Guest Post: Setting The Scene | Helen Grant
Helloooo folks, I am very lucky to have been blessed with another guest post from a very talented author. Helen Grant has agreed to a post all about locations and setting the scene. Don't forget to check out the fab photos that go along with this wonderful piece.
Setting the scene: location as inspiration
By Helen Grant
“Where do you get your ideas?” is a question most authors have probably heard at one time or another. The great ghost story writer M.R.James says “a dream furnished a suggestion” for one of his tales; T.R.Richmond’s What she left was inspired by a tweet.
My first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, was inspired by a place: Bad Münstereifel in Germany. Its topography forms the backdrop to the story and its legends are woven into the plot. The book evolved in a spontaneous way. I lived in Bad Münstereifel for seven years, came to know the myths and history of the town, and gradually the idea for the book suggested itself.
For subsequent books, I decided to get a little more proactive: I began to go out and look for ideas, in the kinds of places that I thought would be interesting and atmospheric. Over the years (and the five novels that succeeded The Vanishing of Katharina Linden), I have visited ancient churches, ruined castles, antiquarian libraries, a disused railway tunnel, two sets of catacombs, the Brussels sewers, a torture museum and an abandoned factory, to name some of the highlights. I’ve found these places incredibly inspirational – most of them have made appearances in my work.
But how does visiting a place that gives you a pleasant frisson of excitement translate into an actual story? For me, it’s about asking questions. When I was in the early stages of writing my Forbidden Spaces trilogy (which is all about urban explorers in Flanders who cross paths with a serial killer) I visited Ghent, where the second book (Demons of Ghent) is set. I was very taken with Saint Baaf’s cathedral, which is a really grand Gothic church with an extremely high bell tower. I remember looking up at this tower and thinking, wouldn’t it be awful to fall from the top of that? And then I became interested in that rather morbid idea, and started wondering how high it was exactly, and whether it was possible to climb up it at all, and so on.
So I went into the cathedral and asked one of the guides about it, and was told that the tower was only ever open for one week of the year, during the Ghent festival. During that week, obviously the city is very busy, and there are going to be a lot of tourists going up and down the tower. So if you were going to imagine a scenario in which someone either jumps or is pushed from the top, it probably shouldn’t happen in that week. Which means someone has to find a way of getting into the bell tower when it’s closed and locked. How would they do that? And when? Because you couldn’t very well stroll up to the door in the front of the cathedral, break in and climb the tower in broad daylight when the square was full of tourists.
It was asking these questions that formed what actually happens at the beginning of Demons of Ghent.
It had an influence on the shape of the trilogy as a whole because the first book, Silent Saturday, is about exploring the inside of abandoned buildings; using Saint Baaf’s cathedral for Demons of Ghent made me decide to take the action of the book up onto the towers and rooftops. It was then a logical conclusion to go underground, down into railway tunnels and sewers, for the final book, Urban Legends.
The beauty of using real locations is that you have endless reference material. Instead of trying to sketch out a fictional place in your head, you can concentrate on bringing the real one to vivid life for the reader. Often, visiting a place will bring out details you might not have imagined: the wind that whistles through a bell tower, because the windows are not glazed, or the carved calvary stone half-concealed by a forest track.
I’m currently working on a novel set in Scotland, where I now live, so I’ve been taking the opportunity to visit any place that strikes me as having dramatic potential: castles, ruined churches, standing stones, lonely forests with waterfalls tumbling through them. I know not every single one of those places is going to turn into a future story – but every trip is a small adventure. Looking for inspiration? I say: go out and search for it; it’s waiting somewhere.
About The Author
Helen Grant writes YA thrillers. Her first book, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, was shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Award. Her most recent work is the Forbidden Spaces trilogy set in contemporary Flanders. After a decade living abroad, Helen now lives in Scotland with her husband, two children and two indolent cats.
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