Like most writers, I try to include a real sense of place in whatever I write. A place that feels so real to the reader, they can almost touch it. And up until now, that’s always been a landscape I’m really familiar with.
Setting my first novel, Deep Water, in Cornwall gave me the excuse to spend huge amounts of time there. Holidays spent snorkelling over sunlight Cornish seas, traipsing across rugged clifftop paths, exploring villages, soaking up the ambience of Cornish graveyards and chapels - and many rainy days of research in the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle.
I immersed myself in Daphne du Maurier books, Helen Dunmore’s Ingo series, and tomes on Cornish myth and legend. I told myself it would be easier to write, and the book would only work, if I covered every angle of the geography and the atmosphere of the world it's set in. The upshot was it took blooming YEARS to write.
The same thing happened when writing my second book, Broken Ground (currently undergoing its zillionth edit). The setting for this one is a fictionalised version of the area around Silbury Hill and Avebury. I spent so long immersing myself in the Neolithic in this part of the country, I probably deserve a burial space in West Kennet longbarrow. And, of course, all the months of research meant Broken Ground also took an eon to write.
But my current work in progress is a complete departure. It’s a myth-based sci-fi story, much of it set in a desert world. I know little of deserts. Once, when I was about seven, my parents drove us over the Atlas mountains to the edge of the Sahara. All I remember is it was hot and dry, and smelt of camel dung. But there are no camels in my fictional world. And it’s not the Sahara.
I haven’t been to this place, because it exists only in my imagination. My research on deserts, and desert plants and animals, is done entirely online - where scale is almost impossible to judge, and you can’t smell a thing. The upshot is I’m writing much, much faster this time round. I can’t spend time faffing about in deserts because I don't have the time or the money, so the plot is cracking along at a good pace.
To help me work out how to conjure up the ambience of an unknown environment, I’ve been reading lots of extraordinary, inspirational books set in imaginary landscapes to see how other writers do it. Most recently, I've re-explored Wrath, the dump world where Eugene Lambert’s brilliant The Sign of One sci-fi novel is set, with the publication of the gripping sequel, Into the No Zone. I've skirted around the vast expanse of SF Said's amazing universe in Phoenix, and am currently captivated by the fantastic seascapes and ice lands of Sarah Driver’s Sea. I’m awed by the way these writers conjure fantastical worlds which have such a real feel to them that the reader is totally sucked in. And hopefully, by reading, I've learnt something.
Now I'm wondering why I didn't think of creating a landscape earlier. Today my desert world needs a dog creature, so I can make one up, from the smell of its rancid fur to the noise it makes in its throat. I don’t need to spend weeks hanging out with dingos, or African painted dogs – my dog creature is conjured from years of David Attenborough documentaries and a childhood growing up with a couple of smelly corgis.
The dunes in my desert can be as ochre red as they like, riddled with all the caves and hiding places I need for the characters to hide. Animals and plants grow according to how much danger I need, or simply because the characters need to eat.
So would I go back to real world landscape? Yes of course. The book I write after this may well be set in Cornwall again. Or Somerset. Or Wiltshire. Somewhere I know well. But it might not. The landscapes seeded in my mind have taught me a lot. I can set a story anywhere my imagination can take me.