This blog was originally posted in August 2006, and was entitled 'A Message for Alex'.
Received an e-mail from Alex who asked why, as an Englishman, do I write about America, and how important is it to get the right 'feel' when you are writing about a particular location.
So here's my answer…
Interestingly enough, this is one of the commonest questions I am asked. Why, as an English person, do you write about America? The simple answer is that the themes and subjects I want to write about are not compatible with a U.K. setting.
The first book, Candlemoth, dealt with a whole section of mid-20th Century American history from the perspective of someone on Death Row. This just wouldn't have worked had it been set in Chichester!
A bit of advice I picked up from an author many, many years ago (I can't remember whether I read it now, even who it was) was – in essence – the view that one should write about the things that you yourself are interested in. The whole nature of American 20th Century history has always fascinated me – the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, the Peace Marches and Freedom Rides, Watergate, the Vietnam War, Hollywood, Vegas, the nature of American culture and how it influenced the rest of world. Born in 1965, I was subjected to the influx of American music and TV, in effect raised on it, and I think I always felt a sense of identification with such material.
Nowadays I have come away from this a little, and books number six and seven deal with other areas of the world as well. Number six features situations and characters in not only America, but also Paris, Marseilles, Prague and London (Author’s note July 2013: this book was never in fact published). I don't know whether I will ever write a book located solely in the U.K. As a 'canvas' it has always felt a little small for me to work with, and though it is a country I am very fond of, a country I have no great purpose to leave, it is nevertheless not an area that I have chosen to write about. Yes, I have travelled in the U.S. – not extensively, but sufficiently to gain a 'feel' of the place. I have written about places I have not been to (New Orleans in 'A Quiet Vendetta' etc.), but I have read about the areas, seen many movies filmed in those locations, and when I research a book I do get into it quite seriously. You'll find my workspace buried beneath maps, train timetables, history books, guidebooks, all manner of reference tools that I sort of 'absorb'.
Another piece of advice (which actually came from my agent) was that a book should 'wear its learning lightly'. Even if you write a book about a place that you know very well, would it read right if you buried the storyline and plot beneath a ton of street-names and location details? No, not at all. I feel it’s far more important to get the atmosphere of a place conveyed, and in truth the way that you perceive a place, even the ambience of a place, is the way that you see and feel it, not anyone else. Hence it becomes personal.
Your comment at the end of your question, Alex, that if the feel of the place isn't 'real' then much of the plot can fall down, is exactly right, but how much of the 'feel' of the place do you want to create? As much as you feel is needed to give the reader a sense of time and location, and beyond that I think it could become too much of a 'character'…unless of course you want to make the location a character in itself (example: the film 'Collateral' by Michael Mann, where Los Angeles is really the 'star' of the film as much as the actors). So you have to use your own judgement and ensure that the 'feel' of the location isn't at odds with your own style. Make the place your own. Describe it the way you want to describe it, not the way you think other people would want to have it described. Pick a particular aspect of the location and centre your descriptions around that. Take Paris, for example. Would you talk about architecture, the smell of the matketplaces, the way people looked, the historical significance of certain buildings? Depends whether you are working on a book that is plot-based, character-based, whether you are trying to keep it as pacy as possible and not slow down the reader with endless details that don't relate to the story directly, or whether you want the reader to actually 'slow down' and really feel as though he is visiting someplace alongside you.
In essence, the most important aspect of any novel is the story itself. Pull a reader away from the story for a reason, because you want to show them something memorable and important. Don't pull them away from the story because you feel you have to give the setting validity. Write it the way you feel it needs to be written. If you get some aspect of the location wrong – a building, a time, a date, then your copy editor will pick it up for you ultimately. I am a firm believer in just writing, writing, writing, and I try to think as little as I can about the mechanics and logistics of writing. Write away, and when you're done go back and read through it. Ensure that its 'flows' smoothly, and if you suddenly hit a great clunky section filled with confusing place names and streets etc then you'll see it. Pare it down. Work on how some areas feels, not the map co-ordinates.
Anyway, I hope that answers your question.
Write me back and let me know if there's anything else I can help you with.
Best wishes, and good luck!