SARAH LINLEY’s debut crime fiction thriller, The Beach was inspired by a two-year backing adventure around South-East Asia with her husband.
She tells The Crime Hub about her journey to publication and the importance of setting in crime fiction.
Location, Location, Location
In 2017, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to go backpacking around South-East Asia with my husband (a mid-life opportunity, not a crisis!). My debut novel, The Beach, was inspired by the places we visited and will be published in February 2020 by HarperCollins.
It’s the story of a primary school teacher living and working in the Yorkshire Dales. Five years earlier, she went backpacking around Thailand with her friends from University. But among the sun, sea and sand, something went horribly wrong…
Setting a crime novel in two very different locations has been challenging, but rewarding, and has taught me a lot about the importance of setting when writing crime fiction.
The journey to publication
The first novel I wrote was a romantic comedy set in Leeds. Not that you would know it. There was not a single mention of the setting in the whole book. Unsurprisingly, this novel didn’t get published. In my second attempt to write a book, this time crime fiction, I set the action in a town I had absolutely no knowledge of. I thought it would give me perspective; it didn’t.
Sitting down to write my third book – which eventually became my debut novel – I had a bit of lightbulb moment. Why not follow the age-old advice and write about what I know? I know and love the Yorkshire Dales. I have lived and worked in Yorkshire all my life. What better place to set a novel? And why not contrast that with Thailand, a place I have visited several times? I started to spot parallels between the two settings. For example, water plays a vital role in both these locations. It literally shapes the landscapes that attract tourists from around the world. It is both beautiful and deadly – not a bad combination for a psychological thriller!
Suddenly, the book had a life of its own. In many ways, setting was the catalyst for the whole plot. There are, after all, many ways to get away with murder in the Yorkshire Dales. There are precipices, lonely country roads, dangerous rivers and remote hillsides where no-one can hear you scream…
Setting as character
It’s not rocket science to know that setting plays a vital role in creating atmosphere in a novel. The prime example of that is of course Wuthering Heights and you can’t imagine the Inspector Morse books set anywhere but Oxford. It is also pivotal to the plot. For a crime novelist, it’s rare to find a setting where there are lots of areas without mobile phone coverage, where bad weather can cut off an entire village, and where there is little in the way of CCTV for example.
So far, so good but to really make setting work, it’s important to see it through your characters’ eyes. Exploring South-East Asia as a middle-aged married couple is very different from a young single backpacker, fresh out of University. When I was writing about the destinations I had visited, I had to really think about how my character would have felt seeing these places for the first time and try not to let my own perceptions get in the way.
A beta reader, who is also a writer, pointed out that in my first draft, my descriptions of Thailand sounded like they came out of a travel brochure. She encouraged me to ditch them all and write what I actually saw. One miserable day in Thailand (it was out of season and had been raining for a week), I sat on the beach for an hour, trying to think of an accurate, truthful description of the colour of the sea. The best I could come up with was dirty dishwater. I kept the description in the novel because it was real, authentic. It was different.
Realism v Fiction
Setting your story in a real place works for a lot of crime writers. I am a huge admirer of A. A. Dhand and I love the fact that I know exactly where he has set his murders. I walk past them every day!
However, creating a fictional village, like I did, has its advantages. You can pick and choose your geography. You can move bridges and mountains around to suit your story and you don’t have to worry about offending the people who live there (particularly if they’re your neighbours!).
It’s not always possible to visit the place where you set your novels, but you can do a lot of research online. I looked at reviews and pictures on TripAdvisor to find out more about backpacker hostels in Thailand and looked at estate agent websites to find the type of houses in which my characters live. Including details such as the names of birds and flowers creates an allusion of authenticity.
But it is possible to get too tied down by realism. You are writing a piece of fiction. It doesn’t have to be true; it only has to be believable. There are very few real-life murders in the Yorkshire Dales, thankfully, but that doesn’t hinder the writers on Emmerdale!
‘Tis the season
Choosing the time of year in which to set your novel can also help to shape the plot. Bonfire Night, Hallowe’en and Christmas Eve are all important set pieces in my novel. It wouldn’t be the same book if I had set it in Spring or Summer.
What is the weather actually like at the time of year in which your novel is set? How often, realistically, does it snow at Christmas in the UK, for example? In my experience, hardly ever. It is usually mild, miserable and raining. What is the temperature? Will they be wearing boots or sandals? Woolly jumpers or shorts and t-shirts? Suffering from colds or hay fever? When does the sun rise and set? Will it be dark when your character leaves work and takes a short cut down a dark alley? Or still light at 10pm, when they decide to walk home from the pub?
Setting is a gift to a crime writer. I just wish it hadn’t taken me so long to realise it!
The Beach is available to pre-order now.
It was supposed to be the perfect trip. Four friends, fresh out of university, backpacking around Thailand. But among the sun, sea and sand, something went horribly wrong…
In the years since, Holly has tried hard to push memories of that terrible summer from her mind. Now a schoolteacher, she believes her life is finally coming together when she meets Tom and his adorable five-year-old son, Jack.
But then, Holly starts receiving anonymous messages, showing photos which Holly was sure she destroyed years ago. Someone clearly knows the truth about what really happened. The only question is, how far will they go to get revenge?
You can follow Sarah on Twitter: @linleysarah1
Or read about her adventures on her blog: www.diaryofamiddleagedbackpacker.com