Okay. I’ll admit it. I am pretty damned lucky,
as Agent Cooper might say. My wife speaks three languages -- other than
English -- with perfect fluency, gets by in a couple more and, consequently,
travels a lot in her job. All over the world. And, when I’m able
to cobble together a cheap enough fare, I go with.
Which means that I’ve been to a lot of far-flung
corners of the globe. Which means that -- to use the word consequently
again -- I’ve written and sold stories set in the States, Hong
Kong, Zimbabwe, Japan, Central America, Eastern Europe and (in Issue
4 of This Way Up) the Caribbean. But I’ve also written stories
set in bad council estates, or on London Underground’s Northern
It’s all the same. Location.
And location isn’t just about being somewhere.
It’s about being there with feeling.
Meaning what? Okay, let’s take a look at a few
of the places I know pretty well, and yet have never set a story in.
Brussels. Cyprus. Stockholm. Geneva.
If you’re quick on the uptake, you’re
already beginning to get my drift.
Brussels is a nice place for an evening meal, a pleasant
walk afterwards. Cyprus provides some of the nicest low-budget beach
holidays you can imagine. Stockholm is -- during its brief summer --
the nicest warm city in the world.
One word keeps on coming up here, now doesn’t
it? And the word is 'nice'.
‘Nice’ does not a story make. ‘Nice’
is too detached. What we need is feeling like Agent Cooper’s coffee,
dark and strong.
I’ve been to Geneva -- one of the most pleasant
cities anywhere -- more than a dozen times, and have yet to pen a single
word about it. I’ve been to Hong Kong only once -- albeit for
almost three weeks -- and the tales keep on coming.
Some tips if you write and ever find yourself somewhere
interesting. Don’t just do the tourist bit. Don’t
route march around with a map from gallery to palace to museum and do
nothing else your whole time there. If you’re in a city, for instance,
learn the city. Sit around in cafes watching people passing by. Find
yourself some lively bars at night (it’s tough work, but someone
has to do it). Ditch the map, forget the landmarks, just follow your
nose. You might find yourself in trouble just occasionally, but you’ll
certainly see things, discover things, that 99% of tourists never even
Learn what makes the place and its people tick, in
other words. You might be partly wrong. Your perspective might be a
slightly skewed one, depending on what happens to you there. But a fiction
writer isn’t being asked for objectivity in the first place. People
want to know how you see things, what your particular twist
is on any given subject.
Learn the customs. Learn the food. Try to grasp a
little of the language -- and if you’re in Hungary, the best of
Try talking to people, if that’s at all possible.
Immerse yourself in the place you are. Try to live, just for a few days,
as much like a local as you can.
But hold it, Agent Cooper. Earlier on in this piece,
you said you’d set things at home as well. Council estates? Northern
It’s all the same thing, except you know it
better from the outset.
It’s what grabs you. What you really feel.
I’ve never set a story in -- say for instance
-- Bournemouth. Bournemouth’s ‘nice’. I’ve had
innumerable ‘nice’ evenings out in London, and they’ve
yet to generate an idea for a work of fiction.
Really bad council estates, however, give me -- and
everyone except the guys who make them really bad in the first place
-- the total creeps. I’ve had friends live on council estates
the London Evening Standard will refer to as ‘notorious'. And
so ‘The Lords of Zero’, set on one such, flowed extremely
easily from my fingertips, and sold straight away to Ramsey Campbell’s
The plight of London’s homeless has bothered
me for a long time. And so ‘Discards’ came out in half a
day, and remains the one story I’ve ever sold, immediately, to
You’re all getting my drift now? Location.
Which still leaves a problem. What if you don’t
have the opportunity to travel, and live somewhere which does nothing
much to quicken your pulse?
Okay, it’s like this. I live on the upper edge
of London. If I go into the heart of town for the evening I -- good
modern metropolitan that I am -- don’t drive in, I take the Tube.
The journey back -- late at night, usually in an empty
carriage -- is tedious beyond belief. The train emerges aboveground
past Highgate, and rattles along at what seems a snail’s pace
for the last few stops. There’s nothing much interesting to see
-- a few darkened allotments, the back lights of people’s houses.
But isn’t boredom a strong feeling? Doesn’t
the creative mind start filling in the void with ‘what if’?
What if something interesting -- even interesting
in a nasty way -- were suddenly to happen?
Couple this with a lifelong fear of large, ill-tempered
mutts, and the next thing I know, I’m writing a new tale about
a pack of spectral hounds who attack lonesome travellers on the Northern
Line at night.
I’ll let you know when that one’s due
out. It’s called ‘Lightning Dogs’. And it's just a
story. I hope.
Location. With feeling.
This article first appeared in 2002 in This Way Up
Copyright © 2002 Tony Richards