In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Catriona Troth, who was born in Scotland and grew up in Canada before coming back to the UK. She has now lived in the Chilterns longer than she has ever lived in anywhere, a fact that still comes as a surprise.
After more than twenty years spent writing technical reports at work and fiction on the commuter train, Catriona made the shift into freelance writing. Her writing explores themes of identity and childhood memory. Her novella, Gift of the Raven, is set against a backcloth of Canada from the suburbs of Montreal to the forests of the Haida Gwaii. Her novel, Ghost Town, is set in Coventry in 1981, when the city of Two Tone and Ska was riven with battles between skinheads and young Asians.
Which comes first, story or location?
In my case, it’s usually a collision between the two. I have a story in my mind, I look for a location, and when I find the right one, some sort of explosive reaction happens that produces something I never anticipated.
How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I think it’s always about the small, telling details. Readers get bored with long passages of description, so you focus on something striking. It’s important, too, that you appeal to all the readers senses – smell and taste and touch as well and seeing and hearing. It’s also important to see setting not as something static, but as it relates to your characters – how they interact with a place, how it looks through their eyes.
Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
It depends. In Gift of the Raven, I was mostly evoking wild places, so landscape was important, and the way colours change with light, and the sounds of wild birds. On the other hand, in my novel, Ghost Town, the setting was the Coventry at a very specific point in time. So I was looking for ways to evoke the contradictions of the city – the old medieval buildings, the post-War concrete monoliths, the grandeur of the new cathedral. But also the little things that mark out what it was like to live in the city at that particular time – like which groups of kids hung out where, how they dressed, what music they liked. One thing that was important to me in both cases was weather – a place can be very different in bright sunshine than it is in teeming rain or thick snow.
How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
For me, knowing the location well allows me to give the story texture and depth. I’m terrible for worrying over whether I have got details right! The internet is great for being able to check things like that – but it can also be a terrible trap, hobbling you when you should be getting the bones of the story down.
Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
This is the description, from Gift of the Raven, of a lake in the Rocky Mountains, seen through the eyes of a young boy who is just discovering his own artistic talent.
I was at one end of a narrow lake. The other end disappeared off into tomorrow. Below where I stood, the wind ruffled the edges of the water, but out there it could have been polished stone. A stone so blue you could lose yourself in the colour. At either side—like bold strokes of a palette knife from the sky to the lake—were mountains. Green-black pine over an ash-grey beach, peaks of dazzling white snow …
No. The snow wasn’t just white. In the sunshine it was a hundred different colours. Pink. Blue. Gold. You only saw white if you were too lazy to look.
Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
A book I read earlier this year which I thought was extraordinary in terms of setting was Peter May’s Lewis Man. He managed to capture the way islands of Hebrides change, day by day, with the changing weather, and also the way the character of the different islands change with the character of their inhabitants. Masterly to achieve this while still creating a fast-paced thriller.
Joanne Harris creates a sense of place through tastes and smells – food is almost always a huge part of her books. Reading some of the passages in her books you can feel as if you have just enjoyed a banquet of tastes.
And for a book that evoked both a time and a place, I’d choose Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. The scene where the reader is enticed to follow Sugar into the sleaziest corners of Victorian London is spell-binding. I couldn’t put the book down after that.
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Next month’s Location, Locution: Fran Pickering sets her Josie Clark series in Japan. East-West fusion murder mysteries with a cultural twist.
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.
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- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Paulo Coelho, on the monuments that immortalize cities
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Liza Perrat on writing a location to life
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Award-winning author Steven Conte, bringing location to life through writing
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Booker Prize-nominated author AD Miller, on bringing a location to life through writing
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Expat author JJ Marsh on bringing a location to life through writing