Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her very first interview guest, the extraordinary Nik Morton. (Nik, thank you for giving the Displaced Nation a shout-out in one of your recent posts!)
Hello, readers. This month we have the delight of discovering how Nik Morton, a British-born resident of Spain who is also a prolific author, handles location, locution.
Although Nik has fifty years of writing experience, having sold hundreds of articles and more than a hundred short stories, he came late to being a published author. His first novel, a western, came out in 2007. This year he will publish his twenty-second book—Catacomb, the second in his Avenging Cat crime series. (The first was Catalyst and the third will be Cataclysm. All are named for the series’ protagonist, the Avenging Catherine Vibrissae.)
In addition to this contemporary crime series, which he publishes with Crooked Cat (there’s that feline theme again!), Nik has written:
- westerns (Black Horse series, under the pseudonym Ross Morton, published by Robert Hale)
- fantasy (co-written with Gordon Faulkner under the pseudonym Morton Faulkner, published by Knox Robinson)
- Cold War thrillers (the Tana Standish series, which Crooked Cat will reissue).
Nik has run writing workshops and chaired writers’ circles, and has been a magazine editor, a publisher’s editor, and even an illustrator. His writing guide, Write a Western in 30 Days: With Plenty of Bullet-Points!, is said to be useful for all genre writers, not only writers of westerns.
Spain is one of several inspiration sources for the well-travelled writer Nik Morton.
Nik was displaced, incidentally, long before he and his wife retired to Alicante. He spent 23 years in the Royal Navy, during which he had the chance to visit many exotic places—among them Rawalpindi, the Khyber Pass, Sri Lanka, Tokyo, Zululand, Mombasa, Bahrain, Tangier, Turkey, Norway, Finland, South Georgia and the Falklands. He has also travelled widely in his private life, giving him a wealth of places to draw on in his works in addition to his current home of Spain.
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Which comes first, story or location?
This is a tough question, and the answer is ‘it depends’. For my seven western novels, the character and the story came first; the location for each required research for the period and the State, usually Dakota Territory.
Yet location definitely comes first for my Cold War thrillers featuring psychic spy Tana Standish: The Prague Papers, The Tehran Text and the third, a work in progress, The Khyber Chronicle. Each adventure in the series is based around actual historic events, so the location is crucial.
I’ve always hankered after writing about exotic places, and as you mentioned in your introduction, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel widely, both privately and with the Royal Navy. My wife and I lived for 20 months in Malta and out of that location emerged a cross-genre novel, a modern-day vampire romantic thriller, now out of print.
We’ve visited Tenerife on five separate occasions and from that evolved my romantic thriller, Blood of the Dragon Trees.
Having lived in Spain for over 11 years, I’ve absorbed quite a bit about the politics and crime situation here and have had 22 short stories published set in Spain, collected in Spanish Eye—exploring the human condition as seen through the eyes of Leon Cazador, half-English, half-Spanish private eye, written ‘in his own words’.
For my latest crime series about ‘the avenging cat’, Catherine Vibrissae, the story definitely came first: but the exotic locations were a close second—Barcelona (Catalyst), Morocco (Catacomb) and Shanghai (Cataclysm).
What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
Place is important in almost every scene; I want the reader to see the characters in the scene, so the place needs to be described in relation to them. Character point of view can provide an emotional appreciation of the scene too. The rugged, inhospitable High Atlas of Morocco, for example, can be strengthened by the character experiencing the intense heat and the almost preternatural silence of the place.
Technique: be there, in the scene. Of course you can’t overburden the story with too much description, but the weather, the flora and maybe even fauna, the landscape as character, all have their input at various times. If I can’t visualise the scene through my characters’ eyes, then there’s little chance that the reader will. I may not always succeed, but that’s what I strive towards—using all of the character’s senses.
Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
All of the above, depending on the dramatic content of the scene. People have to eat to live, so it’s natural that my characters eat from time to time. I don’t want to labour the point for the reader, but if I simply wrote ‘Corbin ate a meal at the hotel and then went out,’ then we’re in the realms of ‘tell’ not ‘show’; which has its place from time to time, but perhaps mentioning some particular food can make it more ‘real’ and show more of the character, such as:
Stomach full with Chili de Sangre Anaranjada, Corbin read the local newspaper in the hotel lounge, allowing the beef and pork to digest. He had complimented the chef, a Swede by the moniker of Iwan Morelius. Apparently, Morelius had been on the staff of Baron Ernst Mattais Peter von Vegesack, who had been given leave to fight for the Union. While the baron returned to Sweden after the war, Morelius stayed and Mr Canaan, the hotel manager, was vociferously proud of his culinary acquisition.
—From The $300 Man, by Ross Morton (p. 84)
Culture is definitely relevant if the story takes place abroad—whether that’s Prague or Shanghai. And we’ve already touched upon landscape, which can become a character that tests individuals to the limit.
Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?
This cafe in Tenerife will soon be populated by characters from Nik Morton’s imagination. Photo credit: Tenerife, Canary Islands, by Carrie Finley-Bajak via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
In Blood of the Dragon Trees, Laura has come to Tenerife to teach a couple of Spanish children. I wanted to create an ambiance while moving her through the story. She is waiting for Andrew Kirby, a mystery man who attracts her:
Clutching her Corte Inglés shopping bag, Laura arrived at the square about fifteen minutes early and, as usual, the adjoining roads were jammed with delivery trucks and a variety of taxis: Mercedes, Toyota, Seat, Peugeot. She was lucky and grabbed a café’s outdoor table with two vacant chairs. She sat and politely fended off the attentive waiter, explaining in Spanish that she would order when her friend joined her. Friend?
In the meantime, she waited, idly studying the antics of the men at the taxi rank in front of a series of phone booths. One of them was pushing his car along the rank, rather than switch on the engine, as the row moved forward. The taxis sported a colorful and distinctive coat of arms.
Sitting on the corner of the street was a blind man selling lottery tickets. She doubted if that would be possible in any town or city in England; the poor man would be mugged in seconds.
Most of the people at the other tables appeared to be businessmen and women, though there were some exceptions. An overdressed elderly woman sat with her Pekinese dog on her lap, feeding it biscuits while sipping her Tío Pepe. At the table next to her, a large bull of a man was glancing through the newspaper, El Día; he possessed a Neanderthal jaw and crewcut dark brown hair. For a second she thought she’d seen him before, but shook off the idea. Andrew Kirby was making her unreasonably suspicious!
—from Blood of the Dragon Trees, by Nik Morton (p. 116)
So, besides the observation of little details going on around her—and the suspenseful hint for the reader that we’ve seen the man with the Neanderthal jaw before—there’s the compelling influence that Andrew is exerting on her.
How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
Ideally, travel to the place. But even then additional back-up research is necessary. Of course you can’t hope to travel to every exotic place you write about. I’ve been to many of the places in my novels and short stories, but not all—and I must then concentrate on research.
Sadly, non-fiction reference books can quickly become out-of-date—bus colours might change, customs may once have been quaint only to be replaced by adopted globalised traits. (Yes, it has happened to me!)
Any piece of fiction set in the past requires research; yes, you can travel the battlefields, visit the ancient cities; but you can’t experience that time, only imagine it.
Fiction requires a writer to be bold, to do research and then re-imagine the place, with its sights, smells and sounds. The bottom line is, it’s fiction, which means an approximation of the real world. If a critic blithely dismisses writers who make a few errors in their research because they haven’t travelled there, then that critic is misguided.
Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
Some books could be set anywhere; location is not significant to the story. Others, the location is vital to the story. The old practitioners Desmond Bagley, Hammond Innes, Nevil Shute, and Alistair Maclean described the location their main characters found themselves in, and you believed every word. Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels thrust you into a period and a place that seems real while you’re reading. Donna Leon’s Italy is real.
A few of the novelists Nik Morton admires for their skill with depicting location.
Thanks so much, Nik!
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Readers, any questions for my first guest? Please leave them in the comments below.
And if you’d like to discover more about Nik, why not pay a visit to his author site; his blog, called Writealot (no exaggeration in his case); and the archives of Auguries, a science fiction, fantasy and horror magazine Nik edited from 1983 to 1994. You can also follow Nik on twitter at @nik_morton.
Until next month!
Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.
STAY TUNED for the next fab post!
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Photo credits (top of page): The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).
Nik’s on to something really important for both writers and readers. For me, an effective sense of place is a critical component for an enjoyable read. If I find even well-drawn characters simply bouncing around in ill-defined space (unless it’s supposed to be a weightless vacuum…) I usually find another book to read. I need smells, sounds and colors to connect with a writer’s ideas, along with that hard-to-define feeling of the nature of a place.