Sunday, 9 May 2010

The Mash-up Approach to Settings

If you've read When I Was Joe (and if not, why not?) then you'll know that a park and the playground equipment in it play an important part in the plot. Supposedly the park is in Hackney, near the homes of Ty and his friend Arron. It's a little patch of green in a deprived neighbourhood, a place to play that becomes a place of fear and horror when a killing takes place there.
Only two readers so far have spotted that the park actually exists, but it's not in Hackney. It's actually in leafier Crouch End, very near where I live. I suppose I could have spent ages researching Hackney parks, working out where Ty lived, and how he’d got in and out of the park. Instead I magically transferred my local park south and east, filled in the geography around it - the High Street where Ty lives to the south, Arron’s estate to the east - and found it easy to remember what went where when I wrote those scenes.
Similarly I suppose I could have found an actual high street for Ty to live in, and spent time describing the shops there. I didn’t. I had in mind various busy London streets – Stroud Green Road in Finsbury Park; the Lower Clapton Road. But really Ty’s home is based mainly on my experiences of living in a very different shopping street. CornelisSchuytstraat where we lived in Amsterdam is an exceptionally chi-chi boutiquey kind of street, where cardigans cost 200€ and the local food store only sells organic produce. But we lived above a shop - a travel agent - and from that I know how one makes friends with the shopkeepers, and lives with the smells and noise of their businesses. How as a parent one is more likely to leave children temporarily unattended - because they’re not really home alone when there’s an office full of adults in the same building. And how a street that is busy and bustling during the day is eerily empty at night.
The small town where Ty goes to live is deliberately bland and dull - in contrast to the multi-cultural kaleidoscope of London. Although geographically it’s further north, the small-town feel was definitely informed by the towns where I grew up and went to school, Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield. However the geography of the town was roughly based on Crouch End where I live - or at least on my daughter’s walk to school, just to help me remember whether the hills went up or down and where the High Street was in relation to Joe's home and school. The layout of Joe and Michelle's safe house however, came from the semi that my husband grew up in, in north Manchester.
So, I move houses and parks around. I merge streets and towns. Sometimes I home in on an actual place and try and describe it - the area around Finsbury Park station, for example, with its bowling alley and its mobile phone shops and gum-splattered pavements. At other times I’m deliberately vague and generic. To Ty, ‘outside London’ is a much blurrier fuzzier place than his home town.
Author Karen McCombie set her popular Ally's World series around Crouch End. Some readers make special trips to our area to see the clock tower, Alexandra Palace and other exciting features of the neighbourhood. My daughter was a big fan, and when we moved back to Crouch End from Amsterdam we did quite a few drives around trying to work out exactly where everyone lived. When I met Karen I was under orders to ask her for exact addresses. Of course they don’t exist….Ally’s world is a little addition to Crouch End’s existing streets.
Gillian Philip, author of the fabulous Crossing the Line and Bad Faith sets the latter, a dystopia about fundamentalist religion, in an unnamed Scotland. Her anonymous city setting powerfully reminded me of the tenement flat I used to own in Glasgow. Later Gillian and I became friends and I told her how much her book made me think of the Govanhill area of Glasgow. She was impressed as she’d based that aspect of the novel on her grandmother’s flat which was - yes! - in Govanhill. We checked further. I used to live one street away from Gillian’s granny.
Many authors write about actual real-life places and their work is enriched by a strong sense of place. Others delight in creating made-up worlds. My approach is a bit of a mash-up.
Anyway the fort in the park is falling apart. There's a consultation meeting to decide what happens to it. I'm hoping it'll be restored, just as it is. After all, it's in a book!


  1. In my debut novel Dead Frog on the Porch the setting is any town north america but is really a compilation of where I grew up, where I live now and parts of other cities. I think the real setting is a time when children had the freedom to ride their bikes around the neighbourhood and explore their surroundings.

  2. It's fiction...almost true..

  3. i kind of assumed it was north london! When I Was Joe is in a Listmania list I made of books set in north London! oh dear

  4. It's great to know where (or where not) Ty's home is based. Thanks for this!