Location, location, location – Debbie Johnson

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By Debbie Johnson

The phrase ‘location, location, location’ doesn’t just relate to a popular TV property show. It’s also an essential element of fiction writing. Try and imagine Poldark without Cornwall; or Wuthering Heights without Yorkshire, or Sherlock Holmes without London. It just doesn’t work, does it?

The thing that all these books have in common is the way the authors blended fact and fiction – taking their characters and storylines, and placing them in such vividly described locations that you can almost imagine you are there with them. You can practically feel the wind in your hair; smell the sea, hear the horse-drawn carriages rattling over cobblestones.

Part of this is down to bloody good writing. But part of it is down to choosing settings that readers are already familiar with, perhaps have an image of in their minds, and can respond to. It’s one of the most important decisions you’ll make when it comes to your book, so think it through carefully!

I’m lucky enough to live in Liverpool, an incredibly diverse, vibrant, beautiful and internationally known city. In terms of location, it’s a dream: gorgeous coastline, historic buildings, a sense of heritage, maritime connections, and an intriguing blend of both glamour and urban deprivation.

My first two books were both modern-day fantasy novels, along the lines of True Blood, but set in 21st century Liverpool. I also set a supernatural crime thriller here. I simply couldn’t ask for a better place – helped, of course, by the fact that I know it like the back of my hand. Possibly even better, as I don’t spend that much time looking at the back of my hand! I know its nooks and crannies, its hidden side-streets, its secrets – and I loved being able to share them with my characters and my readers.

For another book, I managed to get a grant and spend some time in New York, where I paid for a walking tour that targeted the specific types of places I was interested in. As it turns out, a lot of them were Irish pubs, which is nice work if you can get it.

Not everyone is so lucky. Not everyone has a Liverpool, or a Cornwall, or Caribbean island that they call home. The place you know best might be an average town in an average county in an average place. You can either choose to take that average and make it something special, or you can choose to relocate – at least in your imagination!

Since then, I’ve written books set in all kinds of places – Scotland, Turkey, Chicago, Oxford, Cornwall and Dorset among them. Some of those places I knew extremely well, and some I didn’t. While nothing quite beats first-hand experience, that magical creation called The Internet has made it easier than ever for us writers to cast our net wider. I’m not suggested that a quick root through Google images will give you enough information to get away with a whole book – but certainly a few scenes!

Certain locations, especially in women’s fiction, just seem to be incredibly and enduringly popular. Cornwall, for example – a quick browse on Amazon reveals there are probably as many fictional people living there as real ones. New York always seems to be a winner. Places with beaches and/or glamour, like Paris or the Riviera, come up time and time again.

When I decided to locate my 2016 book Summer at the Comfort Food Café in Dorset – a relatively quiet place on the South coast of England, certainly not known that well internationally – I wasn’t sure how people would react. I know the area well, love it, and always feel deeply inspired by it. It’s rugged and beautiful and wild and just about perfect – but it ain’t Cornwall.

As it turns out, the book was a huge hit – and I received a lot of lovely emails and comments in reviews about the vivid descriptions. I allowed people to imagine they were there – and some readers, off the back of that, even went and booked holidays there, which is the ultimate compliment!

I’m hoping that in my own small way, I’ve given people not only some escapism in terms of my story and characters, but also through a sense of place. It doesn’t matter where you live in the real world, you can escape it in a good book – and a great location is one of the absolute foundations. So think long, think hard, and choose well – because done properly, your location can almost be used an extra character.

Debbie Johnson is a best-selling author who lives and works in Liverpool. She worked as a journalist for many years, until deciding it would be more fun to make up her own stories. After trying her hand at pretty much every genre of writing other than Westerns and spy dramas, she has settled on women’s fiction. Her books include The Birthday That Changed Everything, Pippa’s Cornish Dream, and Summer at the Comfort Food Cafe, all published by HarperCollins. She also ghost-wrote model and presenter Abbey Clancy’s debut novel, Remember My Name. Her next book, Christmas at the Comfort Food Cafe is out now.


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