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.
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 Line.
all the same. Location.
location isn't just about being somewhere. It's about being there
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.
you're quick on the uptake, you're already beginning to get my drift.
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.
word keeps on coming up here, now doesn't it? And the word is 'nice'.
does not a story make. 'Nice' is too detached. What we need is
feeling like Agent Cooper's coffee, dark and strong.
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.
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 know about.
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
the customs. Learn the food. Try to grasp a little of the language --
and if you're in Hungary, the best of luck!
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.
hold it, Agent Cooper. Earlier on in this piece, you said you'd set
things at home as well. Council estates? Northern Line?
all the same thing, except you know it better from the outset.
what grabs you. What you really feel.
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.
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 new anthology.
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 F&SF.
all getting my drift now? Location. With feeling.
still leaves a problem. What if you don't have the opportunity to
travel, and live somewhere which does nothing much to quicken your
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.
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.
isn't boredom a strong feeling? Doesn't the creative mind start
filling in the void with 'what if'?
if something interesting -- even interesting in a nasty way -- were
suddenly to happen?
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.
let you know when that one's due out. It's called 'Lightning Dogs'.
And it's just a story. I hope.