Locations – Real or imaginary?
I am a BWL Publishing Inc author and since joining BWL Publishing Inc. I have had a new book published every year.
You can find my books on my BWL author page https://bwl.net/grieve-roberta ,
I have always loved telling stories and my earlier books were set in Sussex where I have lived for about 50 years.
I used fictional Sussex towns but with a little bit of reality thrown in. I often have people ask me where the real place is so parts are obviously recognisable but when I first started writing I was hesitant to use real settings in case I made mistakes.
More recently I have turned nostalgically to the place where I grew up – the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. - and I wanted to write a story set there.
And here it was that I ran into a problem. Could I rely on my memories of the place to get it right? As my stories are set in the past I could probably get away with the odd mistake. But i wanted my stories to sound authentic. Should I fictionalise the location or stick to the facts – real street names, areas?
Best selling author Kate Mosse says ‘every novel starts with a place. I create an imaginary character and put them in a real place.’ Her books are set in the south of France where she lives part time and in Sussex, her home county.
Crime writer Peter Lovesey’s detective novels are set in Bath and every location he uses is authentic. He even runs guided walks in the footsteps of his detective Peter Diamond.
For me, too, location is an important part of the story. I need a setting which I can see in my imagination and then I can people the landscape with my characters.
So when I embarked on ‘Madeleine’s Enterprise’ which is set at the turn of the 19th century, I pictured the long winding High Street of Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey. Madeleine’s house near the church is a product of my imagination but the street leading down to the estuary is real.
How would it have changed in the hundred years since Madeleine lived there? Apart from the parked cars, it hasn’t changed much. The Guildhall with its clock and the old houses, many of them former public houses, are still there.
Here is a snippet from ‘Madeleine’s Enterprise’. She has just decided to pawn her grandmother’s locket to pay off some of her late father’s debts .- a difficult decision.
‘Madeleine dressed soberly and covered her gown with a shawl. Opening the heavy front door, she glanced cautiously up and down the road before venturing outside. At the front gate she looked back at the house. Creek View was a fine red brick mansion with white painted sash windows arranged either side of the oak front door.
The stables, barn and other outbuildings showed signs of neglect and, with a sigh, she turned away and started down the long High Street towards the waterfront. Passing the ancient Guildhall and the church, she reached the hard where barges and schooners moored to load and unload their cargoes. Clustered around the hard, where the creek met the sea, were a couple of public houses, a few shops and the pawnbrokers. She had seldom ventured down here in recent years. When she was a child her maid, Tilly, had often taken her to see the ships come in and watch her father’s goods being unloaded.’
The scene is little changed today, except that the boats are more likely to be pleasure craft plying the estuary.
Knowing the island so well I told myself I wouldn’t need to do much research. How wrong can you be? I soon discovered how memory can play you false. However, it was a labour of love. I found out so much about the history of my home town, filled notebooks with facts about the island’s naval history, the new light railway which ran across the marshes to the eastern end of the island and which only lasted for a few years. I discovered things I hadn’t known when I lived there.
When I finished ‘Madeleine’s Enterprise’ I had so much information about the island’s history that I just had to write another book set in that location. Sheerness, with its naval dockyard town and army garrison was the perfect setting for a wartime story and so ‘Daisy’s War’, the first in the ‘Family at War’ series, was born.
Although I did not live on Sheppey during the war, telling Daisy’s story was like walking in my childhood footsteps. Her home is a mirror image of the one I lived in before I got married and her friend Lily’s house is a cottage in a warren of back streets where we lived when we first came to the island. The cottages are long gone, replaced by blocks of flats and a new road.
Although my story is set in wartime, here is a scene familiar to me from my own childhood in the 1950s. Daisy is walking back to her work in the Garrison NAAFI accompanied by her father.
‘When they reached the high Street, they joined the human tide of Dockyard workers going back for the afternoon shift. Many were on bicycles, others walking, a sight familiar to Daisy from her childhood.
When her father had worked in the Dockyard, Daisy and her brother Jimmy had often taken him a packet of sandwiches for his dinner. She had always enjoyed seeing the huge ships in the dry dock, hearing the clanging of hammers and inhaling the smell of paint as the men swarmed over the hulls repairing and painting.’
I worried constantly that I had gotten it wrong. I wanted to paint a picture of a close community where most men worked in the dockyard or went to sea. I could see the little streets, a pub on every corner, and the long seafront with its views over to Southend. I could see it all in my mind’s eye and hoped my readers could too, especially those friends and family who still live there and who I hoped would read my books.
When it came to writing ’Sylvia’s Secret’, the sequel to ‘Daisy’s War’, I had to do much more research as well as use my imagination. Daisy’s sister Sylvia is in the WAAFs, doing secret work at a large country house in Buckinghamshire, somewhere I’ve never visited. I hoped to visit Medmenham House, now a hotel, to do on the spot research but it was impossible during the Covid lockdown. Reading and online research had to suffice with a little bit of imagination thrown in. I hope it rings true for my readers.
Here is Sylvia arriving at her new posting with her friends –
‘The house was set back some distance from the road and they walked up a long drive which curved between immaculate lawns, dotted with sculpted yews. As they reached their destination, Sylvia gazed around in awe at the mansion, gleaming white in the sunshine, with its two towers, bay windows, and the ornate chimneys. It was completely outside her experience and she could hardly believe she would be living in such a posh place.
A guard at the front door inspected their papers and directed them to a side door. Apparently only senior officers and Ministry personnel used the main entrance. Inside, they were greeted by a WAAF officer who introduced herself as SO Forsyth. She led them outside again. ‘Your quarters are in the huts,’ she said, pointing across the grounds. ‘I’ll take you.’
Sylvia was a little disappointed that they would not be sleeping in the main house, but she followed the others along a path to the rear of the building.
‘Just like home,’ Julia joked as they came in sight of a row of Nissen huts like the ones where they’d been billeted in Norfolk.’
Now it’s back to the Isle of Sheppey for the third book in the series which I have just started. ‘Out of the Shadows’ continues the story of the Bishop sisters. The war is nearing its end and a new way of life beckons. I’ll be walking in my childhood footsteps for this one but I mustn’t let my memories take over. Memories can lay you false so there will be a lot of fact checking ahead.