The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

LOCATION, LOCUTION: JD Smith – from Cornwall to 3rd century Syria

Book cover art, Tristan & Iseult; JD Smith author photo; JJ Marsh author photo

Book cover art, Tristan & Iseult; JD Smith author photo; JJ Marsh author photo

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews  JD Smith, author of the novella Tristan and Iseult and the first in The Rise of Zenobia series, Overlord, based in ancient Palmyra, to be released in early 2014.

JD Smith lives in the English Lake District. She has worked in the graphic design industry for over a dozen years, and now specialises in book cover design and typesetting.

The pseudonym JD Smith was adopted as her preferred Editor’s title when launching the writing magazine Words with JAM.

Which comes first, story or location?
Always the story. The location is influential to the story, but the story is the most important thing, the part which excites me as a reader. The location is the background upon which the story is played out, and the history is the framework upon which it is hung.

How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
With great difficulty. In writing Tristan and Iseult I evoked the wet and wind the British know only too well. I’ve always lived on the coast, though in the north, not Cornwall (Kernow), but those salt winds and perpetually grey skies are the same. The Rise of Zenobia is based in 3rd century Syria, and I’m finding that much harder. I didn’t grow up with the atmosphere ingrained in me. I haven’t spent years of my childhood visiting the remains, the palaces and the fortifications. I rely on films a lot. Being a designer I’m an incredibly visual person, and seeing it played out, filmed in the locations I’m trying to conjure on the written page, helps immensely.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
All of the above, definitely. Although I think in order to relate better to a reader I am all in favour of sacrificing certain aspects which readers might not gel with, and using others to push plotlines forward. Of course, all of these things give a clue as to the time, as well as the place, in which a book is set.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
I’ve never visited Syria but I’m writing about it. You need to know it to a degree, but I think you need to know your characters more. Location is secondary. You can paint the background afterwards. Of course it depends. I write historical novels based on historical events and people, and knowing them and the history of the place, rather than the place as it stands, is key.

Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
These two extracts are my favourite descriptions of the weather in Britain which for me was a huge part of the setting of Tristan and Iseult:

Rustling emanates from the dense forest, even though the wind has dropped. White mist shrouds us. I tense to stop cold shivers taking hold. The rain is fine, yet a hand through my hair proves it is wetter than the streams in springtime and my footing slides on the muddy grass as we pick our way through undergrowth.


‘Ireland is no home for me,’ she says. ‘I was at home with the sea and the sand and the shingle of my shores, with the salt spray in my hair.’

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
Tricky one. I tend to admire writers for their story, and their characters, not for their use of location. And for me it’s both the time and the place that work together as one with any author’s writing, because I love historical fiction. Time and place are tied so tightly together one does not exist without the other. Sarah Bower’s descriptions are second to none.  Philippa Gregory evokes the royal court with ease. And Bernard Cornwell can describe a battle on any field.

Next month on Location, Locution:  award-winning author Amanda Hodgkinson.

 * * *

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post!

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