Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Guest Paula Martin: Settings for My Novels

Today I welcome Paula Martin and her contemporary romance, His Leading Lady, set in the London theater world. We all grit our teeth if an author makes the obvious mistake of placing the Eiffel Tower in Germany. But there are lots of other location errors authors can make. Here she talks about how important setting is to her novels.

Welcome Paula!

Many years ago, some scenes for a major British film were shot in my home town. We watched some of the filming one evening. When the film was shown the following year, of course we went to see it. In one scene, a bus pulls up outside the Town Hall. You could sense the reaction all over the cinema, with people muttering ‘Buses don’t stop there.’ In that split second, the illusion was lost as people with a personal knowledge of the location were distracted by an inaccuracy.

A minor detail, I know, but it has stayed with me, over 40 years later. I’ve read similar inaccuracies in books – someone looks out from the White House and sees Pennsylvania Avenue beyond the Washington Monument (wrong, the Monument is south of the White House, and PA Ave is north), someone gets a train from Victoria Station in London to travel to Edinburgh (nope, you’d have a long time to wait at Victoria for a train to anywhere in the north of Britain!), someone pulls their car to a standstill in Quay Street, Galway (sorry, it’s in a traffic-free zone).

In my opinion, writers must always take into account of the fact that one or more of their readers will know the place(s) in their book(s) unless, of course, they are completely fictitious places. All the research in the world will probably not give you the information to avoid making an error which causes the reader to say ‘Buses don’t stop there’ (or similar).

This is why, so far, I have set my novels in places with which I’m familiar. ‘His Leading Lady’ is set mainly in London, which I know fairly well. ‘Fragrance of Violets’ is set mainly in the Lake District, an area I know intimately. My current WIP is set in Egypt. A year ago, that setting wouldn’t have occurred to me, but having spent two weeks in Egypt last autumn, I think (hope!) I absorbed enough to write reasonably authentically about Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. I’m having to do more research than, for instance, a novel set in the Lake District, but at least I have a basic knowledge on which to build.

When I was writing a fan fiction story, I set part of it in Galway in Ireland. I’d never been there and, to my knowledge, none of the people on the loop where I was going to post it had been there either. However, my ‘perfectionist’ streak (damn that Leo trait!) wouldn’t let me make it up. I wanted to make sure my setting was accurate, so I went over to Galway for a few days. I did my characters’ walk from the Cathedral to Eyre Square and then down Quay Street to Claddagh harbour. Maybe I could have done that on a street map or even with Google earth but it wouldn’t have been the same. I was able to absorb not only the sights, but also the sounds and smells, as well as the whole atmosphere of the place.

In short, I find it much easier to describe a place if I've experienced it for myself. Not simply to avoid basic inaccuracies, but also to help my readers to experience it too. I admire those writers who can use settings with which they’re not personally familiar, but I need to feel comfortable with my setting. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I’m reluctant to write a historical novel, despite being a historian by profession. I know I could research and/or use my imagination but somehow I wouldn’t have the same ‘feel’ for the place as I have with places I’ve actually visited.

Current release:His Leading Lady’ published June 2011 by Whiskey Creek Press (

Blurb: Jess Harper’s predictable life is turned upside down when she discovers that Lora, her twin sister, has disappeared. It’s just a week before rehearsals are due to start for a new West End musical in which Lora has the lead role. Jess decides to pose as her sister in order to save Lora's career. This brings her into close contact with arrogant theatre director Kyle Drummond. Attraction sparks between them but there’s also evidence that he had been dating Lora. So is Jess simply a substitute – in real life as well as in the show? And what will happen when Lora eventually returns?

Excerpt from Jess’ first meeting with Kyle Drummond:
He turned towards her and Jess’s breath caught in her throat. Broad forehead, high cheekbones, wide mouth and strong jaw all combined to make him the most devastatingly attractive man she had ever seen. Then she realised that her own astonishment was reflected in the dark eyes that met hers.
“Good lord,” he said. “For a moment I thought you were –”
“Lora.” Jess gave a small smile. She was used to this reaction. “Yes, we’re very alike, Mr Drummond. In looks, at least.” She knew that both she and Lora had inherited their finely sculpted features and dark hair from their Italian mother, but it was their father’s Irish genes that had given them their startling hyacinth blue eyes that were such a contrast to their otherwise Italian looks.
The man’s gaze slowly travelled the full length of her body and Jess glanced down at her short peach skirt and her silky cream top. Suddenly she wished it wasn’t quite so low-cut and that it didn’t reveal so much of her cleavage. She looked up again and found his shrewd dark eyes studying her.
“Yes, you’re definitely twins. But you’re slimmer than Lora,” he said candidly, “and your hair’s longer.”
Her natural cordiality cooled at his blatant appraisal of her figure. “I don’t like being inspected, Mr Drummond.”
“Why not?” Eyebrows raised, he appeared totally unabashed. “You’re a beautiful woman. Why not be proud of that? Your sister certainly is.”
“Lora and I are two very different people,” Jess said coolly, “and I don’t take kindly to a complete stranger assessing me on some ten point scale.”
“So how many points did you give me?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“How many points?” he repeated. “When you were inspecting me from the back of the shop?” Wry amusement flashed in his eyes. “You must have stood there for a good two minutes. I saw your reflection in the shop window.”
“Oh!” An embarrassed flush crept to her cheeks. “I – er –”
“Don’t apologise and I won’t either,” he said easily.
Quickly she reverted to the cool approach. “Obviously I don’t need to introduce myself, and I assume you’re Kyle Drummond.”
“Yes. Where the hell is Lora?”
The abrupt demand threw her off balance again. “Wh-what do you mean?”
“Your sister – where is she? I’ve spent the last three days trying to track her down, and then trying to find you.” He made it sound as if it was all her fault.
Jess frowned. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Would you explain please?”
Kyle Drummond fixed her with an intense gaze. “Don’t cover for her, Ms. Harper. If your sister thinks she can play silly little games with me, she’d better think again. And so had you.”
Jess stared at him, completely taken aback. “Excuse me, Mr Drummond,” she said, more calmly than she felt, “but before you start issuing your orders and threats, I repeat – I simply don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
She met his gaze steadily although her heart had started to race. She wasn’t sure whether it was sudden concern about Lora, or whether it was more to do with those dark eyes that still rested on her.

Contact Information:
Website: Personal Blog: Writers Blog (with 4 other writers):


Francine Howarth said...

Hi Paula,

You blog-trotter you, I'm having a tough time keeping up. I must have been waiting at wrong bus stop!! ;)

Oh so true about knowing a place before starting a novel. As you so rightly said, someone out there likely lives in that place so make sure of your facts. Research, research and research again or go check it out for yourself.


Erastes said...

I'm with you there, things that I know - and that the author clearly hasn't bothered to do the bear modicum of research about drive me bonkers. There areso many ways to find these things out, even if you can't go there. I knew very little about the landscape of what was Bohemia in my latest, but Google Earth was fabulously useful!

jrlindermuth said...

Location (and knowledge of same) is as important in writing as in real estate.

Margaret West said...

I researched my book, The heart of a warrior for a year before i wrote it. I had to know everything about the Navajo culture and the area that my fictional reservation would be in. Good luck with your book paula.

Debra St. John said...

Setting is really important in a novel. It can become almost like a character in and of itself. I's so important to get it right.

Because of that, I tend to use places I've been as the setting for my books. That way, I can get even the minute details right. If I'm not using a place I've actually been, I do as much research as possible. It actually tends to make the writing a little trickier for me.

Gilli said...

I agree, Paula. But when I write - tho I do choose locations I know for sense of place and atmosphere - I make up the place names. I want the flexibility to invent and change the details to suit my story. For e.g. I want to be able to say, "the house on the valley side was lit by the setting sun..." without disgruntled readers contacting me with the complaint that the sun sets behind the hills in that specific valley.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Excellent Post, Paula, and your examples do highlight the need for accuracy - good excuse for more travelling!

Hywela Lyn said...

Hi Paula
Very interesting post. I'm a bit like Gilli I think, in that I don't tend to set my stories in a specific place, rather a general area. Although many of my locations are based on actual areas in Wales. I draw very much on the landscape and terrain of the area but since I write futuristic and fantasy I do tend to take some 'artistic liberty.

However if I mention a town or village that actually exists, I'll make very sure I get my facts right!

Jennifer Wilck said...

Hi Paula, obvious inaccuracies bother me, especially when it's something the writer could have easily checked! I try to set my books in places I know well to avoid just that problem.

Linda Banche said...

Hi Paula. I can easily forgive a mistake in an esoteric detail, especially if the story grabs me. After all, it's fiction! But I cringe at an error on something that's easily found out, and it throws me right out of the story.

Paula Martin said...

Wow, thank you all so much for visiting and leaving comments for me.
It seems we're all agreed that location 'errors' are extremely irritating, and that thorough research is essential.
As Gilli said, even when using a place you know, sometimes it's better to change the name. I've done that with the village in my second book, 'Fragrance of Violets'. I've also 'moved' it a few miles into a different valley in the Lake District (just to confuse anyone who knows that part of England!)

Lynne Marshall said...

So true, Paula. When in doubt, make the place fictitious.
Having said that, even after visiting a place, we don't know it intimately, so I get very nervous writing cities I've only visited and explored briefly. I love Google, and find that virtual tours of places are very helpful too. Aren't copy editors supposed to catch those obvious inaccuracies?
Enjoyed the blog.

Celia Yeary said...

Paula--you've written about a topic that is important to me. Once I read a major romance author's story, and the heroine was traveling across Texas--north to south--and she had Fort Worth located south of Dallas. That ruined the whole book.
Therefore, I only use real places in a very limited way, so that no one can point out the inaccuracies.It's not easy. I create fictional places near a real place, usually.
This was very interesting, and an important topic.
I've been asked--why do your stories always take place in Texas? Because it's what I know. I've been all over the US and Europe and Scandinavia and Canada and Mexico....but I'd be crazy to set a story in any of those places.
Thanks for the reminder---Celia

Paula Martin said...

Lynne, agree that visiting a place briefly can only give you a superficial view of it and therefore if you want to use it as a setting, you have to do tons of research. Thank heaven for google, and the google streetcar camera is great too, but nothing beats an intimate knowledge of a location.

Paula Martin said...

Celia - you and I think alike (as usual!). An author who can't get basic geography right is basically lazy and simply hasn't done any research.
Even though I know London well, I still had to do a lot of research with maps etc. for 'His Leading Lady'.


Setting is very important to me. If the author gets it wrong I can't read the book. You don't have to go there, but you do need to research it pretty thoroughly.

Paula Martin said...

Many thanks to you all for you comments - and special thanks to Linda for having me as a guest

StephB said...

Paula, I chuckled when I thought of the Eiffel Tower in Berlin, but you've made a good point. With any setting you have to understand the basic geography. And if an author gets it right then you've made the setting a second "character" to the story and you've really sold it. It all boils down to your research and how well you've done it.

Your new story is very appealing and the cover is eye catching.


Paula Martin said...

Agree about the geography, Steph, and about all the other research too, which can add so much more realism to the setting.