In a thriller, nowhere is safe…

This is a blog post I wrote on the importance of setting for The Asian Writer, and I thought would be most appropriate as I’ve just got back from a quick trip to the Lake District, where My Mother’s Secret is partly set.

 

There’s a thin band of cream silhouetting the cranes that hover over the half-built office blocks in the city centre. I head home, below an arc of houses that will be bright as jewels when the sun comes up. At this time of the day, it’s beautiful; the river is still, and seagulls fall above it, like flecks of confetti. 

 

I love Bristol, where I live, as anyone who’s read my first thriller, Bone by Bone, might be able to guess! For my third, My Mother’s Secret, I’ve returned to Bristol as a location, but also placed another character – Lizzie Bradshaw – in Leeds and the Lake District. The settings in my novels are extremely important to me, but I’m certain a well-drawn location enhances any book. Can you imagine Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children without the blooming buzzing confusion of Delhi, or Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney without the smell of money and crack-hustle of New York?

A detailed backdrop in fiction helps create a tangible world for one’s characters, as well as being a tool the writer can use to heighten tension or thicken the atmosphere. My main character, Emma Taylor, lives in a leafy suburb of Bristol: Long Ashton. The ‘world’ this woman inhabits tells us a lot about who we think she is: middle class, comfortably off, the kind of person who shops in M&S for a treat and takes her youngest daughter to ballet lessons. It seems calm, safe, secure. Emma, though, is tense and anxious: she’s hiding a secret from everyone she knows, so Long Ashton appears the perfect place for her. Similarly, her job as a baker makes us believe she’s in a cosy, comforting cafe, filled with the scent of bubbling yeast and buttery croissants. When the reader discovers the bakery is actually in a tunnel beneath a train station, it might, perhaps, start ringing alarm bells. In contrast, Belle Isle in Leeds city centre, where Lizzie Bradshaw works, really is a dark and dangerous place.

 

A couple of boys around thirteen, but already taller than her, were hanging about on the street corner, and there was another group of young men in the centre of the housing estate, smoking and swigging from cans. She could hear the wind, boxed in by the flats, moaning round the corners. Chocolate wrappers and newspapers rustled across the ground, and a Staffordshire terrier tied to a bench with rope growled at her through bared teeth. 

 

 

Stella, Emma’s fourteen-year-old daughter, is determined to discover what her mother’s secret is. She’s a spiky, book-obsessed girl, and constantly reads Jane Eyre to make herself feel less anxious. Many of the Bristol scenes take place at Tyntesfield, a gothic mansion near Long Ashton.

William Gibbs’ collection of curiosities is stacked up and draped in sheets, but my torch picks out a few that haven’t been covered up: a glass dome with tiny, stuffed hummingbirds, the smooth carapace of an ostrich eggshell, a jade-green ammonite. This would be the perfect place for someone to stalk us. There are so many hiding places. 

The architecture and the claustrophobia of the rooms mirror both Stella’s gothic obsession, and the escalating tension in Emma’s life. The suburbs and the city centre are densely populated: as Emma says, ‘I like being surrounded by people – it feels safe;’ Lizzie, who lives in a remote village in the Lake District, feels safe precisely because there is no one around. She tells DI Simon Duffield, ‘You can walk for miles and never see a soul. Please, let me go home. I’ll be safe there.’ But, of course, in a thriller, nowhere is safe and the places we feel most secure are often the most dangerous.

 

The editor of The Asian Writer interviewed me for her new podcast. I was her first guest! It’s here if you’d like to listen:

 

 

 

 

In praise of the National Trust

It’s perhaps no surprise that two of the settings in my third thriller, My Mother’s Secret, are based at National Trust sites. For me, the best part of being British is the National Trust. I love the fact that the charity preserves great swathes of our countryside (over 248,000 hectares), including parts of the Lake District, fens and forests, 775 miles of our coastline, as well as conserving nearly a million works of art and over 500 historic houses, castles and ancient monuments.

 

As a trained zoologist, what’s most important to me personally, is the investment in our wildlife. More than half of the species in this country are in decline and need help urgently. Peter Nixon, the National Trust’s Director of Land, Landscape and Nature, said, ’Birds such as the cuckoo, lapwing and curlew are part of the fabric of our rural heritage. But they’ve virtually disappeared from the countryside. We want to see them return to the fields, woods and meadows again, along with other wildlife which was once common and is now rare.’

I’m a keen walker, but not everyone can trek along our rocky Cornish coastline, or hike up Scafell; another aspect that I think is wonderful is how accessible the charity has made our heritage, whether you’re five or eighty-five. Plus the cakes in the tea rooms are pretty nice!

 

The spoken word flies away, the written word remains. 

         Inscription in Latin in Tyntesfield library

 

 

Many of the scenes in My Mother’s Secret are set at Tyntesfield, a gothic mansion and parkland just outside Bristol. Because I’m drawn to nature, I generally have some wildlife in my books (Paul Bradshaw’s son, Dylan, for instance, is helping Bristol University track foxes in Ashton Court), but also, as a thriller writer, I like the juxtaposition of urban and wilderness. As human beings, we’ve evolved to be frightened of being away from our tribe, of being on our own and in the dark in a forest or other wild place. Including these settings in a thriller feeds into the fear we feel when we read a tense passage, where the protagonist could be danger.

 

‘My voice bounces around the old stone walls, and the echoes make me even more scared. I’m crying properly now. How could he just go out and leave me? The pain drowns out my shame, just for a few moments. I take out my phone, but there’s no signal here. I’m starting to feel really frightened. I’m on my own in the dark, and no one knows where I am.’

Stella

 

I’m also interested in exploring what historic sites mean to us today: perhaps, as someone who is mixed-race, I feel this more acutely, but many were built using money from slavery. At the very least, the families that originally owned them, such as the Gibbs at Tyntesfield, inherited or made a fortune, whilst those less fortunate toiled in their fields or scrubbed their stairs for a pittance.

 

‘We drag our heels, going slower and slower, as the path winds steeply down through the ironically named Paradise, with its tree ferns and palms – all part of the Victorians’ plunder of Third World countries, to bring back rare stuff and show off. Everything is ornate. Even the benches are made of stone and carved with Tudor roses. All those poor people, chipping granite just to get some stale bread.’

Stella

However, I do think it’s important that these mansions and monuments are preserved, so that future generations understand where we came from and how many once lived – and that the surrounding estates and parklands are preserved to help our wildlife flourish.

 

sanjida oconnell pinterest

If you’d like to see some more photos of the settings that inspired me, do have a look at my Pinterest board.

 

 

 

 

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Party like a writer!

I’d love you to come to my book launch party if you can make it! It’s 7 p.m. Friday 11 May at Waterstones, Bristol. There’ll be readings from My Mother’s Secret, and since the lead character, Emma Taylor, is a baker, it’s only right and proper that we should have plenty of cake! There will also be fizz, beer and soft drinks to wash it down! It’s a free event, but do RSVP so we know how much cake to bake!

I will also be discussing plot at Novel Nights on 23 May at 7.30 p.m. and reading in one of the locations featured in the novel – Sticklebarn, Langdale in the Lake District on 26 May. Please check my Events page for details.

If you’re interested in finding out a bit more about what inspired me, have a look at this mini video, or take a look at In Conversation with…

 

My Mother’s Secret Q&A

If you’d like to download a free sample of chapter one and two, told from Emma, and her daughter’s perspective, they’re here:

My Mother’s Secret – Chapters 1 & 2

My Mother’s Secret is available to pre-order.

 

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