Location always plays an integral role in all my novels, whether it be the ravished shores of Thailand during the 2004 tsunami in The Atlas of Us or the eerie underwater world of submerged forests in My Sister’s Secret.
And it’s no different with my latest novel The Family Secret (The Girl on the Beach in the US), which is set in several locations such as a wintry British seaside town, a stunning loch in Scotland and the ice beaches of Iceland.
Location is so crucial for building tension and atmosphere. Here are five ways I do that:
1. Use all the senses
I learnt this one while working as a travel journalist. It’s not just about what you see, but also what you hear, smell, taste and touch.
Take a Scottish lodge that features a lot in The Family Secret, for example. This is how wildlife documentary maker Gwyneth experiences it the first time she walks in:
'I was instantly struck by the contrast between the house’s chilly exterior and warm interior: inviting oak panelling, the smell of an open fire and Christmas spices, the delicious warmth of its air compared to the icy white setting outside. A large patterned rug lay in the middle of the hallway, and two wooden stairways swept up towards a balconied landing. Another Christmas tree stood at the back of the hall, so high the star at the top reached the top of the railing on the balcony. A stag-antler chandelier hung from the ceiling on chains, golden lights glistening. It was just Dylan and I in the hallway, but I could hear talking in the distance, laughter, the faint trace of Christmas music tinkling from speakers. I could also hear people walking around on the floorboards above me.'
As you can see, I used all the senses so the reader feels they themselves have stepped into that lodge.
2. Bad things can happen to beautiful places
I love writing about beautiful places which have something rotten beneath the surface. In The Family Secret, that Scottish lodge looks like the perfect location for a festive gathering, perched on the stunning loch with snow-tipped mountains beyond. But that loch, despite its beauty, can also be a death-trap when iced over, as Gwyneth discovers the first time she's there and falls through the ice. As I write, the loch ‘shone beneath the moonlight, as menacing as it was beautiful’.
3. Don’t worry toooo much about weather clichés
Authors are always warned off using weather in obvious ways when writing, especially when opening up a novel. But when it comes to scaring the bejesus out of readers, clichés – especially weather clichés – can work to a writer’s advantage. In The Family Secret, I use the increasing snowfall to create a mounting sense of tension and claustrophobia. In fact, the whole season of winter is used to enhance the effect of the locations with the potential for cracking ice and stifling snowfall.
4. Treat location like a villainous character
Okay, confession time. I sometimes plan my novels using Excel. And in every Excel worksheet I set up for a novel is a section on characters. And in that section is where I place all my notes about the location of my novel because (and you’ll hear this from a lot of writers) I treat location like a character. In The Family Secret, location becomes the main characters’ friend and their foe. Like Winterton Chine, the pretty festive seaside village where gift shop owner Amber discovers a girl walking barefoot on the icy beach with no memory of who she is or where she came from. Amber loves the place, it’s where she grew up and lives. But equally, the town can be a constant reminder of difficulties in her past. That loch is also a character on its own with the potential to claim lives beneath its hard icy surface.
5. You don’t have to write what you know
Yep, it’s nice to have an excuse to go on a jolly and visit the places I write about... and many times I have. But it’s not essential. I’m a writer after all, I like to use my imagination! I hadn’t visited the submerged forests I described in My Sister’s Secret, for example. I did it from online research and pure imagination. It’s the same for The Family Secret. I haven’t yet been to Iceland, one of the main locations, but I know people who have so picked their brains about it and did lots of online research. The location of Winterton Chine is, however, based on the lovely Alum Chine in Dorset which I visited during the Christmas I started writing the novel. Any excuse for a mulled wine on the beach, I'm pictured here with my daughter during the visit!
Right, I think that’s it, I’m off to lie on my chaise lounge (yes, I really have one!) and imagine the world of my next novel…
To pre-order The Family Secret, click here.