds of suffocating people under it – all struggling to get to the surface, and all sinking lower and lower in the dreadful depths!’

ScarbbeachI’m very fond of the natural world and enjoy stories where it is poetically and originally described. I also believe it can add a metaphorical aspect, giving depth and nuance. I do think that for contemporary tastes having a clarity about the setting is a must.

So where does your crime novel take place? Urban or rural? Small town or big city? Concrete or moor? Sea or landlocked?

I knew my crime series would take place in a small seaside town in North Yorkshire. At first I was cautious about setting it too firmly in Scarborough, the model for this place, and I played around with using different names for it. I then went to the local theatre to see a play with ‘Scarborough’ in its title. The auditorium was packed out and I would bet on a fair percentage being there because it was specifically about their home town. This decided me, my setting would be very definitely Scarborough.

For the moment, I am happy with this decision. Readers have been fulsome in their praise of my descriptions of the sea and landscape. And I love the sea, every day it’s a different character, I Art of Survival Coverfront onlyfinallove its moods, I love its strength, I love its wily ways. Yes, I am indulging in some anthropomorphism, which is the key to bringing the background of a crime novel to the foreground and giving it a role.

Here’s an exercise
Go for a walk in your neighbourhood. Indulge in what I call mindful walking: be aware of the outside through all your senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch – and how the inside of you interacts with the outside. After about ten minutes, sit and write for five minutes, quickly without thinking too much, just get words on the paper. Repeat if you feel like it. Then choose something specific – perhaps a tree or a wall or a gate or a bench – if it could talk, what story would it tell?

The crime scene can be crucial in a crime novel and often our protagonist (police officer or someone drawn into the investigation) has to explore it for clues.

Here’s an exercise
Your protagonist has walked into the crime scene. Where is it? Inside? Outside? Describe it as if you were walking through it, with a forensic eye, and don’t forget you won’t only see clues, you might smell them. There might be a texture or a noise which is important.

What’s the setting for your novel? How did you come up with it?

The Art of the Imperfect:

The Art of Survival:


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