A sense of ‘place’: how accurate do you need to be?

I live in Cumbria, the most north-westerly county of England, and one of the most beautiful. Both sides of my family came from here, it was the place where all my childhood holidays were spent, and when I moved back here to live twelve years ago it felt like coming homeWasdale.

When I decided, just after moving here, that I would write the novel I’d been planning for years, there was no doubt where it would be set. This place is essential to the world in my head that drives my stories. But I was wary of making the immediate location of my story too identifiable: my neighbours, the community I am part of, might not take kindly to being so clearly recogniseable, and as an ‘offcomer’ I didn’t want to sour the relationships that are important in a rural environment. So I anonymised my village, changing its features slightly and giving it a new name. When the action moved further afield those worries receded and I included real places, with their real names. In fact many of the people who read my books love to follow the locations. It’s as if my mention of places they know, peopled by imaginary characters, validates where they live.

That’s fine as long as the characters are reasonably real and mostly well-intentioned. But when I turned to crime fiction for my fourth book, I had bad people doing bad things, and didn’t want to upset the current inhabitants of my locations, so I anonymised the specific locations yet again, even though the physical geography of the area remained the same, recogniseable to anyone who knows the area.Lakes national park map

Changes of name are one thing, but actually changing the landscape of this area strikes me as quite different. It breaks the authenticity that a sense of place in fiction demands. If the setting is all a figment of your imagination, you can do what you like with it. But if you say that this is, for example, a Cumbrian story, then I feel that you should respect the land that is called Cumbria and not mess with it. At least that’s my view.

One crime story I read was ostensibly set in the Lake District, the national park located within Cumbria, but the writer didn’t seem to know the area well at all. He had travel distances and times between places that bore no relation to reality. He had wildlife that didn’t belong there. The lack of authenticity annoyed me so much that I put the book down.

Recently I heard another author talking about his novels, also based in the Lake District, although he lived elsewhere. He was so keen not to locate his stories in anywhere recogniseable that he actually changed the landscape, including new valleys and hills that couldn’t be found on the map. For some reason, I found this hard to take, perhaps because he was messing with a place so important to me. This sounds petty, but the landscape is so precious and eternal that I don;t want it to be treated like that. We create fictional people, of course, but landscape that is half real and half a fabrication? No, not for me.

Is this too precious? I wasn’t even even born here and I’m being proprietorial about the place. But the fact remains that I don’t want to read books in which the setting is an invention, despite the title that claims that the setting is real.


How important is ‘the horse’s mouth’




‘The horse’s mouth’…where did that phrase come from? And how did it come to mean ‘authentic first-hand information’? However that happened, I’m learning yet again just how powerful such information is when writing a story set in the recent past.

The first novel I wrote was set in 1937, too far back for me to find real people to talk to about how they lived their lives, and I had to be content with first hand accounts in print. The next one, set in 1947, lent itself to listening to people who were around at the time and had stories to tell. I also found the transcript of the National Coal Board’s enquiry into the pit accident in Whitehaven in August 1947 which provided first hand testimony in the witnesses’ own words. By the time I reached the third novel, set in and around the Windscale nuclear power plant in 1957, I was able to find loads of people who remembered the reactor fire there in rich detail, as well as Youtube footage and other contemporary accounts.

The first two crime novels, ‘Cruel Tide’ and ‘Fatal Reckoning’ were set locally but dealt with the issue of institutional child abuse, of which they were no cases from my chosen area that I could draw upon. I relied instead on the report of the enquiry into events at the Kincora boys’ home in Belfast, and the news items that are painfully frequent as historic cases are uncovered.

The novel I’m working on now is set during the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in Cumbria. There are two sets of factual details I have to get right. One is about the disease itself and its impact on the area. The other is about methods of policing at that time, so that I can ensure that the ‘crime detection’ aspects of the novel are accurate. Family dramas are as old as the hills, but the contexts in which they play out change with the times.

The historian in me loves digging around to find the the best information, and although books and online research are useful there’s really nothing as rich or satisfying as listening to people who lived through the events I’m describing. So far I’ve talked in depth to two CID people who were serving officers in Cumbria at that time, a local vet who played a significant role right through the FMD outbreak, and a man whose job it was to value the farm animals before they were killed. Incidentally, some of the animals were actually free of the disease but were victims of the need to prevent its spread. The memories of my interviewees are raw: it was both cathartic and painful to share them with me. Next I’ll be talking to another person, who liaised with the army and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (as it was in 2001), and to a forensics expert who was professionally active at that time.

The end product of all this activity will be a novel which will also hopefully be a chronicle of a particular time and place, and a community in crisis. This is the community I will live in for the rest of my life and it’s very close to my heart. I owe it to the people here to get it right, and to weave the fictional story and the factual background together in a way that does justice to both. It’s the people, – their memories, their insights and the words they use – that bring life and authenticity to the writing. It’s also one the most fascinating part of my various writing projects, and I’m really grateful to those who are willing to talk to me.

And I still don’t know how and why it came to be known as ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’.

Do you?horse-289x300


Talking about the 2001 catastrophe in Cumbria

Does it help to talk about a catastrophe years later?

The 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in Cumbria Burning Secret Flyerwas undoubtedly a catastrophe, and mention of it can still stir a wide range of emotions – sadness, anger, and fear are commonplace among my neighbours and farmers across the county. We could deal with all that by saying nothing, or by remembering and sharing memories and giving ourselves permission to move on. It’s not mawkish or self-indulgent or false to talk about bad times. They happened, people and animals suffered, children were traumatised, businesses were lost, lives were changed.

My novel ‘Burning Secret’ is not based on Foot and Mouth, but the outbreak serves as a backdrop and a catalyst to the story. Here I am talking recently about that to Paul Teague, a Cumbria writer who recalls the events of 2001 as vividly as I do. Click the link to hear our conversation, part of a longer interview that will air later this month.

Here’s another link, to the ‘Unbound’ site where you’ll find all the details about ‘Burning Secret’ and how to pledge your support for its publication, for which I will be very grateful. Thanks.



Do readers need a ‘friend’ if the context is complicated?

Three years ago I was in the final stages of writing my third novel Fallout, which had as its backdrop the nuclear reactor accident at Windscale in Cumbria in October 1957.windscale-disaster-6-638

Deciding on that context for a story about finding love in later life was a gamble. For a start, the background might end up being much more interesting than the main story line. And dealing with a real event was always going to be tricky. It’s a touchy subject here in Cumbria even after sixty years: the final report on the incident used a phrase about ‘local errors of judgement’ that still rankles. (Actually the phrase was inserted into the report by the Macmillan government as a way of explaining the incident to the Americans without blaming the government’s own rushed reactor building programme.) And of course, because it was a ‘real’ incident within living memory it was essential for me – a local ‘offcomer’ – to get the facts right.

The inside story of the reactor fire was a complicated technical issue. How was I going to help the non-scientific reader to understand what was really going on, and why the key the decisions were made? The plan was to place a character on the inside of the Windscale whose job was to ask questions about the operation of the reactor. This character would act as the reader’s ‘friend’, gathering information in an intelligible way. in ‘Fallout’ this character was Lawrence Finer, seconded to Windscale from Harwell, the nuclear research facility near Oxford.

In my next book  ‘Burning Secret’ I face the same issue – explaining farming to a non-farming readership, and then clarifying the complications of a catastrophic infection that decimated our farm animals in 2001. I need a character that acts as the ‘guide’ to a specialist subject for a non-specialist audience. Talking to a local dairy farmer last week it occurred to me how to handle this. dairy_farmerLarge dairy farms often employ people to help with milking and the care of the herd, but during the outbreak restrictions were introduced that made it impossible for dairy farm workers to work normally, going home after work and coming back the next day. This particular farm asked a family friend from Liverpool to come and stay on the farm for the duration to help them, and the young man had no experience of farming life. He reacted to the everyday routines of the farm as you or I might, noticing things that the farmers took for granted, asking naive questions, making mistakes through lack of experience. In literary terms, this character’s function is somewhere between the Greek chorus and the gravediggers in Hamlet, and more emotionally detached than the farmers themselves as the outbreak spread ever closer. In a crime story, as this will be, the ‘stranger’ can also be a useful source of tension and mystery. Let’s see how it all turns out.

Authentic local setting: useful or off-putting?

It was a wild and snowy night, with a full moon wierdly visible through the snow, as I drove to a readers’ group meeting at Grange-over-Sands library on Thursday and spoke to the hardy souls who turned up. Talking about the new book ‘Fatal Reckoning’ grange-librarywithout giving away most of the plot was a challenge, so I relied on questions to pick up what my ‘audience’ wanted to discuss. ‘You obviously like to use specific local settings,‘ said one, ‘but what about people who nothing about the place? Doesn’t that specificity make them feel excluded and put them off?’

It’s a good question, and one that’s been on my mind for a while. Many of my most enthusiastic readers are local to the region of West Cumbria that I love and have used as the setting for all my books so far. The area has everything a story backdrop should have – interest, historical depth, variety, beauty and even controversy, in the local nuclear industry based around Sellafield. Occasionally I have to anonymise the community I’m writing about, but mostly the place names and the details are precise, and that’s what many of my readers enjoy. They haven’t seen references to their own home turf in novels before, and it’s great fun to recall them in your mind’s eye as you read.

But there’ll be many more readers – I hope – for whom the area is unknown and the specific references immaterial. Honestly, I don’t think this detracts from their reading pleasure. All of us read about places we don’t know, and accept the author’s word about what the settings look like. Too much description is a drag, but we appreciate enough detail to picture the scene, whether the setting is authentic or not. We enjoy finding out more about the setting of a good book: evocations of Ann Cleeve’s Shetland or Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh add immeasurably to the reading experience.

For me, setting is important on a number of levels. For all readers it provides the visual context of the story, adding colour and depth to the ‘events’. Sometimes, setting is so crucial that it becomes almost a character in itself. CRUEL_TIDE COVER frontIn my first crime novel ‘Cruel Tide’ the vast mudflats of Morecambe Bay and its sneaking tides are central to the plot. This can be achieved whether or not the reader knows the area herself. Local knowledge is not and should not be essential, but it adds another layer of enjoyment for some readers. This is especially so when the locality has previously been neglected in fiction, which I feel West Cumbria has been. Cumbria has been celebrated by many writers and poets, but not the west of the county, where the mountains meet the Irish Sea and seams of coal stretch further west under the waves. Coal and ore mining have gone, steel and iron works have closed, ship building has been replaced by nuclear submarines and commercial fishing is a shadow of past prominence, but the fascination of this coastal area continues and cries out to be shared. My next writing project may be different in characters and genre, but I’ve no doubt the setting will be the same, and hope it will be appreciated whether the readers are familiar with it or not.

How important is ‘authenticity’?


  1. I want to write a crime series based in Cumbria.
  2. I want to have a female detective, who needs to be at least at sergeant and better still at inspector level.
  3. I want to keep clear of the technical complications of the DNA, Police and Criminal Evidence Act and the introduction of computerised data.

But… there were no female detectives in Cumbria until the 1990s. So, something has to give. Does authenticity matter, or could I introduce a female detective earlier than it actually happened? Ironically, the Cumbria police force now has plenty of high-status female detectives, including one with the wonderful surname of Thundercloud, but this is now and that was then. So what to do? My reluctant conclusion is that authenticity does matter: I must stick with my physical setting of West Cumbria because it’s so important to me, and so the time setting has to move into the mid/late 1990s. All the necessary research is unavoidable, but I can do it. Should be fun to discover how life has changed over the past twenty years.


Fact, fiction, and genre expectations

At the Words by the Water festival in Keswick last week, we were able to witness two versions of the same real events and thereby to compare them. The events in question concerned the life and work of  Alan Turing, the mathematical genius whose work enabled the German ‘enigma’ code to be cracked during World War 2. The first presentation came from Turing’s nephew Dermot Turing who gave us five ‘myths’ about his uncle and proceeded to use his detailed knowledge of the family and the history to replace these myths with something closer to the truth. His talk was followed by a showing of ‘The Imitation Game’ a 2014 film ostensibly about Turing’s life and war work, and the events leading up to Turing’s death by suicide in 1954.

At the end of his talk, Dermot Turing urged us to enjoy the film we were about to see, but warned us that the Alan Turing we were going to see portrayed was not, perhaps, the real man, but a filmic construct. He didn’t use those words: in fact he was very polite about a film that demonstrated each of the five myths that he had previously been at pains to deconstruct. No point in railing against it, I suppose, although I doubt whether my reaction would have been so measured.

The film was much heralded when it was released. I can’t recall all the fulsome epithets used by the critics, but some of them at least thought it was very good. But did it actually tell the story accurately? No. In some crucial respects, the needs of the film, the demands of the genre and the presumed expectations of the audience clearly over-rode any semblance of historical accuracy. One example: Turing was already working on the German code before the war began and had cracked it by 1941, but in the film the breakthrough is beset by technical and political difficulties and wasn’t achieved until much later in the war, as the need for it became ever more urgent, creating a false tension that never actually happened.

The script – in my view – was dire, cliche-ridden and sentimentalised. I checked later: the scriptwriter was American and born in 1981. To what extent, I wondered, were both the script and the unfolding of the story affected by the demands of the 3 act structure so beloved of film-makers: – the ersatz crises, the bullying army officer, the cynical MI6 man, the fresh-faced young man who had by some fluke turned up in the code-breaking team. And then there was Keira Knightley as the only woman on the team. Words fail me. Why her, again? I assume I was expected to suspend my disbelief for the sake of the story, but instead I was increasingly  irritated by the whole sorry mess.

On the way out I began thinking about my own attempts to weave real events into a fictional setting, and whether I too should be castigated for sacrificing authenticity in pursuit of a good tale. The issue is most pronounced in the third book of my West Cumbrian trilogy ‘Fallout’, which is set against the backdrop of the nuclear reactor fire at Windscale in October 1957. I had 90,000 words rather than an two hour film script to play with, but still the responsibility to portray the real events as accurately as I could weighed heavily on me, for two reasons. First, it was a point of pride that I got my facts right. And second, Windscale is just a few miles up the coast from where I live and the fire happened not that long ago, within my memory and those of many people who live around me in this area. You can’t, and shouldn’t, muck about with the known facts when many of them are known by so many. My research was careful and meticulous. Even if it made a better story I couldn’t make the fire last longer, or less long, or do more damage, or require intervention beyond the means of the local men who managed to get it under control. So why did the makers of ‘The Imitation Game’ claim to use a real story, take such liberties with it, and get away with it? I can be very critical of my own attempt to blend fact and fiction but at least I tried to respect the events rather than abuse them.

Historical fiction that purports to represent real events raises particular challenges when those events are within living memory. It’s something I’d like to think more about as a writer, and try not to imitate ‘The Imitation Game’.