A Sense of Place

 I’m often asked where I get my ideas from, quickly followed by how do I create a character. Surprisingly, not many readers ask about the place in which the story is set and, if they do, they’re content with the name of a city, town or region. And that’s fine, but as a writer I need to know in detail the places where a character actually is while I write a scene.
My novels are set in either Manchester or Belfast; I’ve lived in both cities, and I know them well. So, one of the first things I do is to choose a street where the main character lives. Just doing this gives me an insight into the woman’s life. Then there’s her place of work, for example a specific factory, and her social life in dancehalls, cinemas, pubs… all authentic and used to create the atmosphere of WW2.
In ‘The Girl in the Pink Raincoat’ Gracie meets Jacob on a sunny Sunday in Heaton Park, just days before war is declared. I live ten minutes’ from there and, walking in their footsteps imagining the anti-aircraft guns and barrage balloons, it’s easy to conjure up the atmosphere and sense of foreboding. Sometimes I find an unknown location (usually on the internet when I’m looking for something else) and it suggests a whole new idea that’s just right for the story, like the internment camp in a disused cotton mill still standing, but now a business centre. And of course, even in wartime there are opportunities to get away from it all: a trip to Blackpool to fall in love; or a walk on the moors to mourn a death.
In my second Manchester novel, ‘The Girl from the Corner Shop’, the main character Helen goes from living above the family shop to joining the police force. On the beat, she experiences the hidden underbelly of the city dealing with vulnerable women and children, black marketeers, petty criminals. Many of the streets where she walked are still there, transformed into trendy restaurants and bars.
Writing my Belfast family sagas, the ‘Martha’s Girls’ trilogy, I loved spending time in the city where I grew up. The books were based on my family in WW2 and to be honest it was so easy to imagine it in that era. I went back to my grandmother’s house, the centre of the novels. I didn’t see inside, of course, but there was no need; I remembered it so well from when I was a child.
It’s eighty years since the war began, but walking through my cities it’s easy to see the wartime setting. The buildings that survived the blitz are still there: town hall, pubs, dancehalls, hotels, railway stations… and I like to think that a reader, with a little imagination, could easily walk in the footsteps of all my characters.


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