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Location Research

Without a doubt, location research is one of the best aspects of being a writer. I think it’s important to visit all the key locations in a book, preferably before I start writing. Quite often the specifics of a place will suggest new ideas and scenes that wouldn’t have occurred to me at my desk. It’s also important as a fact-checking exercise – readers rightly get irritated if a landscape they know well is described inaccurately. But most of all, it’s a revitalising change of scene: fresh air and freedom and an opportunity to be immersed for a while not in words but in the sights and sounds and smells of the real world.

 

SINS OF THE FATHER

The initial inspiration for this book came while I was living in Leeds and feeling a bit homesick for Sussex. The five years that I lived in Yorkshire were wonderful, and my wife and I enjoyed the weekends we spent exploring the north of England, from the Lake District to Scarborough and all points in between. But it also made me appreciate how much I’d taken the coast for granted, having spent most of my life only a few minutes’ walk from the sea.

As a result I was especially keen to set a novel in my favourite part of Sussex – the Cuckmere valley and the Seven Sisters, where the rolling South Downs come to an abrupt and dramatic halt in a series of imposing cliffs. One part of my research involved peering over the edge of a high cliff close to Birling Gap, trying to determine whether a body would fall cleanly to the shore below or whether there were any ledges or outcrops in the way. It was very nearly a step too far in the quest for authenticity.

 

 

SKIN AND BONES

The inspiration for this story came from a dream. I’m sure the village in that dream was a combination of several places that I knew well: the old part of Patcham, close to where I live, and beautiful, historic settlements like Alfriston, Litlington, Firle and Glynde. But I knew I couldn’t use a real location for my story, since far too many of the residents would meet an unpleasant fate, so instead I had to create a fictional village, which I placed just off the B2112 between Burgess Hill and Haywards Heath.

It was only after I’d visited and photographed the places mentioned above (as well as several others) that I discovered a small hamlet in almost exactly the location I’d chosen for my village of Chilton. By that point the book was well underway, so to the residents of Church Lane I’d like to say that I had no idea you were there when I placed all that fictional mayhem on your doorstep...

 

 

TERROR'S REACH

The elevator pitch for this book was ‘DIE HARD on Sandbanks’. Sandbanks is like a stunning little slice of the French Riviera plonked down on a peninsula at the mouth of Poole Harbour, where the exclusive beachfront homes boast some of the highest real estate values anywhere in the world. Seriously.

As with the village in Skin and Bones, I couldn’t use a real place because of the harm that befalls the residents. Instead I chose to create a similar but even more exclusive settlement on a fictional island within Chichester Harbour. As with Poole, it’s a stunningly beautiful area, with a series of pretty villages spread around a vast expanse of tidal flats and saltmarsh. It even has its own island (actually a peninsular, but it’s called Thorney Island) which is home to a military base. A public footpath circles the island, but can only be accessed via security gates where an anonymous guard on an intercom takes your name and address. Thick vegetation conceals the island’s interior from view, and there are warnings not to stray from the coastal path. The day I cycled round I didn’t see another soul, and yet I quite frequently felt I was being watched. The silent, tranquil but slightly menacing atmosphere was precisely the mood I wanted for Terror’s Reach.

 

 

BLOOD FALLS

For the second book in the Joe Clayton series I knew that Joe, with a price on his head, would be going further afield. The story starts in Bristol, so I spent a couple of days there, mapping out the chase sequence that fills the opening chapters. For this trip I again took my trusty bike – it’s a convenient way to cover a lot of ground while still getting to study the area in detail. I’m sure I made for an interesting sight, riding up and down the quiet streets of Clifton, steering with one hand and snapping off photographs with the other.

When Joe is forced to flee from the men who want to kill him, I decided his sanctuary should be Cornwall. I wanted somewhere rugged and beautiful but isolated and believably insular, with a topography suitable for what happens during the book’s climax. My next trip took me first to Lynmouth, in Devon, and then on to Boscastle, taking in Port Isaac (the stunning village where the TV show Doc Martin is filmed) before heading to the south coast resort of Looe. I collected a lot of useful details and images, which went into the construction of my fictional North Cornish hideaway, Trelennan. Then, on the way home, I stopped off briefly to take a look at the rather curious but attractive town of Poundbury. Too much gravel, is all I can say...