Some books have such a strong sense of place that the setting almost becomes another character, and you couldn’t imagine the story being set anywhere else. This place can be real, for example the wild and rugged Cornish moors and coastline of Daphne du Maurier’s novels, or built from the imagination of the author as with Middle Earth and The Shire.
Is it important to have ‘been there’. Presumably not, there are plenty of authors who have written books with particular settings who have never been anywhere close to them. The settings I’ve used are generally places I know, and my research has been my memory and a couple of fortunately timed trips.
Lives Interrupted is set in London. I know the city as a visitor and so I’m familiar with some areas, but there are other locations I’ve never visited. My first job was to decide where in London each of the characters lived. This had to fit in with their jobs and the daily tube trips they made. Once I’d made those decisions, I was able to see the local streets and follow their daily journeys with just a few mouse clicks. The marvels of the internet!
Lies of the Dead is mostly set in Cornwall. The village I used for Tom and Andi’s childhood home is fictional, but based heavily on a real Cornish village. I fictionalised it and gave it another name as I wanted to play around with locations. Tom still lives in the village, but his sister Andi has moved to a village on the outskirts of Bristol, again a fictionalised setting based on a real place for the same reasons. Later in the novel, Tom goes to France and then onto Geneva in Switzerland. Tom’s stay in France is brief, but his visit to Geneva is more important. I chose Geneva for two reasons. The first was because I’ve visited the city and so I’m familiar with it, but the second reason it that the more obvious plot choice would be Zurich, but Liam is the type of character who doesn’t do the obvious thing and likes to irritate people, so Geneva it was.
Moving from one location to another in a book can involve other research. Tom has to make a speedy trip from Geneva to rural Cambridgeshire. Like myself, Tom doesn’t have a clue of the best route and so we both turned to Google. For good plot reasons Tom rules out flying and this means driving and a ferry. I researched the driving routes and times and the best ferry route for the destination. While the map sites are good, there is also a lot to be learned from looking through forums and travel sites where travellers happily share their experiences of real-time driving, times and conditions.
In the novel, this trip takes perhaps a page and most of that centres on Tom’s apprehension and anxiety over what he is doing (which is illegal), and that his sister and her daughters are being held by criminals. Perhaps the research is over the top, but I needed to know it was correct. There’s nothing worse than having real-world knowledge of a subject and reading something that’s wrong or impossible.
Is the research important? Readers have imaginations, and one of the delights of reading is that you are free to imagine the characters and the setting as you wish. I find that even if the author has described characters, my initial impressions are those that stick. However, I also enjoy reading about places I’ve never visited, and I hope that what I’m reading bears at least some resemblance to reality.