The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Tag Archives: Fiction Writers

Top 60 books for, by & about expats and other global creatives in 2016 (1/2)

top-60-books-2016-part-one-fiction

Are bookworms like earth worms: do they come to the surface during the spring rains? In which case, the Displaced Nation’s timing—we publish our yearly roundup of recommended books for, by, and about expats and other global creatives in late February and early March—may not be as eccentric as all that. And at least we’re not competing with lots of other “best of 2016” lists that came out in December!

Without further ado, we’re calling on all of you displaced bookworms to come out and start feasting! This year there are 60 books on our list, a first. Hopefully it means you’ll find a title or two that you missed. Or perhaps you’ll see books whose titles sound familiar—especially if you subscribe to our Displaced Dispatch—but of which you forgot to make a note.

Part One, published today, presents 36 works of fiction, both novels and story collections, indie as well as traditionally published works. Part Two will add 24 works of nonfiction, bringing the total to 60. As in years past, the books appear in reverse chronological order.

* * *

Fall 2016

the-good-officer_coverThe Good Officer: Can they love again? (Newhurst Press, November 18, 2016)
Author: Helena Halme
Expat credentials: Born in Finland, Halme lived in Sweden as a child and felt displaced when her family moved back to Finland when she was 14. She left Finland to live in England (now London) after meeting and marrying a British man (yes, he was in the military!), but she still celebrates Finnish customs.
Synopsis: Kaisa has betrayed her husband, the handsome English naval officer, Peter. What can she do but move back to her native Finland? But then she takes a job in London and meets Peter again by chance. Can they love each other again? The third novel in The Englishman series following the tumultuous 1980s love affair between a Finnish student and a British naval officer, based loosely on Halme’s own life story.
How we heard about: Halme has been featured several times on the Displaced Nation: see, for instance, her Random Nomad interview, still one of our best!
Why we recommend: How often do you get to read a Nordic military romance?


a-year-and-a-day_coverA Year and a Day (Penguin Books, Nov 17 2016)
Author: Isabelle Broom
Expat credentials: Broom travelled through Europe during her gap year and went to live on the Greek island of Zakynthos for an unforgettable and life-shaping six months after completing her degree in media arts in London (her first novel, My Map of You, is set on that island). Since then, she has travelled to Canada, Sri Lanka, Sicily, New York, LA, the Canary Islands, Spain and lots more of Greece. She loves to write books set in far-flung locations.
Synopsis: Three different couples find themselves staying in the same hotel in Prague, and we follow them as they mingle and get to know each other and form a bond.
How we heard about: Trip Fiction review,with Prague promo.
Why we recommend: According to several of Broom’s Amazon reviewers, the Prague of this book is “magical” and becomes an “additional character.”


swing-time_coverSwing Time (Penguin, November 15, 2016)
Author: Zadie Smith
Expat credentials: Smith is the product of a black mother and a white father, whom her mother married after migrating to England from her native Jamaica. Now a professor of fiction at New York University, Smith has traded London for New York City for at least part of the year.
Synopsis: Set in England and West Africa, the story concerns the friendship of two mixed-race girls who meet in a tap dance class in London in 1982. One has talent; the other has ideas.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: Particularly when the action moves to West Africa, the novel parses race and global politics in a way only a writer of Smith’s caliber can.


tokyo-short-stories-book-1_coverPostcards from Tokyo, Book 1 (November 3, 2016)
Author: Wendy Nelson Tokunaga
Expat credentials: Born in San Francisco, Tokunaga has lived in the Bay area all her life except for when she lived in Tokyo during the early 1980s. Her husband is Japanese.
Synopsis: Six stories that are all inspired by Tokyo, a place that writer Tokunaga has observed both first-hand and from afar. Highlights include a story about a young American who leaves her hostess job to become a kept woman but instead of finding solace is unable to escape her own demons, and a story about an American cat that becomes a stowaway with the intention of becoming a social media sensation in Japan.
How we heard about: We have featured Tokunaga a couple of times on the Displaced Nation (see, for instance, this interview) and follow her on social media.
Why we recommend: Tokunaga has a knack for telling stories about Japan that are culturally insightful while also being highly entertaining.


je-taime-maybe-book-coverJe T’Aime…Maybe? (TGRS Communications, November 3, 2016)
Author: April Lily Heise
Expat credentials: April Lily Heise is a Canadian writer and romance expert who has been living in Paris for over a decade. This is her second novelized memoir on her romantic misadventures.
Synopsis: After barely surviving a turbulent series of relationships in the City of Love (shared in the first volume of the series, Je T’aime, Me Neither), our heroine Lily is ready to throw in the towel on amour. That is, until she receives a very unexpected email—one which revives her hope in finding true love…yet at the same time awakens the mischievous, passionate energy of Paris. Will she manage to connect with her potential soul mate, located on the other side of the globe?
How we heard about: We follow the HIP Paris Blog.
Why we recommend: Readers of Heise’s blog and book appreciate her for being “hilarious,” “brutally honest” and “badass” about love in the city that celebrates that emotion. As one of them puts it, this book is a “sort of Parisian-style Bridget Jones’s Diary.”


a-portrait-of-emily-price_coverA Portrait of Emily Price (HarperCollins, November 1, 2016)
Author: Katherine Reay
Expat credentials: After living all across the United States and a few stops in Europe, Katherine and her family recently moved back to Chicago. It’s also the first book Reay has written that’s based in a place where she hasn’t lived, though she did visit Italy multiple items when living in Europe.
Synopsis: Art restorer Emily Price has never encountered anything she can’t fix—until she meets Ben, an Italian chef, who seems just right. They marry and Emily follows Ben home to Italy, where she finds she can’t quite adjust to his family and culture.
How we heard about: From Publishers Weekly listing
Why we recommend: It’s interesting that an author who usually takes her inspiration from Jane Austen has entered Henry James territory, portraying clashing worldviews and other cross-cultural miscommunications. What’s more, the book includes sensually evocative descriptions of Italian food and scenery, for which it has earned comparisons with Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun.


the-boat-rocker_coverThe Boat Rocker (Pantheon, October 26 2016)
Author: Ha Jin
Expat credentials: Xuefei Jin, who publishes under the nom de plume Ha Jin, is a China-born but United States-based author. A former Chinese army soldier, he chose to stay in the United States after the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Synopsis: Chinese expatriate Feng Danlin is a fiercely principled reporter at a small news agency that produces a website read by the Chinese diaspora around the world. Danlin’s explosive exposés have made him legendary among readers—and feared by Communist officials. But his newest assignment may be his undoing: investigating his ex-wife, Yan Haili, an unscrupulous novelist who has willingly become a pawn of the Chinese government.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: At a time when the press is under attack, it is interesting to read a novel by a writer who has lived under two very different sets of rules: the Communist Party’s elaborate control of mass media and the free market’s complicated influence on what we read and watch.


how-to-pick-up-a-maid_coverHow to Pick Up a Maid in Statue Square: Stories (Thistledown Press, Oct 16, 2016)
Author: Rea Tarvdas
Expat credentials: When her husband, a management consultant, was transferred to Hong Kong in 2000, Tarvdas placed her job as a psychiatric emergency-room nurse on hold and packed up the house and moved for two years to Hong Kong. She has since repatriated to Calgary, Canada.
Synopsis: A collection of stories that creates a fictional community of hardworking men and women, bankers and brokers, maids and househusbands, who are, in the author’s words, “all trying to find their way through the space in which loneliness and alienation intersect.”
How we heard about: From Tarvdas’s personal essay in Quill & Quire.
Why we recommend: Tarvdas has used fiction to channel the intense feelings that come up when you’re an expat, particularly a trailing spouse, in Southeast Asia, including dislocation, loneliness, alienation, and even sexual redundancy.


from-pavlova-to-pork-pies_coverFrom Pavlova to Pork Pies: From New Zealand to England searching for love, laughs, and the way home (Writer’s Cat, October 2, 2016)
Author: Vicki Jeffels
Expat credentials: Jeffels has lived in four countries, both hemispheres and has travelled around the world only to end up back where she started, in Auckland, New Zealand.
Synopsis: Based on a true story and an award-winning blog, the plot concerns a divorced mother-of-three from New Zealand who goes on a European tour and meets the man of her dreams, an Englishman, in the City of Light; starts a long-distance relationship with him; and then moves with her family to live with him in the UK, only to have disaster strike when she and her kids are threatened with deportation.
How we heard about: We have known Jeffels back in the day when she was blogging about being an expat in Britain, married to a Brit she met in Paris—she was one of our early Random Nomad interviewees.
Why we recommend: Jeffels has a droll sense of humour and loves travel, chocolate, food, and wine. You can’t go wrong with an author like that.


conquest_coverConquest: Daughter of the Last King (Impress Books, October 1, 2016)
Author: Tracey Warr
Expat credentials: Warr was born in London and lives in the UK and France.
Synopsis: The first in Warr’s new Conquest trilogy, the book is set in the early middle ages when Britain was invaded by William the Conqueror. It concerns the fate of Nest ferch Rhys, the daughter of the last independent Welsh king, after she is captured by the Normans following their assault on her lands, taken to their lair in Cardiff, imprisoned in the motte, and forced to learn Norman.
How we heard about: Warr is our Location, Locution columnist.
Why we recommend: With so many people being displaced by war in the present era, it seems strange to think that this kind of thing was going in the 12th century as well. Is forced displacement an inevitable part of the human condition?


cartes-postales-from-greece_coverCarte Postales from Greece (Hodder, September 22, 2016)
Author: Victoria Hislop
Expat credentials: Hislop has nurtured a passion for Greece for more than three decades. She speaks Greek and keeps a second home in Crete, where she spends several months of every year.
Synopsis: Englishwoman Ellie mistakenly receives a series of tantalizing postcards from Greece. Once the cards stop coming, she spontaneously organizes her own trip to Greece and, with the help of a mysterious notebook she receives just before her departure, discovers a wonderful world of tradition, folklore, love and betrayal—a world not usually accessible to first-time visitors.
How we heard about: TripFiction’s interview with the author
Why we recommend: Hislop traveled in Greece with a Greek photographer and has used his photos to illustrate the book. In some cases, the stories developed because of the photos; in other cases, it was the other way around. The idea was to have the words and pictures work very closely together. The idea sounds super creative, and we’re curious how it turned out.

Summer 2016

the-pull-of-it_coverThe Pull of It (Underground Voices, September 21, 2016)
Author: Wendy J. Fox
Expat credentials: Fox was raised in rural Washington state, and lived in Turkey in the early 2000s. She was still living in Turkey when she started the manuscript. She now lives in Seattle.
Synopsis: The story of a young wife and mother who takes a solo vacation in Turkey to recharge, and ends up diving into a new culture. She skips her flight home and boards a bus to the interior of the country, where she will stay for another six months, until her previous life pulls her home and she must confront her demons.
How we heard about: Writer Lisa Morrow quotes from Fox’s novel in Part One of her interview with us, published in November of last year.
Why we recommend: The premise of the story sounds interesting. As Fox told reviewer Mark Stevens, she thought her protagonist would need to be immersed in a “realm that was totally foreign” as only then could she “get down to the core of herself and understand what she wants.”


the-other-side-of-the-world_coverThe Other Side of the World (Atria Books, September 20, 2016)
Author: Stephanie Bishop
Expat credentials: Her grandparents migrated from England to Australia in the 1960s. Although her grandmother lived more than half her life in Australia she still thought of England as home and Bishop grew up listening to her complain about how much she missed Britain. As a young adult, Bishop herself experienced “dual homesickness” as she moved back and forth between England and Australia for her education (she got her Ph.D. from Cambridge and will soon have a visiting fellowship at Oxford).
Synopsis: A novel set in England, Australia, and India in the early 1960s. Charlotte is struggling with motherhood, with the changes brought on by marriage and parenthood, and with never having the time or energy to paint. Her husband, Henry, an Anglo-Indian, cannot face the thought of another English winter. A brochure slipped through the mailbox—Australia brings out the best in you—gives him an idea. Charlotte is too worn out to resist, and before she knows it they are traveling to the other side of the world. But upon their arrival in Perth, the southern sun shines a harsh light on the couple and gradually reveals that their new life is not the answer either was hoping for.
How we heard about: Nina Sichel promoted it on the Writing Out of Limbo Facebook page.
Why we recommend: The novel explores Bishop’s fascination with a dual sense of longing and nostalgia about two places one considers to be “home.”


him-me-muhammed-ali_coverHim, Me, Muhammad Ali (Sarabande Books, September 19, 2016)
Author: Randa Jarrar
Expat credentials: Jarrar grew up in Kuwait and Egypt. She moved to the United States after the first Gulf War, at the age of 13.
Synopsis: Stories about Middle Eastern women much like Jarrar herself, strong girls and women who’ve somehow landed in the United States, interlaced at times with magic. We travel from Cairo to Yonkers, from the West Bank to Wyoming.
How we heard about: From a tweet by M. Lynx Qualey (@arablit).
Why we recommend: This is Jarrar’s first story collection, following the debut of her first novel, A Map of Home, which won an Arab-American Book Award. As one critic writes, the anthology reflects Jarrar’s own experience of moving between continents and cultures through characters that always seem to be searching for that one place where they fit in: “Often, they don’t, so it’s the nebulous in-between space where their lives unravel.”


tea-planters-wife_coverThe Tea Planter’s Wife (Random House Broadway Books, September 13, 2016)
Author: Dinah Jefferies
Expat credentials: Jefferies was born in Malaysia and moved to England at the age of nine. Her idyllic childhood always held a special place in her imagination, and when she began writing novels in her 60s, she was able to return there—first in her fiction and then on annual research trips for each new novel.
Synopsis: An historical family drama set in Ceylon in the 1920s. Gwendoline, a young Engliah woman, fresh off the boat who has come to join her new husband at his tea plantation. She faces a big culture shock and then a mystery surrounding this man.
How we heard about: Tracey Warr’s interview with Jefferies in her Location, Locution column (published 3 December 2016).
Why we recommend: One of Warr’s other interviewees, Hazel Gaynor, chose this book by Jefferies for its “wonderful sense of location.”


singapore-love-stories_coverSingapore Love Stories (Monsoon Books, September 2016)
Author/Editor: Verena Tay (she contributed “Ex” )
Coordinator/Compiler: Raelee Chapman (she contributed “The Gardener”)
Expat credentials: Tay is based in Singapore but was educated internationally. Chapman is an Australian writer living in Singapore.
Synopsis: Leading Singaporean and Singapore-based writers explore the best and worst of the human condition called love, including grief, duplicity and revenge, self-love, filial love, homesickness and tragic past relationships.
How we heard about: Valentine’s Day post by Trip Fiction, replete with travel tips and giveaway
Why we recommend: The writers are a diverse group, including Singaporeans and expats, both Western expats and expats from within Asia, and also established writers and those published for the first time.


behold-the-dreamers_coverBehold the Dreamers (Penguin/Random House, August 23, 2016)
Author: Imbolo Mbue
Expat credentials: Mbue moved from Cameroon to New York City ten years ago.
Synopsis: The story of a Cameroonian couple and their son who settle in Harlem hoping to capture their piece of the American dream amidst the 2008 financial and housing market crisis.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: Inspired by Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon, Heinemann’s African Writers Series and British classics she read growing up, Mbue told one interviewer that she decided to write about what she knows best: the Cameroonian immigrant experience.


monsoon-summer_coverMonsoon Summer (Simon and Schuster, August 9, 2016)
Author: Julia Gregson
Expat credentials: Gregson has worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent in the UK, Australia, and the US. She grew up a military brat as her father was in the Royal Air Force. She has worked as a jillaroo in the Australian outback as well as a model for Hardy Amies in London.
Synopsis: An epic postwar love story moving from England to India. English nurse Kit meets Anto, a young Indian doctor finishing up his training at Oxford. They secretly marry and set off for South India—where Kit plans to run the maternity hospital she has already been helping from afar. But life in India does not turn out as she imagined.
How we heard about: From Tracey Warr’s Location Locution interview with Dinah Jefferies, who said she loved Gregson’s East of the Sun for the way it evokes a particular time in India,
Why we recommend: Critics praise Gregson for understanding both the harshness and beauty of India, its land, culture, and history. When researching this novel, Gregson went to Kerala and lived with an Indian family. She traveled in a rice boat up many of the back waters she describes in the book.


still-here_coverStill Here (Hogarth Random House, Aug 2, 2016)
Author: Lara Vapnyar
Expat credentials: Russian-born author Lara Vapnyar moved from Moscow to Brooklyn in 1994 as an adult, picked up English quickly, and started publishing short stories about the daily-life concerns of Russian émigrés like herself.
Synopsis: Vica, Vadik, Sergey and Regina met in Russia in their college days but remained in touch. They now have very different, yet intertwined, lives as immigrants in New York City. The story follows them as they grapple with love and tumult, the challenges of a new home, and the absurdities of the digital age.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: One reviewer has praised it as “minutely observed, razor funny and wholly wonderful.” That’s a spectacularly high endorsement!


this-must-be-the-place_coverThis Must Be the Place (Knopf, July 19, 2016)
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
Expat credentials: O’Farrell is a domestic expat of sorts. Born in Northern Ireland, she was brought up in Wales and Scotland, and now lives in Edinburgh.
Synopsis: A New Yorker living in the wilds of Ireland, Daniel Sullivan has children he never sees in California, a father he loathes in Brooklyn, and a wife, Claudette, who is a reclusive French-English ex–film star given to pulling a gun on anyone who ventures up their driveway. Once the most glamorous and infamous woman in cinema, she orchestrated her own disappearance, retreating to the seclusion of an Irish farmhouse. All seems well enough until the couple must struggle to hold things together in the face of a secret from Daniel’s past.
How we heard about: New York Times Book Review
Why we recommend: As one Amazon reviewer says, O’Farrell has created a set of “misplaced and lost characters, searching for an authentic place within themselves.” She notes that their “searching leads to external travels and internal jaunts. They are searching: for love, for connection, for identity, for affirmation, for understanding.”


dancingwiththetiger-_coverDancing with the Tiger (Putnam, July 12, 2016)
Author: Lili Wright
Expat credentials: A former journalist who has lived a year in Paris, a year in Italy and two years in Mexico, Wright, who recently earned an MFA, is now a professor at DePaul University in Indiana. During her many trips to Mexico, she has studied Spanish, lived with Mexican families, and had many adventures including watching dancing tigers parade down the streets.
Synopsis: Anna flees her dead-end life in New York City (she has just broken up with her fiancé) to hunt down what her father, a mask collector, believes to be the death mask of Aztec King Montezuma, from an American looter in Mexico.
How we heard about: A press release
Why we recommend: Wright says she tends to mix French, Italian, and Spanish together, but critics say she gets her cultural references just right in her debut novel, set in Mexico.


intrusion_coverIntrusion (Little A, July 1, 2016)
Author: Mary McCluskey
Expat credentials: Born in Warwickshire, McCluskey lived and worked in a number of cities in Europe—London, Brighton, Vienna, Munich, Athens—before finding a home in Los Angeles, California, where she married and gave birth to two sons. She now lives in Stratford-upon-Avon, twenty miles from where she was born, though still spends time in LA. She considers both LA and Stratford “home.”
Synopsis: A psychological drama about a couple dealing with the hardest of losses: the death of their only child, set against the backgrounds of Southern California and Sussex, UK. The marriage is thrown into a tailspin when the wife’s old schoolmate from England shows up, ostensibly to help the couple get over their grief.
How we heard about: TripFiction interview with the author
Why we recommend: McCluskey has lost a child (an experience a couple of authors on our site have had) and knows how it feels. She also has a nuanced view of the differences between the UK and the US.


the-lovers-portrait_coverThe Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery (Traveling Life Press, June 22, 2016)
Author: Jennifer S. Alderson
Expat credentials: After traveling extensively around Asia and Central America, Alderson moved to Darwin, Australia, before finally settling in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband and their son.
Synopsis: In the second of a series following the adventures of traveler and culture lover, Zelda Richardson, Zelda scores an internship at the prestigious Amsterdam Museum, where she works on an exhibition of paintings and sculptures once stolen by the Nazis, When two women claim the same portrait of a young girl entitled Irises, Zelda is tasked with investigating the painting’s history.
How we heard about: Alderson’s first Zelda Richardson novel, Down and Out in Kathmandu, was one of Booklust Wanderlust columnist Beth Green’s three book picks in honor of Mother’s Day this past year. (Notably, Alderson also contributed to Green’s column canvassing several writers on their recommended reads for the not-quite end of summer.)
Why we recommend: The novel draws on the author’s experiences gained while studying art history in the Netherlands and working for several Dutch museums.

Spring 2016

the-girl-and-the-sunbird_coverThe Girl and the Sunbird: A beautiful, epic story of love, loss and hope (Bookouture, June 17, 2016)
Author: Rebecca Stonehill
Expat credentials: Stonehill is from London but currently lives in Nairobi with her husband and three children where she teaches creative writing to school children. Synopsis: East Africa 1903: When 18-year-old Iris Johnson is forced to choose between marrying the frightful Lord Sidcup or a faceless stranger, Jeremy Lawrence, in a far-off land, she bravely decides on the latter. But when Iris meets Jeremy, she realizes in a heartbeat that they will never be compatible. Determined to make the best of her new life, she begins to adjust to her surroundings; the windswept plains of Nairobi and the delightful sunbirds that visit her window every day. And when she meets Kamau, a school teacher, Iris finds her calling, assisting him to teach the local children English.
How we heard about: TripFiction’s interview with Stonehill about her adopted home city of Nairobi
Why we recommend: Many readers compare Stonehill with Victoria Hislop, who has also made our list. Her first book, The Poet’s Wife—based on the 18 months she spent living in Granada—was a big hit with readers.


i-promise-you-this_coverI Promise You This: Book Three in the Love in Provence Series (Lake Union Publishing, May 17, 2016)
Author: Patricia Sands
Expat credentials: A Canadian, Patricia Sands lives in Toronto, but her heart’s other home is the South of France. An avid traveler, she spends part of each year on the Côte d’Azur and occasionally leads groups of women on tours of the Riviera and Provence.
Synopsis: The series follows the adventures of Katherine Price, a sensible Canadian woman who is undergoing a midlife crisis, a symptom of which is falling for a Frenchman named Philippe. She follows Philippe to his idyllic home in Provence but worries it’s a fantasy life. So, is Katherine ready to leave everything behind for an unknown life abroad? We find out in the conclusion to this trilogy about second chances.
How we heard about: TripFiction’s giveaway of Sands’s trilogy
Why we recommend: Sands herself is a good example of second chances, having taken up writing in her 60s. She chose a theme close to her heart: France, which she first fell in love with when she backpacked around the country for a year when she was 21, a love affair that has only grown throughout her life. She considers herself to be a “possibilatarian” and encourages the rest of us to do the same.


the-mirror-thief_coverThe Mirror Thief (Penguin Random House, May 10, 2016)
Author: Martin Seay
Expat credentials: As Seay put it in an interview, one of the sparks that led to the book was his memory of “a couple of misty Lenten backpacker days” in Venice: “at the time and still today the strangest place I’ve ever been.” He now lives in Wheeling, Illinois.
Synopsis: The novel consists of a series of nested stories telling of three Venices in three locations and eras: the Venetian casino in Las Vegas in 2003; Venice Beach, CA, in 1958; and the original city-state, in 1592, the time when its mirror-making industry was at its peak. Seay weaves all three stories together in a tour-de-force.
How we heard about: Made the Publishers Weekly list of most anticipated debut novels of Spring 2016
Why we recommend: The book came out to huge critical praise and has been called, among other things, a “masterpiece,” a “startling gem,” a “beautifully plotted potboiler,” and a “true delight.”


back-to-moscow_coverBack to Moscow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 3, 2016)
Author: Guillermo Erades
Expat credentials: Guillermo Erades was born in Málaga, Spain. As a career diplomat for the European Union, he has held posts in Moscow, Berlin, Baghdad and Brussels, where he is currently based. He has also lived in Leeds, Amsterdam, and Luxembourg. He wrote this book, his first novel, during a two-year posting high-security compound in Baghdad, where there were few distractions.
Synopsis: Martin came to Moscow at the turn of the millennium hoping to discover the country of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and his beloved Chekhov. Instead he found a city turned on its head, where the grimmest vestiges of Soviet life exist side by side with the nonstop hedonism of the newly rich. Along with his hard-living expat friends, Martin spends less and less time on his studies, choosing to learn about the Mysterious Russian Soul from the city’s unhinged nightlife scene. But as Martin’s research becomes a quest for existential meaning, love affairs and literature lead to the same hard-won lessons. Russians know: There is more to life than happiness.
How we heard about: Made the Publishers Weekly list of most anticipated debut novels of Spring 2016
Why we recommend: The novel draws on Erades’s life in Moscow at the beginning of the Putin years. It was his first EU posting, and he was in his twenties. He found it to be a special time: “There was a lot of fun and adventure and a Wild West feeling.” His book is the expat version of a Bildungsroman. He intended it as an ode to the city of his (mis?)spent, as well as displaced, youth, a motive that those of us who spent our formative years in foreign countries can well understand.


amotherssecret_coverA Mother’s Secret: A beautiful, heartbreaking novel of love, loss and hidden tragedy (Bookouture, April 6, 2016)
Author: Renita D’Silva
Expat credentials: Now living in the UK, D’Silva grew up in a coastal village in South India.
Synopsis: Jaya, the British-born daughter of immigrants, struggles with the unexpected death of her mother, Durga, followed by the loss of her baby son in a tragic cot death. Looking through her mother’s belongings, Jaya finds diaries that unlock the secrets of her mother’s unhappy past, before she emigrated to England. Part of the story is told by Durga, through diary excerpts, and part by Kali, a mad old lady who, like Durga, was doing her best to survive and succeed in traditional Indian culture.
How we heard about: D’Silva’s latest novel was featured in Beth Green’s Booklust, Wanderlust post last May, celebrating displaced female protagonists in honor of Mother’s Day
Why we recommend: D’Silva’s debut novel, Monsoon Memories, about an Indian woman who’d been exiled for more than a decade and is living in London, was a Displaced Nation pick for 2014.


reader-i-married-him_coverReader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre (HarperCollins, March 22, 2016)
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Expat credentials: American by birth, British by geography, Chevalier lives in London with her husband and son. Her first novel, which made her famous, was The Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Synopsis: A collection of short stories by writers across the globe whom she’d asked to respond to the famous opening line of Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him.” Turkish author Elif Şafak, for instance, contributed a story about an Islamic woman who becomes infatuated with a young Dutchman who has arrived in her town to learn Turkish. Hm, but does she marry him? Linda Grant’s “The Mash-Up” tells of a disastrous wedding between a Jewish woman and a Persian man. (Yes, she did, unfortunately!)
How we heard about: The book release was commissioned as part of the commemorations for Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday, for which Chevalier also curated an exhibition at the Brontë Parsonage Museum.
Why we recommend: It’s one of literature’s best-known lines, and we love the idea of having it interpreted by a group of global creatives.

Winter 2016

shelter_coverShelter (Picador, March 15, 2016)
Author: Jung Yun
Expat credentials: Yun was born in South Korea, grew up in North Dakota, and was educated at Vassar College, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She now lives in western Massachusetts.
Synopsis: The story of young Korean American professor Kyung Cho and his Irish-American wife, which leads to the story of the complicated relationship that Kyung has with his wealthy parents. Kyung’s parents immigrated from Korea to the US as his father went to graduate school in engineering. Growing up, they gave him every possible advantage—private tutors, expensive hobbies—but they never showed him kindness.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: It’s a family drama with a cross-cultural dimension: Kyung chose a white woman in part to distance himself from the rules of his own Korean upbringing, but can he make all of these relationships work?


forty-rooms_coverForty Rooms (Penguin, Feb 16, 2016)
Author: Olga Grushin
Expat credentials: Grushin was born in Moscow but is now based in the United States. She is an American citizen but retains Russian citizenship.
Synopsis: A Russian-born woman aspires to be a poet but ends up becoming Mrs. Caldwell, a housewife and mother in suburban America.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: Displaced writer Alexandra Fuller, who made my own list for 2015, was favorably impressed.


ways-to-disappear_coverWays to Disappear (Little, Brown and Company, Feb 9. 2016)
Author: Idra Novey
Expat credentials: Born in western Pennsylvania, Novey has lived in Chile, Brazil, and New York.
Synopsis: A noirish literary mystery with a translator at its center. Deep in gambling debt, the celebrated Brazilian writer Beatriz Yagoda is last seen holding a suitcase and a cigar and climbing into an almond tree. She abruptly vanishes. In snowy Pittsburgh, her American translator Emma hears the news and, against the wishes of her boyfriend and Beatriz’s two grown children, flies immediately to Brazil and tries to unravel the mystery.
How we heard about: Made the Publishers Weekly list of most anticipated debut novels of Spring 2016
Why we recommend: Novey is an award-winning poet. This is her first novel and it draws on her experience of working as a translator of Spanish and Portuguese literature.


the-photographers-wife_coverThe Photographer’s Wife (February 2, 2016)
Author: Suzanne Joinson
Expat credentials: For ten years Joinson worked part-time in the literature department of the British Council, traveling regularly in the Middle East, China, Russia, and Eastern and Western Europe. She has worked in and explored Yemen, Egypt, Syrian, Greece, and many other countries.
Synopsis: The casually glamorous Eleanora Ashton scandalizes the British expatriate community in Jerusalem by marrying a famous Arab photographer. But then she falls for William Harrington, a British pilot who is working for the architect Charles Ashton. The affair threatens her marriage, particularly when William discovers that her husband is part of an underground nationalist group intent on removing the British. Years later, in 1937, Ashton’s daughter Prue is an artist living a reclusive life in Shoreham, Sussex, with her son. Harrington arrives and what he reveals unravels her world.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: Like Joinson’s first novel, A Lady ­Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, set in Central Asia, the book is concerned with people who feel displaced; as the New York Times reviewer puts it, “they are looking for a guide, a map, some thread to lead them through the maze of their own lives.”


black-deutschland_coverBlack Deutschland (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 2, 2016)
Author: Darryl Pinckney
Expat credentials: A black writer from Indiana, Pinkney somehow ended up in the divided Berlin of the seventies and eighties and fell in love with it. Currently he divides his time between New York City, and Oxfordshire, UK.
Synopsis: It’s the early 1980s, and Jed, a young gay black American from Chicago who suffers from an addiction problem, has just finished reading Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. He is inspired to flee to Berlin in the tradition of other black writers and musicians: he hopes to escape American racism and homophobia.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: For black writers and musicians in the postwar era, Europe’s cultural capitals provided a space for people like Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Dexter Gordon, Nina Simone and many others to practice and be appreciated first and foremost as artists, rather than be caught up in America’s race tragedy. Pinkney’s second novel imparts an appreciation for this history.


what-belongs-to-you_coverWhat Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 19)
Author: Garth Greenwell
Expat credentials: Greenwell moved to Bulgaria to teach at the American College of Sofia in 2009. Because of his non-fluency in Bulgarian, he lived “between languages” but claims to have liked that experience.
Synopsis: An American teacher in Sofia, Bulgaria is barely able to keep up a conversation in Bulgarian or ascribe concrete value to the leva and stotinki he keeps in his wallet. But then he enters into a transactional romance with a handsome and enigmatic Bulgarian male hustler named Mitko. His love for Mitko remains unrequited, but the relationship forces him to grapple with his own fraught history, the world of his southern childhood where to be queer was to be a pariah. There are unnerving similarities between his past and the foreign country he finds himself in.
How we heard about: Made the Publishers Weekly list of most anticipated debut novels of Spring 2016
Why we recommend: As Jeffery Zuckerman puts it in his review for The New Republic:

“Garth Greenwell’s writing is alive to the foreign and the unknown; he opens our eyes to worlds we had not realized existed alongside our own. Even the landscape of Bulgaria, one of the poorest and least-known countries in Europe, is made vivid and vibrant.”


the-expatriates_coverThe Expatriates (Penguin Books, January 12, 2016)
Author: Janice Y. K. Lee
Expat credentials: Janice Y. K. Lee was born and raised in Hong Kong. She received a BA in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard College. A former editor at Elle magazine, Lee lives in New York with her husband and four children.
Synopsis: Lee explores with devastating poignancy the emotions, identities, and relationships of three very different American women living in the same small expat community in Hong Kong.
How we heard about: From the special “Border Crossings” edition of the New York Times Sunday Book Review, focusing on books about global migration.
Why we recommend: As novelist Maggie Pouncey put it in her review of the book, Janice Y.K. Lee is a “female, funny Henry James in Asia.”

* * *

And so we have it: our top picks for displaced fiction that came out in 2016. What do you think, dear reader? Are we missing something you think deserves to be on the list? Kindly let us know in the comments!

ML Awanohara, one of the Displaced Nation’s founders and its current editor, has a section in the weekly Displaced Dispatch where she mentions the latest expat books. Why not subscribe as a treat to yourself during the winter doldrums?

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: All photos via Pixabay or Morguefiles.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Writing in Finnish and English, expat novelist Emmi Itäranta creates fantasy worlds that feel palpably real

Location Locution Emmi Itaranta
Tracey Warr is here with a Finnish-born writer Emmi Itäranta, for whom displacement means living in another country (England) and writing dual-language dystopian novels. As a special note to long-time Displaced Nation readers, the book that had the greatest impact on Emmi as a child was Alice in Wonderland—until she discovered science fiction and fantasy.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers. My guest this month is Emmi Itäranta, who grew up in Tampere, a city surrounded by two lakes in southern Finland.

And if her childhood was spent in a territory located between Lakes Näsijärvi and Pyhäjärvi, she has chosen to spend her adulthood afloat between two languages, Finnish and English.

After earning an MA in Drama from the University of Finland and temping for a few years in jobs ranging from scriptwriter to press officer, she challenged herself to do an MA in Creative Writing in English at the University of Kent in the UK. As part of that course, she began writing her first novel, Memory of Water, working in English and Finnish simultaneously. As that title suggests, it’s set in a dystopian future where fresh water is scarce.

MoW US cover

England is now Emmi’s home: she has lived in Canterbury since 2007. But she continues to write fiction in both English and Finnish. (She speaks English at home with her Spanish husband.) Emmi feels that her books would be different altogether if she wrote them in only one language. In answer to an interviewer’s questions about the dual-language process that produced Memory of Water, she had the following to say:

I began writing the book in English because part of it formed my creative writing dissertation at the University of Kent, but early on I realised that drafting it in Finnish at the same time helped me polish the writing. The two languages seemed to support and inform each other. You get very, very close to the text when you work in two languages; translators often spot details that the author and editor may have missed. It is a slow process, and hard work, but ultimately I find it rewarding.

Emmi has now come out with her second novel. Published in Finnish in 2015, it has just now made its English-language debut in the UK with Harper Voyager, under the title The City of Woven Streets. The U.S. edition, to be published later this year, will be called The Weaver.
The Woven Streets The Weaver

The City of Woven Streets / The Weaver is a story about an island that is slowly sinking into the sea (if Emmi’s first book had too little water, this one has too much), and where dreaming is forbidden. It has elements of urban fantasy but its world has a feel of the past, rather than present or future. In a city where human life has little value, you must practice a craft if you want to stay alive.

Now let’s talk to Emmi about she gets her readers to experience these extraordinary settings.

* * *

Welcome, Emmi, to Location, Locution. Which comes first in your novels, story or location?

For my second novel, The Weaver / The City of Woven Streets, the location came first. I saw an imaginary city with its strange own internal laws and spent months writing scenes that simply explored the setting but were not yet connected by a story. This surprised me because in my first book, Memory of Water, the story and location were intertwined from the beginning. For that book, the first image that came to me was a young woman preparing tea in a dry future world. The story called for a specific location—far north, near the Arctic—and the location shaped the story.

For those who haven’t read Emmi’s first novel yet: The main character, Noria, lives near present-day Kuusamo, northern Finland, where she is learning to become a tea master in her father’s footsteps. By then Finland is ruled by an Asian superpower, and water for tea is a rare treasure.

Emmi, your novels have a strong sense of place. Can you tell us what techniques you use for evoking those feelings in your readers?

I try to imagine how the characters would experience the place through their senses. What are the shapes and colours surrounding them? How does the air smell and taste? How does the ground feel under their feet, what sounds does it make as they walk? What do they notice, what is relevant to them individually, but also as part of the community that inhabits this setting?

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

All of those, but I would also add things like weather and seasons. Furthermore, I think a sense of history is important, in fiction just as it is in real life. Even if we don’t know the history of a location in detail, the feeling that there is one helps make it more plausible and gives it depth.

Did you have any real cities in mine when you created the city in The Weaver / The City of Woven Streets?

Yes, The Weaver / The City of Woven Streets is set in a fantasy world but to make it feel tangibly real, I used my knowledge and impressions of old European cities I have visited, mainly Prague, Venice and Dubrovnik.

Cities that inspired The Weaver

Three of the European cities that inspired Emmi Itäranta’s city in her latest novel: Venice (center); Prague (bottom right); and Dubrovnik (other three photos).

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

I’d like to share a passage from the first chapter of The Weaver / The City of Woven Streets. It aims to create a sense of the surroundings my main character, Eliana, lives in, a world that is unfamiliar and recognisable at once:

I like the air gondola port because you cannot see the Tower from there: its tall, dark figure is concealed behind the wall and the buildings of the House of Webs. Here I can imagine for a moment that I am beyond the reach of the Council’s gaze. I like the port best at this hour, when the cables have not yet started creaking. The vessels are still, their weight hanging mid-air, or resting at the dock, or floating in the water of the canals. The gate cracks open without a sound. The wrought iron is cold against my skin, and the humidity gathered on its surface clings to my palms. The cable of the air route dives into the precipice, which begins at the rock landing of the port, and the city opens below. I walk along the landing close to the brink. It is steep as a broken bridge. Far below, the sharp edges of Halfway Canal cut through the guts of the island, outlining waters that always run dark, even in brightest summer light.

The sky has begun to fade into the colours of smoke and roses. The first light already clings to the rooftops and windows, to the glint of the Glass Grove a distance away. The flood has finally ceased to rise, and down in the city the water rests on streets and squares. Its surface is smooth and unbroken in the calm closeness of dawn: a strange mirror, like a dark sheet of glass enclosing a shadow double of the city.
The Weaver_quote

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

My stories tend to be set in the future or entirely fictional worlds, so you could say the settings are imaginary for the most part. However, I do use real places as inspiration and find that visiting them where possible really helps bring the fictional setting to life. For The Weaver / The City of Woven Streets, I looked at photographs and journals from my visits to different cities, particularly those with a long history. I’m always interested in trying to understand how different eras have shaped a place. So the end result becomes a mixture of imagination, history, memory and subjective experience.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

There are so many, but the first one that comes to mind is China Miéville and the strange geography of his novel The City and the City. It portrays two fictional cities that overlap, yet are distinct from each other with their own unique and recognisable features, cultures and complex unspoken agreements that define the border between the two. The setting almost becomes a character in its own right.

China Mieville The City and The City

Emmi Itäranta’s pick for a novelist who has mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Emmi, for your answers.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Emmi? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you would like to discover more about her, I suggest that you visit her author site. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! I loved hearing about the way Emmi’s imagination works, feeding on everything from linguistic differences to her travels within Europe. —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels with Impress Books. She just now published, in English and French, a future fiction novella, Meanda, set on a watery exoplanet, as an Amazon Kindle ebook. Her new historical novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in September.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Emmi’s author bio photo is by Heini Lehväslaiho. All other photos were supplied by the author or downloaded from Pixabay except for 1) in top collage: Cherub (Canterbury, England), by Upupa4me via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and 2) in bottom collage: Author China Mieville at Utopiales 2010 (France), self-photographed, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Under pseudonym A.J. MacKenzie, Canadian expat couple set crime fiction series in 18th-century Kent village

Location Locution Mackenzie
Tracey Warr is back, this time with a Canadian couple who are practically British—to the point where they have even started writing quintessentially British crime fiction! **Who would like to win a wonderfully atmospheric murder mystery set in Romney Marsh? Two copies on offer. Details below.**

My guests this month, Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel, have written more than twenty non-fiction books between them, on subjects ranging from doing business in China and managing for success (Morgen) to medieval warfare and economic history (Marilyn). They are also the joint authors of The Road to Crécy: The English Invasion of France, 1346.

But today we’ll be talking about a work of fiction they have produced. The Body on the Doorstep is their first novel as a couple—and the fulfilment of a long-held dream. Fiction writing is where their heart lies, and this novel is just the beginning of a planned series featuring a pair of unlikely sleuths: the tipsy Reverend Hardcastle and the widow, Amelia Chaytor.

Marilyn grew up in Ontario, in the suburbs of Toronto, while Morgen’s family come from northern British Columbia. They met at the University of Victoria, where both were studying history, and married two years later, taking two years out from university to work and travel in Europe before returning to complete their degrees. They were determined to come back to Britain and settle there if possible. “From almost the first moment of arrival, I felt at home here,” says Marilyn.

They came back to Britain in 1987, living in London and then for 12 years in Kent before moving to Devon in 2000. After nearly thirty years living in Britain, both are a little confused by the question, “What is it like to live abroad?”

For them, England is home; Canada is abroad, even though both still have strong family ties in the latter. Questions of ethnicity and belonging, for them, are complex. While both feel that Devon and England are home, they are also very much aware of being Canadians, immigrants.

That sense of being an immigrant, of being from somewhere else, was helpful when it came to the two lead characters of The Body on the Doorstep. Reverend Hardcastle knows his smuggling parishioners well, but is well aware he is not one of them. Amelia Chaytor is also an outsider, a widow still bitterly grieving, and craving solitude. The immigrant experience, say Marilyn and Morgen, taught them about the self-reliance and self-sufficiency, qualities they have passed on to their characters.

Growing up in northern Canada in the 1960s, Morgen lived an essentially pre-modern lifestyle without electricity, running water or most of the conveniences of modern life. That, he says, makes it easier to empathise with people living their lives by candlelight and drawing water from wells in late 18th-century England. Whereas Marilyn feels a little displaced: how did a medievalist end up writing novels set in the late 18th century? She is still looking for an answer.

* * *

Welcome, Morgen and Marilyn, to Location, Locution. Can I ask which came first, story or location?

We had to stop and think about this one, because we couldn’t remember! But probably it was the location, Romney Marsh, because that is so crucial to the book. Romney Marsh is a very distinctive and particular space, a flat open plain jutting out into the sea and fenced off from the rest of Kent by hills. In the early 19th century the Reverend Barham nicknamed the Marsh “the Fifth Continent” because it was so obviously different from the land around it.

This is a historical novel, set during the time of the French Revolution, and the themes involve smuggling, spying and the threat of imminent invasion. You couldn’t ask for a better location for this story; and to a large extent, the location shaped the story and became part of it.
Body on the Doorstep_cover_400x

What techniques do you use for evoking place in your novel? After all, the action takes place long ago.

For us, the key thing is to engage the senses. We like to do more than just describe the visual image of a place. We try to engage as many of the senses as possible, to make the reader feel as if they are actually there.

Sound is vital: the hiss of wind in trees, the suck and roar of waves on shingle beaches, the bleating of sheep, the sound of bees, the rattle of silver in the dining room. Sounds evoke very powerful images, as do smells: of mud, dung, fine wine, perfume, gunsmoke. One feels the glow of a fire, the hot sun on one’s face that causes sweat to break out, the bitter tang of a north wind bearing snow. And taste too: on a stormy day by the sea you taste salt spray on your lips. You taste the food you eat, from stale ship’s biscuit to quails with Madeira sauce. Combining all the senses can make people feel they are part of the scene, not just onlookers, and that is what we try to do.

Also, we tend not to stop and engage in long descriptions of landscape or scene. Most of our descriptions of the landscape/location are made while characters are on the move. Their interaction with the location is key. Those are okay if the landscape or scene is particularly important, or dramatic, but there is always a risk that you will interrupt the flow. We try to introduce a sense of movement into our descriptions.

Ideally, the scene should be dynamic, not static. Even it is just lambs jumping and playing in a meadow, there is something happening so that readers can focus their attention. Just as with the sensory details, the aim is to make readers feel like they have stepped through the looking glass. They are not just watching, they are there, participating.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

Everything. We’re historical novelists, and everything about people’s lives can be used to give a sense of place, and most importantly, of place-in-time; that is, a particular place at a defined moment in time. So it is landscape, culture, food, dress, methods of transport, housing, drugs, servants, weapons; all the things that tell readers where and when the action is happening.

We also find weather an important scene-setter because weather affects mood so much; it can impact on the mood of the characters, and if we get it right, even the readers. Again, as historical novelists, weather is even more important because, except for the very well-to-do, there was no escape from it. There was no central heating, no rubber boots, no Gortex. People lived with the weather and in the weather, and experienced and felt it far more than we do now.

That said, it is really important not to go overboard and start sounding like an encyclopedia when describing a location. We have a term we use when we think we are indulging in too much description: “Reykjavik”.

Yes, we’d better explain that, hadn’t we? While travelling in Europe on honeymoon, during a very cold winter many years ago, we both read a thriller that happened to be lying around. In the course of the story, the hero is travelling on a plane from Washington to Moscow. Midway through the journey the plane lands in Reykjavik. There then follows a short essay on Iceland, its geography, history, economy, politics, culture and so on, all very accurate and detailed. We waited to see how the story would unfold in Iceland. Instead, the plane refuelled and took off again, without the hero setting foot on the ground! So, “Reykjavik” is code for “interesting detail which does not actually set the scene or advance the story”.
Reykjavic code

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

We’ll offer two, if we may, each of which illustrates a particular way of how we (try to) do it. In the first, the two heroes, Mrs Chaytor and Reverend Hardcastle, are driving back to St Mary in the Marsh. Mrs Chaytor has the reins.

They trotted briskly through Brenzett, and once past the village she whipped up on the long straight to Old Romney. The gig flew down the road, so fast that the rector had to hold onto his hat.

‘What puzzles you now?’ she called over the noise of iron-shod hooves and iron-rimmed wheels.

‘Two men died that night, half a mile apart and within five minutes of each other.’

‘I see. You wonder if the two events might be related. Either your killer, or your victim, or both, might have had some connection with the smugglers.’

‘What other reason would either have for being out on the Marsh on the night of a new moon?’

‘I see your point,’ said his companion thoughtfully, shaking the reins and urging the horse to further speed. ‘It does not feel like a coincidence, does it?’

‘Over the years, I have learned to distrust the very idea of coincidence,’ said the rector, clutching again at his hat. ‘My dear Mrs Chaytor, there is a dray in the road ahead.’

There was indeed a dray in the road ahead, loaded with timber and drawn by two plodding horses. Mrs Chaytor touched the reins to guide the pony and, without slackening speed, pulled around the dray on the outside, one wheel running onto the grass verge, and then swerved back onto the road. The driver of the dray, startled out of his doze, yelled abuse after her. The rector stared at his companion, wondering where she had learned to drive. Thereafter he concentrated on holding his seat as they shot through Old Romney at a speed that left chickens squawking indignantly in the road behind them, and raced on towards the coast. Only on the outskirts of St Mary did she slacken speed, and she trotted the gig sedately up the high street towards the church.
Hold your seat Old Romney

Here, we’re trying to keep things moving. The emphasis is on both picture and speed; that’s the dynamic aspect we talked about.

In contrast, here is the scene where a group of smugglers are ambushed on the Marsh:

From somewhere up ahead there was a hissing noise, like a snake preparing to strike. Suddenly light exploded across the Marsh, an eerie, shivering, unearthly blue light that showed the scene before them in garish contrast. The light glowed off a column of men making their way silently across the Marsh, masked and hooded men with weapons cradled in their arms. Nearer at hand, other men crouched in the grass or in a ditch, their own weapons levelled.

The imperative here is different. Something very violent is about to happen. The scene is deliberately static; we give you detail of what you can see, so that you have it clear in your heads before everything explodes. We use the blue light of the flare to make the scene shocking and disturbing.

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

Very well, but not too well. You have to know it well enough to appreciate its distinctiveness, for your purposes, the things that make it stand out. That means visiting the place, of course, and not just driving through it. It is really important to get out and walk the ground, get your boots dirty, as anthropologists say. Look at the landscapes and the buildings, and talk to people: they will give you all sorts of details you will find nowhere else.

As historical novelists, we also need to get to know that place-in-time, which means stripping away the veneer of roads and bridges and power stations and housing estates and trying to work out what the places looked like in 1796. Documentary sources are a great help with this, as are maps. For example, Romney Marsh today is crossed by modern, tarmacked roads. In our period, as the geographer Hasted writes, apart from the high road from Appledore to New Romney and on to Dymchurch, most roads on the Marsh were distinguished from their surrounding fields only by the presence of a fence on either side.

But you can get to know a landscape almost too well. Again, there comes the urge to describe it in such intimate detail that you lose sight of the story. When that happens: time to call “Reykjavik!”

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

Lindsey Davis does a marvelous job with ancient Rome. Fountain Court, where her detective hero, Falco, lives, comes alive; we can see it, and hear its sounds, and smell its smells (she is particularly good with smells). Dorothy Dunnett made the Scottish borders feel like an old friend long before we ever visited them; years after first reading The Game of Kings, walking in Yarrowdale we expected to see Lymond and his horsemen sweeping over the hills. Dick Francis makes you absolutely feel like you are on the back of a horse. Andrea Camilleri evokes Sicily in the same way that Donna Leon evokes Venice; reading their books, you can close your eyes and you are there. But the master is Tolstoy. Be it a battlefield, a ball or a sleigh ride in a winter forest, he does it with both artistry and craft. He puts you there, in the middle of it all, as a participant. One can only admire.

Fave Books Mackenzie

AJ MacKenzie’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Marilyn and Morgen, for your thoughtful answers.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Marilyn and Morgen? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you would like to discover more about A.J. MacKenzie, you can visit their author site and blog. You can also follow them on Twitter.

BOOK GIVEAWAY***********
I have two free copies of A.J. MacKenzie’s new novel to give away to the first two readers to send the correct answer to the question: How many wheels does an 18th-century gig have? Please email your answers ASAP to traceykwarr@gmail.com
***********************

À bientôt! Till next time when my guest will be a Finnish novelist who lives in England, and writes about the future.

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! I love the way AJ MacKenzie bring the past alive in the Kent marshes. And to think, they are both Canucks! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels and her forthcoming novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in the autumn.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). All other photos supplied by the authors or downloaded from Pixabay, with the exception of: Two Gigs in Trouble, a painting by Thomas Rowlandson, located at Yale Center for British Art, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)..

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Deborah Lawrenson’s latest novel is inspired by the beautiful and dramatic Algarve coast—plus she’s giving away a copy!

Tracey Warr is back with her latest interview guest, the novelist Deborah Lawrenson, who started out life as a diplomatic kid (in America we call them “foreign service brats,” with “brat” being used in a good way). **NOTE: Deborah is giving away a copy of her latest book, 300 Days of Sun. Details below.**

My guest this month is British novelist Deborah Lawrenson—who, as the child of diplomatic service parents, was displaced from an early age, spending her childhood moving from Kuwait to China, Belgium, Luxembourg and Singapore.

After graduating from Cambridge University, Deborah worked as a journalist in London, the highlight of which was working under gossip columnist Nigel Dempster, until she built up her confidence to start writing novels. She has now produced eight, including:

  • The Lantern, a modern gothic tale set in the lush countryside of Provence, in the tradition of Daphne de Maurier’s Rebecca; has been a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic; featured on Channel 4’s TV Book Club (watch discussion HERE).
  • The Art of Falling, which was chosen for the prestigious WHSmith Fresh Talent promotion (2005)—set mostly in Italy, past and present.
  • The Sea Garden, consisting of three novellas set in southern France.
  • Songs of Blue and Gold, a love story set in a lush, richly imagined Corfu, inspired by the life of British writer Lawrence Durrell (incidentally, ITV recently screened a hit drama series based on the Durrells’ expat life in Corfu).

Deborah’s latest novel, 300 Days of Sun, which came out in April, is an atmospheric tale of spies and lies set in Portugal.

Deborah lives in Kent with her husband and daughter—though the family spends as much time as possible at a crumbling hamlet in the Luberon region of Provence, France.

* * *

Welcome, Deborah, to Location, Locution. Can I ask which came first, story or location?

In the case of my new novel, 300 Days of Sun, it was definitely location (though this isn’t always the case with my books). I went to Faro, in southern Portugal, to accompany my 17-year-old daughter when she enrolled in a two-week Portuguese course in the town. While she got to grips with a new language, I wandered around the old town with my notebook and camera, and let my imagination flow. Once I was inspired by the setting, I began to research the history of the country—and was drawn to the fascinating years of the Second World War when Portugal, as a neutral country, was a cauldron of intrigue, spies, enemies, opportunists and double-dealers. Since then, the beautiful and dramatic Algarve coast has become known as a wonderful, friendly place to spend time in the sun—three hundred days of it a year—but there have been some dark events there too, in particular, a notorious case of child abduction.

What techniques do you use for evoking place in your stories? After all, the action takes place long ago.

I’m quite a visual person, so I will always try to paint a vivid picture of the landscapes and immediate surroundings of my characters. Recently someone very kindly—and perceptively—told me that when I evoke a sense of place, it should more accurately be termed “the senses” of place. That is what I try to do: to write sensuously, to make the narrative conjure up the sounds and feel, and the smells, of the story. It’s the details that help the reader feel immersed in a place or time, and I do carefully research to make the transportation as accurate as possible.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

It’s all of these. You could argue that they are all interlinked anyway, as the culture of a place develops from its unique landscape. Whether that’s the harsh pragmatism of a people scratching a living from the soil of the Provençal uplands, or the geographical situation of Portugal that made it an historically outward-looking seafaring nation and the last escape hatch of Europe during WWII, the physical attributes of a place will influence the character and achievements of its inhabitants. If there was one unifying factor in the novels I write, it would probably be that. And food is simply another aspect of it: fish by the sea; cheese in the mountains from the goats and sheep that are the most viable form of livestock; endless variety in the melting pots of the great cosmopolitan cities.

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

Here are a couple of paragraphs setting the scene in Faro, from the opening pages of 300 Days of Sun:

“My first few days in the country, I was astonished by how many Russian tourists there were here, chattering in the shops and streets. Then I realised: to the uninitiated, Portuguese sounds like Russian. The language is nothing like the soft singsong of Spanish or Italian. The sounds shush and slip around like the shining, sliding cobblestones under your feet.”

“The temperature was climbing. The air was heavy with orange dust from the Sahara that fell like a sprinkling of paprika powder over the town’s white sills and ledges. I walked down to the ferry, needing to get out over water to catch some fresh wind. As the boat ploughed through green salt marshes, I did breathe more easily.”

"The air [in Faro] was heavy with orange dust from the Sahara..."

“The air [in Faro] was heavy with orange dust from the Sahara…”

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

Obviously, knowing a place well will give a novel real depth, as I hope I achieved in The Lantern and The Sea Garden, both set in the South of France, which is my second home. However, I do think it’s possible to visit somewhere relatively briefly but to look hard and use what you see as the basis of a setting, so long as you do some decent research as well. After all, the characters in a novel might only visit a particular place once, and in that case, first impressions will be very useful.

The Lantern and The Sea Garden are both set in the South of France, Deborah's second home.

The Lantern and The Sea Garden are both set in the South of France, Deborah’s second home.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

For me, Lawrence Durrell is the undisputed master. I also love the way Mary Stewart and Daphne du Maurier combined evocative locations with romantic suspense.

Deborah's picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Deborah’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Deborah.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Deborah? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you would like to discover more about Deborah you can visit her author site and blog, where she writes not only about her books but all things inspired by the South of France. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

BOOK GIVEAWAY*******************************
Deborah is offering a free copy of her new novel as a prize. To enter the competition please “Like” Deborah Lawrenson’s Facebook page. Then find the link on her page to this interview and enter a comment underneath.
***************************************************

À bientôt! Till next time when my guests will be a Canadian husband and wife team who write novels together about a pair of unusual sleuths in an 18th-century Kent village, and who are themselves displaced inhabitants there.

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! I note that one of the Channel 4 reviewers raved about Deborah’s first book for its “extraordinary description of place and descriptions of smell”; and readers have asked her if they can get the perfume, Lavande de Nuit, she describes in that work. (As it turns out, it exists only in her imagination!) —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels and her forthcoming novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in the autumn.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). All other photos supplied by the author, apart from those of Kuwait and Cambridge, which are from Pixabay.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Scottish expat writer Clare Kane’s novel immerses readers in 1930s Shanghai—plus we’re giving away her book and Donna Leon’s latest!

New columnist Tracey Warr arrives with her first interview guest, the displaced Scottish writer, Clare Kane. **NOTE: Help celebrate her opening column by becoming one of the lucky readers to win Clare’s book and Donna Leon’s latest. Details below.**

My guest this month is novelist Clare Kane. She was born in Scotland but has lived most of her life elsewhere. After studying Chinese at Oxford and working as a Reuters journalist in Madrid, she is currently living in Shanghai, where she works in marketing for TNS (she has a fellowship with WPP, the world’s largest communications services group). She spends her free time exploring the city’s past which she vividly evokes in her debut novel, Electric Shadows of Shanghai.

(And when she’s not writing about the past or researching markets, she’s writing about fashion and why we wear what we wear.)

Electric Shadows of Shanghai creates a fascinating world populated by British diplomats and wives, American journalists, glamorous stars of the Chinese silent film and Russian taxi-dancers turned ballerinas. It poignantly captures how the dreams and desires of these expat and Chinese inhabitants of the city lead them to interact and clash.

Electric-Shadows-high-res-cover-400x

Clare and I share a publisher, Impress Books, but have never met.

Let’s meet her now and hear her views on location, locution.

* * *

Welcome, Clare, to Location, Locution, and thank you for agreeing to be my very first guest. Can I ask which came first, story or location?

Location without a doubt. I’ve always been fascinated by China, and most of my short fiction writing is set there. But time also plays a part. As you pointed out in your introduction, my novel Electric Shadows of Shanghai is set in the 1930s, a particularly rich era in Shanghai’s history when as a free port it attracted people from all over the world: Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, White Russians escaping the Bolsheviks and plenty of adventurers looking to make their fortune.

The story couldn’t have taken place anywhere but Shanghai in the 1930s. Plots are built on conflict and the tensions that existed then helped shaped the story. China was pushing towards modernity, women were bobbing their hair and young men were returning from overseas educations to promote foreign ideas of democracy but these advances were overshadowed by political tensions, the constant threat of Japan and inequalities between rich and poor.

I knew I wanted to write about Shanghai, which has long been my favourite place in the world. Prior to living here each visit was a jolt to the senses, a reminder I was alive. The novel was also driven by my interest in Ruan Lingyu, a silent film actress from the time popular for her modern fashions, progressive ideas and films tackling tough social realities. I also wanted to write about the Russians who came to Shanghai, aristocrats who found themselves working as bodyguards and nightclub dancers (and those were the lucky ones). And I’d long had an idea in my head about a British couple coming to the city and it tearing their marriage apart (as it still does to this day). I pulled these various threads together into one plot and that is Electric Shadows of Shanghai

What techniques do you use for evoking place in your stories? After all, the action takes place long ago.

First, I have to get a hold on the atmosphere myself. With Shanghai it’s easy: I live here. Evoking the past is harder, but not impossible. The city is full of Art Deco haunts almost unchanged from their glory days in the 1930s, where for a moment you can feel like you’ve travelled in time. I also think that despite all the changes that have taken place over the last century, Shanghai probably feels very much as it did in the 1930s. A place of possibility, drawing eclectic characters from around the world. The seedy underbelly that existed then is still here now. And the clash of high and low living—cocktail bars next to noodle stalls—is still very much present.

But I don’t think you should bore the reader with lengthy descriptions of place. It’s about building on any impressions they may already have of a place by weaving in details to the narrative and letting their imaginations do the rest. No reader is a blank slate and I’ve found that even people who have never been to Shanghai nor given the place much thought have an impression of exoticism and glamour when they hear “Shanghai”. It’s my job to build on that, encouraging certain ideas and tearing down others.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

Tapping into senses other than sight is vital. Descriptions of buildings and landscapes get dull very quickly. I find it’s the snippets of sound, the wafts of smell, that really build a place in the mind. But the people are perhaps most indicative of a place. Not in terms of what it looks like on a map but in how it shapes people. When I look at the characters in my novel many of them are striving, determined to build something in the city, while others are more dissolute, giving in to the sleaze and losing themselves to the night. Each type—and no character is completely clear-cut—reflects their surroundings in their actions.

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

These are the opening lines of Electric Shadows of Shanghai:

Over a million women in Shanghai and one in thirteen a prostitute. Another myth of the Orient, Will thought, when Rollo told him a couple of hours earlier. But he recalled it now on the threshold of the Paradise, its neon promise reflected on the cobbles of the alleyway darkening in milky dusk. They were right on the edge of the International Settlement now, where the sombre society of the Bund gave way to the sweet tang of the night that made the two syllables of Shanghai so thrilling to the foreign ear.

I wanted to plunge the reader into Old Shanghai right away, and I tried to do this both through literal description and by inviting the reader to recall their own impressions of Shanghai (“so thrilling to the foreign ear”).

You live in Shanghai and describe yourself as a Chinese history geek. IN general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

I have written about places I’ve never visited and I don’t think writers should rule somewhere out just because they aren’t personally familiar with it. Writing is about imagination, after all. It depends on how key place is to the story, how much knowing where this street meets that one impacts on the plot. You run the risk of offending people if you misrepresent a place and doubly so if you’ve never even been there. But if it’s the mood of the place that matters—the bustle of New York in the 1980s, the bleakness of the North Korean countryside—rather than the reality of it, I don’t think we should be precious about places. But research is always key. If you’re not going to research a place, why use it? Just invent a place instead.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

One of my favourite authors is Janice Y K Lee, who has written two novels about Hong Kong. Both are incredibly evocative. She captures the place on every level: the physical look and feel of it and the society that populates the islands. She very gently unravels all the tensions of the place and I love that in her latest book, The Expatriates, she does that through the stories of various women living there.

I’m also a big fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I know absolutely nothing about Nigeria but she brings it to life with every word. She makes the reader feel totally comfortable, unveiling place and history as part of an engaging story. I love that she weaves the stories of everyday people into huge historical events. She humanises history. And like Lee, place is key to her novels. They couldn’t take place anywhere else.

Clare's picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Clare’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Clare.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Clare? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you would like to discover more about Clare, you can visit her author site. You can also follow her on twitter.

*******************************BOOK GIVEAWAY*******************************
To celebrate the launch of this new series of interviews, I am giving away:

1) A copy of Donna Leon’s new Brunetti novel, The Waters of Eternal Youth, the 25th in this excellent series, available for the first two readers (US addresses only for this one I’m afraid!) to email Tracey with the names of Brunetti’s wife and children. Answers to traceykwarr@gmail.com

2) A free ebook (via Apple iBooks store) of Clare Kane’s Electric Shadows of Shanghai for the first two readers (anywhere) to email Tracey with the name of the main river that flows through Shanghai. Answers to traceykwarr@gmail.com
****************************************************************************

À bientôt! Till next time when my guest will be an English novelist living part-time in France and writing about Portugal in her new novel.

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! Shanghai in the 1930s was its own kind of displaced nation, so what a great choice of author/book to kick off the series. And that giveaway—it’s fabulous! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels and her forthcoming novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in the autumn.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top of page: (LOCATION ROW) Author photo and book cover (supplied); The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). (LOCUTION ROW) “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); 24 Shanghai street scene, by mksfca via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); Shanghai street scenes 1, by Wolfgang Staudt via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Writer Tracey Warr is a troubadour of medieval life, telling stories she collects from roaming far and wide

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest, and last(!), interview guest.

My guest this month is Tracey Warr, a writer of fiction and nonfiction who was born in London and lived there for a substantial portion of her life—but these days can be found in Pembrokeshire, in the south west of Wales; on the Aveyron in southern France; or in transit.

Actually, Tracey is more than just a guest; from next month onwards, she will be assuming the reins of the Location, Locution column. I’ve enjoyed my time interviewing a variety of talented expat authors, and I thank you all for your comments and for being part of my writing life.

I know you will be in good hands with Tracey, who already has lots of interesting interviews lined up for you. But first, like Jill Marsh and I before her, Tracey will introduce herself and her writing by answering the Location, Locution interview questions.

Tracey has enjoyed two illustrious careers. Her day job for many years was as an academic specialist in contemporary art history and theory. She studied English Literature at Oxford University and holds a PhD in Art History. She held the post of senior lecturer for 15 years, teaching art history and theory in not only the UK but also Germany and the Netherlands. She has been involved in art curation projects all over the world, including in Australia, the USA, Spain, Lithuania, Norway and Finland. She has a long list of published books and articles and contributes art book reviews to Times Higher Education. Her most recent publication in the contemporary art field is the edited volume Remote Performances in Nature and Architecture, which came out last year with Routledge.

But if Tracey’s head is in the world of contemporary art, her heart belongs to historical fiction. After earning an MA in Creative Writing at University of Wales Trinity St Davids in Carmarthen, she entered her second career: writing fiction and biographies inspired by the landscapes and medieval histories of southern France and south west Wales.

If Tracey’s head is in the world of contemporary art, her heart belongs to historical fiction. Photo credits: (top row) The mind via Pixabay; cover art for Warr’s recent book; (middle row) Tracey Warr author photo; Map bastides in 1271, by FRAMYJO, Wikimedia Commons (public domain); (bottom row) Hearts via Pixabay; Ramon Berenguer I and his wife, Almodis de la Marche, counting out 2,000 ounces of gold coins, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Thus far Tracey has published two novels set in early medieval France, Spain and Wales: Almodis the Peaceweaver (2011) and The Viking Hostage (2014). Her new novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, due out later this year, focuses on the 12th-century Welsh princess Nest ferch Rhys and the Welsh resistance to the Normans. In addition, Tracey is working on a biography entitled Three Female Lords, charting the lives and interactions of three medieval sisters who ruled in 11th-century southern France and Catalonia.

Tracey has already garnered numerous awards in her new career as a novelist and biographer. I won’t go on to list them because I am eager to get to our interview, but I urge you to read about her accolades on the page created by her publisher, Impress Books.

And now let’s meet Tracey Warr and hear her views on location, locution.

* * *

Welcome, Tracey, to Location, Locution, a column that will soon be yours! You have a strong sense of place in your historical novels, but tell us, which comes first, story or location?

Thank you, Lorraine, for hosting me and I look forward to assuming the column reins next month. In answer to your question: location! I was staying in a friend’s house in a remote village in the Tarn Valley in southern France for four months during a very cold winter. I visited the nearby medieval castle and village of Brousse-le-Château with my nephew, who was around 10 at the time and asked me to write a story about the castle. He loved it when I made up stories, and actually had me under a “contract” to write him at least one story a year—a hard task-master! During my research I came across an extraordinary real woman, Almodis de La Marche—and realised she would make a fascinating adult novel. The incidents of her life astonished me and I had to become a self-taught historian to discover more and more about her and then imagine what had happened during the gaps in the historical evidence. The landscape in this part of France is littered with spectacular castles and medieval bastide towns clustered around hilltops and connected by rivers, which served as highways in medieval times, so it became a process of location initiating and then feeding the development of the story.

Almodis inspiration

During her research on the castle, Tracey Warr came across an extraordinary real woman, Almodis de La Marche. Photo credits: Brousse-le-Château and Almodis cover art (supplied).

I’m particularly fascinated by watery landscapes—rivers, estuaries, coasts and islands. My second novel and the third one I’m working on now also began with landscapes—the Welsh islands off the coast of Pembrokeshire and the great triple river estuary at Carmarthen Bay.

What techniques do you use for evoking place in your stories? After all, the action takes place long ago.

If possible go there, take photographs, experience it, make notes on how it smells, sounds, feels, looks. The small details you gain from walking the ground are invaluable. The novel I’m writing at the moment centres around a number of medieval castles in Wales. I spent a few days staying in the village of Llansteffan near one of the castles, walking the cliffs and looking down on the spectacular river estuary and the dangerous tides and sandbanks of Carmarthen Bay. Watching birds hovering in the wind, seeing the weather lowering and rain coming in fast—I’ve used all those details in the novel. Although I’m writing historical fiction and many things have changed in a place, there are also many things that don’t change.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

I use all of those, with landscape probably dominating, but I also use objects in museums, the literature of the times and places and medieval cookery books to help me evoke places. My characters need to eat, sleep, work, travel, use the garderobe and observe the rhythms of medieval life. A map of 11th-century Toulouse, a model of Viking Dublin, a Viking serpent brooch, medieval objects such as the Dunstable Swan Jewel, a medieval book of hours, the poetry of the female troubadours—all have been vital in helping me to create my fictional locations.

The Viking Hostage influences

Medieval objects such as the Dunstable Swan Jewel have been vital in helping Tracey create her fiction. Photo credits: (clockwise from top left) The Viking Hostage cover art, Dunstable Swan Jewel (British Museum), print from a Viking brooch (all supplied); Labors of the Months: May, from a Flemish Book of Hours (Bruges) via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Books such as medieval historian Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, which treats that distant time like the Rough Guide series, are full of helpful details on everyday life. I do a lot of historical, literary, material culture and visual research, picking out details that I can use and adapt to my story to create a credible world for my readers to step into. I started writing medieval fiction as a kind of holiday in time away from my academic work with contemporary art, so I try to recreate that experience for the reader. I hope that when they have their noses in my books, sitting on the Tube in London, on a train going to Birmingham, in their modern bedrooms and living rooms or on a crowded beach, they find themselves travelling with my characters to 11th-century Barcelona, 10th-century Tallinn (in Estonia), 12th-century Pembroke—or they are on a Viking ship or a medieval passenger boat plying up and down the Thames.

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

In The Viking Hostage I used my knowledge of traditional markets in France and modern-day Tallinn to help me create the opening scene in the 10th-century Tallinn slave market:

A list of items for sale was called out in the marketplace. I was described as one female Northchild, but my name is Sigrid Thorolfsdottir. I am for sale along with my brothers, Thorgils and Olafr, who stand either side, holding my hands.

‘Ease up Sigrid,’ Thorgils whispers to me, ‘you’re crunching the bones of my hand. It will be alright.’

I try to relax my grip on his knuckles and look out at the few buyers staring up at the platform where we stand barefoot. Most of the crowd have gone since we are the last and least interesting item. Around the edges of the market square tall, thin houses are painted in gay colours. Awnings above the stalls flap in the slight breeze, their colours leached out by sun. Apples, nuts and cheeses are carefully arranged in small mounds and circles. Chickens are panicking in wooden cages. If I squint my eyes I can just see the sun sparkling on the sea in the distance, beyond the square and the buildings, and the buyers.

‘Three fine children of the Northmen, already growing muscled and hard-working,’ Klerkon, the slaver, shouts to the sparse audience, pushing up the grimy sleeve of Thorgils’ shift and pinching the flesh of his bicep, leaving white fingerprints against the brown skin. I glance up at the angry muscle shifting in my brother’s cheek.

Medieval markets

“A list of items for sale was called out in the marketplace. I was described as one female Northchild…” Photo credits: Talinn, Estonia (Old Town) via Pixabay; Villefranche-de-Rouergue market (supplied).

Later on in the novel my heroines are held hostage by Vikings on a Welsh island. I blended together the real Welsh islands of Caldey and Skomer, which were actually occupied by Vikings, to create my fictional island.

We climb the hill in the direction Thorgils indicated. As we move up the path we alarm plump brown curlews with long curving beaks like darning needles that are nesting in the brilliant green bracken. Large dragon-flies fly towards us swerving at the last minute. From the top of the hill we can discern the rough diamond shape of the island, cliffs spearing out erratically into the blue sea on all sides and ravines full of white flowers. Our eyes crease against the brightness of the light reflecting from the surrounding water. There is an overwhelming sense of space. The grey cliffs are dotted with short bright green grass and yellow lichen. To the left comes the regular boom of the sea in a rocky blow-hole. The white foam of waves studded with black boulders look like a thin necklace slung around the coast. Thick green and yellow seaweed rolls back and forth on the strand. The irregular patchwork of fields established by the monks where the thralls now labour, blanket the rocks and undulations of the island. Planes of colour are visible in the sea—greens, dark blues, grey-blues, grey-greens and blacks. Strings of other islands in the distance look as if they have been dropped out of the sky from a giant’s hand.

The island is teeming with life. Raucous screeching seabirds wheel around us, sit on nests on the narrow ledges of the guano-streaked cliffs like a great shrieking city, skid across the surface of the ocean carrying flapping fish in their beaks, plunge-dive at dark clouds of mackerel. Aina and I lay on our bellies on the edge of the cliff, watching the birds. There are fat black and white birds with striped beaks and long talons like the fingers of a lute player.

Blend of two islands

“Planes of colour are visible in the sea—greens, dark blues, grey-blues, grey-greens and blacks.” Photo credits: (top) Sea cave right through Skomer; view of the sea through Llansteffan Castle (both supplied).

How well do you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

It helps to know a place well from living there or visiting and making detailed research. But I also sometimes completely imagine a place without going there, or I transpose my knowledge and experiences of one place to somewhere else. In my first novel I had to write about a journey across the Pyrenees. At the time I’d never been there so I used maps together with experiences of the Scottish Highlands to conjure it. Now I have spent quite a lot of time in writing residencies in the Pyrenees and would probably write it differently—but I hope the ‘Scottish’ version still worked in the novel for the readers. I find that if I really imagine a place or a building in my own head, such as the Norman motte-and-bailey castle at Cardiff that I’m writing about at the moment, this can drive the plot. Certain scenes and events happen because of the layout of a place, because I’m imagining moving through that place with my characters.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

Donna Leon—in her Commissario Brunetti series, she makes me feel that I am in Venice, wandering the streets, riding boats in the canals with Brunetti, dropping into a corner bar for a glass of wine or a quick coffee, accompanying him on his way home for a delicious lunch with his smart, Henry-James-loving wife. Being in Venice with Brunetti is at least 60 percent of the charm of reading those books, and the murder mystery is the rest. British historical crime writer Antonia Hodgson—her 18th-century London in her recent novel, The Devil in Marshalsea, is absolutely believable and alarming. And Wilkie Collins—in The Moonstone, he creates a vivid landscape and mansion that his story unfolds within, and he infuses place with emotions and suspense.

Fave books for place Tracey Warr

Tracey’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Tracey!

* * *

Readers, any questions for Tracey? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you’d like to discover more about Tracey before she begins her column next month, why not visit her author site. You can also follow her on twitter.

And with that, I bid you a fond adieu!

* * *

Thanks, Lorraine! You’ve introduced us to so many fabulous writers, an experience that has touched all of us who have been inspired by the landscapes we’ve visited, or in many cases, have made into our homes. We hope you’ll drop by the Displaced Nation every so often and see what we’re up to. Don’t be a stranger!! —ML Awanohara

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!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

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).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Pining for her native Emerald Isle, Sheila Bugler writes crime novels with Irish connections

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

Part of being an Irish emigrant, whether in the UK or farther afield, is a nostalgia for the homeland and its green fields and rich, dark soil—as my guest this month, crime writer Sheila Bugler, will attest.

Sheila grew up in a small town in the west of Ireland. After studying psychology at University College Galway, she left her native land for a life abroad, working in Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland and Argentina. Today she lives with her husband and two children in Eastbourne, a seaside resort town on the south coast of England. Despite being settled in the UK, she pines for Ireland and describes herself as a “reluctant emigrant.”

Sheila Bugler Ireland England

What’s more, these intense feelings for the Emerald Isle are what fuels her creative efforts. Sheila is the author of an acclaimed mystery series published by Brandon Books, an imprint of Ireland’s O’Brien Press, consisting so far of three books of a planned six: Hunting Shadows (2013), The Waiting Game (2014), and All Things Nice (forthcoming, April 2016). The series features Detective Inspector Ellen Kelly, a character whose “Irish roots shine through,” as one Amazon reviewer puts it, and is set amongst the displaced Irish community in southeast London.

As Sheila remarked in an interview with Triskele Books:

I adore Ireland and miss it (despite being very happy in the UK). For me, writing really is a way of connecting with my country. I write Irish characters (not exclusively, of course) and it was always very important to me that Ellen’s roots were Irish. At the moment, I can’t imagine writing a novel that doesn’t have some connection to Ireland.

Her characters, too, are inspired by place: by the bleak wilderness of the North Kent coast. Perhaps they find it reminiscent of the bleak and beautiful Aran Islands off the coast of Galway?

But let’s not get too carried away. It’s time to give Sheila the floor and hear what she has to say about location, locution.

* * *

Welcome, Sheila, to Location, Locution. You have a strong sense of place in your writing, but tell us, which tends to come first, story or location?

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine. In answer to your question: Story. But often there is a single image, in a particular place, which is the inspiration for that story.

What techniques do you use for evoking place in your crime stories?

I am quite an instinctive writer and try not to overthink the process as it happens. Of course, like all writers I have had to learn the basic techniques, but I don’t think you can force yourself to write in a particular way. Although location plays an important part in my novels, this isn’t a deliberate choice—it’s something that happens naturally as I write.

I like the way location can enhance a particular atmosphere you are trying to create. In my first two novels, Hunting Shadows and The Waiting Game, parts of each book are based in the beautiful, bleak Hoo Peninsula of north Kent.

In Hunting Shadows, this is the perfect location for one of the central characters, Brian. He is an isolated loner and the isolated landscape is a great way of showing how Brian lives his life. In contrast, there is a character in The Waiting Game who uses the Hoo’s wide open spaces and big skies as a backdrop to her work as an artist.

If I am struggling to create a sense of place, I will do some or all of the following:

  • Close my eyes and try to get a picture in my head.
  • Play some music that has a connection with the landscape I’m trying to evoke (for example, bluegrass when I’m writing about the Hoo, traditional Irish music when writing about the west of Ireland).
  • I wait until I can see the place, hear it, smell it, feel it.
  • And then I write it.

Sheila Bugler locations

Which particular features have you used to create a sense of what clearly is to you a special location? Landscape, culture, food?

Obviously it’s all of those things. However, you don’t need to use every one of them to evoke a sense of place.

The author JJ Marsh, for example, puts a lot of importance on food when she is writing about the different locations in her novels (I should add she doesn’t just write about food!).

The Irish noir writer Ken Bruen perfectly evokes the city of Galway[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galway] with almost no reference to the external landscape. Instead, he brings the city to perfect life through his characters’ voices and the internal spaces, particularly the pubs. Likewise, Ian Rankin manages to perfectly evoke his home city of Edinburgh without ever needing to give us “in your face” descriptions.

As in real life, your characters move through a rich world of noises, smells, colours, places and other people. If you don’t forget that when you are writing, then neither will your readers.

I’m pleased you mentioned JJ Marsh. She was the original creator of this column! But returning to your own works: can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

I’m going to share two different examples.

First, a short scene from my novel, Hunting Shadows. In this scene, I tried to give an impression of the location through the reactions of the two characters:

Ellen stepped out of the car and looked around. The place reminded her of the black-and-white photos in her parents’ house of old Irish towns. It gave her that same feeling that she was observing somewhere from a time long past. Apart from a scattering of houses—a mixture of semi-derelict Victorian cottages and cheap, flat-roofed eyesores—there was nothing else.

From where she stood, the landscape sloped down to the Thames marshes, bleak and desolate under the heavy sky.

“Listen,” Dai whispered.

Ellen frowned. “What? I can’t hear anything.”

“Duelling banjos,” he said. “I knew it. “Deliverance” country. We’re not safe in a place like this.”

ThamesMarshes_quote
And here is a very different piece from a stand-alone novel I am working on called Walk Away. I don’t normally write this descriptively but my own love for this part of Ireland obviously influenced me:

The town was on the southern edge of Galway Bay, the hills of the Burren sloping up behind it, the vast sweep of the Atlantic Ocean stretching out in front of it. Next stop America. It was beautiful. He knew that. Probably always had.

Sydney was home these days. A modern, open-plan apartment with muted colours, floor to ceiling windows and views across Sydney Harbour. All very tasteful and perfect for a shit-hot, sharp-dressing, arse-kicking, wheeling-and-dealing corporate lawyer.

But this, he had forgotten. The way the limestone landscape seemed to move as the light reflected off it. Changing colour all the time from purple to pale pink to grey and back to purple again, in harmony and contrast with the sea.

The_Burren_in_the_evening_sun_515x_quote

How well do you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

If you are using a real location as a setting, you need to know enough about it so it seems real to your reader. In today’s world, there is no excuse not to do this. We all have access to the internet and Google maps. If you haven’t visited a place, do some basic research and make sure you include this in your novel. Using a real pub, for example, instead of making one up can really add to the sense of authenticity.

I once read a crime novel set in Lewisham (where I was living at the time). In one scene, a character is walking down Lewisham High Street and bemoaning the lack of a Marks and Spencer’s. We have M&S in Lewisham! This—and other aspects of the novel—made it clear to me the writer had never been to Lewisham and didn’t know anything about the place he was writing about.

Of course, we can also write about fictional locations. If you do that, your own sense of the place needs to be well-formed before you write about it. The important thing is this: whatever location you choose, it must feel authentic for the story you are writing.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

JJ Marsh writes beautifully in her European crime series featuring Beatrice Stubbs. Similarly, Gilly Hamer writes wonderful descriptions of the stunning Anglesea coastline where her novels are set.

For many reasons, I hold Ken Bruen up as a master when it comes to using location in his novels. He perfectly evokes Galway city, capturing not only its beauty but also the voices and characters of the people who live in that very special place. He is my absolute writing hero.

Bulger fave authors

Thanks so much, Sheila!

* * *

Readers, any questions for Sheila Bugler? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you’d like to discover more about Sheila, why not visit her author site. You can also follow her on twitter.

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!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

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). First collage: Sheila Bugler (supplied); County Galway, Eastbourne Pier & shamrock via Pixabay. Second collage: Book cover art; The Tir Na Nog Irish Pub, Wandsworth – London, by Jim Linwood (CC BY 2.0); All Hallows Marshes, Hoo, Kent, by Amanda Slater via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). First quote: Hang on, is that grass over there?, by Andrew Bowden (CC BY-SA 2.0). Second quote: Burren landscape in the evening sun, by YvonneM via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0). Favorite books collage: Cover art; Blitz Movie Poster via Wikimedia Commons.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: Best of expat fiction 2015

The title of this post is a lie: you didn’t miss anything. It’s we who missed our deadline of publishing, at the end of 2015, a list of books for, by and about expats.

Dare I suggest that our procrastination could prove fortuitous? Most of us have more time to read now that the holidays are over and the doldrums have set in—along with, for some of us (I refer to those on the East Coast of the USA), a spell of blizzardous weather. What better time to curl up with a book that in some way relates to the themes of international adventure and displacement?

Without further ado, allow me to offer my curated list of the best novels by, for, and about expats and other international creatives in 2015. (Nonfiction coming soon, we promise!)

PLEASE NOTE: The books, which include indie as well as traditionally published novels, are arranged in reverse chronological order.

* * *

Year of the GooseYearoftheGoose_cover_400x (Unnamed Press, December 2015)
Author: Carly J. Hallman
Expat credentials: A native Texan, Hallman lives in Beijing. This is her first novel.
Synopsis: A comic novel about China’s era of the instant tycoon, which has been described as “unhinged”, “outrageous”, “deranged” and “hilarious. The oligarchical, tabloid-driven society it portrays is not unlike our own, which may be why the book was listed as one of the BBC’s 10 books to read in December 2015 as well as selected for the December 2015 Indie Next list.
How we heard about: The Anthill blog


TheNavyWife_cover_400xThe Navy Wife (December 2016)
Author: Helena Halme
Expat credentials: Originally from Finland, Halme has lived in the UK with her British husband for many years.
Synopsis: The sequel to Halme’s well-received autobiographical novel The Englishman (reviewed here by Displaced Nation founder Kate Allison), which concerns a long-distance romance between a Finnish woman, Kaisa, and a British naval officer, Peter. We see the couple, despite having tied the knot, facing a number of obstacles and threats to living happily ever after—especially when Kaisa doesn’t take well to the life of a military spouse in a foreign country.How we heard about: Social media, and a comment by Halme on one of our posts.


Seafled_cover_400xSeafled (November 2015), Burnt Sea (August 2015) & Seaswept (April 2015)
Author: Jordan Rivet (aka Shannon Young)
Expat credentials: An American, Young has lived in Hong Kong for the past few years with her half-Chinese husband, a Hong Kong native.
Synopsis: A post-apocalyptic adventure series set on a souped-up cruise ship, featuring a prickly female mechanic named Esther. The series, called the Seabound Chronicles, consists of three books and a prequel.
How we heard about: Young writes the popular “Diary of an Expat Writer” column for the Displaced Nation.


TheJapaneseLover_cover_400xThe Japanese Lover (Atria Books, November 2015)
Author: Isabel Allende
Expat credentials: Born in Lima, Peru, to a Chilean diplomatic family, Allende lived in various countries, including Chile, Bolivia, and Beirut. As an adult she worked in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe; she also lived for over a decade in Venezuela. She currently lives in San Rafael, California.
Synopsis: A cross-cultural love story that sweeps from present-day San Francisco to WWII-era Poland the United States. It explores questions of identity, abandonment, and redemption.
How we heard about it: Who hasn’t heard about it? It was one of the most anticipated books of 2015!


TheDisobedientWife_cover_400xThe Disobedient Wife (Cinnamon Press, November 2015)
Author: Annika Milisic-Stanley
Expat credentials: Born to Swedish and Anglo-German parents, Milisic-Stanley grew up in England and now lives in Rome. She says she based the plot on stories she heard when living in Dushanbe as a humanitarian aid worker for several years.
Synopsis: The story of the friendship that forms between a poor, courageous local woman in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and her employer, a trailing expat wife married to a British diplomat.
How we heard about: An interview with Kristin Louise Duncombe, an American writer who has lived in Europe since 2001.


CrimeRave_cover_400xCrime Rave (The Margins Press, November 2015)
Author: Sezin Koehler
Expat credentials: Koehler is an adult Third Culture Kid who lived in Prague for some years and now lives in Florida. She has written several posts for the Displaced Nation, including a two-part series listing movies that depict the horrors of being abroad or otherwise displaced.
Synopsis: The second installment to her debut novel, American Monsters. Picking up where that one left off while jumping genres, the new book presents an alternate universe in which goddesses have free reign over humans, trauma goes hand in hand with superpowers, and Marilyn Monroe lives.
How we heard about: A Facebook post by Koehler


ADecentBomber_cover_400xA Decent Bomber (November 2015)
Author: Alexander McNabb
Expat credentials: A Brit who has been working in, living in and traveling around the Middle East for some thirty years, McNabb was featured on The Displaced Nation three years ago for his “Levant Cycle” trilogy.
Synopsis: Another political thriller—but this one is set in Northern Ireland and concerns a former IRA bomb maker who is drafted against his will into joining the War on Terror.
How we heard about: He sent us a heads up, and Beth Green reviewed the book in her last column. She found it well researched, well written and an enjoyable read.


ThePalestInk_cover_400xThe Palest Ink (Lake Union Publishing, October 2015)
Author: Kay Bratt
Expat credentials: Bratt lived in China for almost five years, where she “fell in love enough with the people to want to write about them forever.” She has since repatriated to the hills of North Carolina. (She is also the author of a memoir, Silent Tears: A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage. )
Synopsis: A story that depicts the coming-of-age of a sheltered son from an intellectual family in Shanghai, during a tumultuous period of Chinese history: the Cultural Revolution.
How we heard about: Kindle promotion.


Olivia&Sophia_cover_400xOlivia & Sophia (Monsoon Books, October 2015)
Author: Rosie Milne
Expat credentials: A native Brit, Milne has lived all over Asia; she currently lives in Singapore, where she runs the Asian Books Blog.
Synopsis: A fictional account of the lives of the first and second wives of the founder of the British trading post of Singapore, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. Set in London, Java, Sumatra and Singapore, against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars—the story takes the form of two fictionalized diaries, one by each of Raffles’s wives: Olivia Devinish and Sophia Hull. Milne “takes us away from the cold, damp confines of Georgian London to the muggy, hostile tropics and to the titillations and tribulations of a life far away from home.”
How we heard about: When Rosie Milne was “wonderlanded” on our site, we published a couple of excerpts from the book.


NowhereChild_coverNowhere Child (Black Dot Publishing, October 2015)
Author: Rachel Abbott
Expat credentials: Abbott fled from the corporate life to Italy, which gave her the opportunity to start writing psychological thrillers. Her first one was a break-out hit on Kindle, and she hasn’t looked back. Currently, Abbott divides her time between Italy (where she lives in an apartment in an old fort, which overlooks the sea) and Alderney, in the Channel Islands (just off the coast of France). But although the expat life gave her a new career as a writer, Abbott sets her books mostly in her native Manchester.
Synopsis: A stand-alone novella featuring the same characters as Abbott’s Stranger Child. Eight months ago Tasha Joseph ran away, and her stepmother, Emma, has been searching for her ever since—as are the police, since Tasha could be a vital witness in a criminal trial.
How we heard about: Lorraine Mace interviewed Abbott for her Location, Locution column in December.


TheHundredYearFlood_cover_400xThe Hundred-Year Flood (Little A, September 2015)
Author: Matthew Salesses
Expat credentials: Salesses was adopted from Korea at the age of two and often writes about race and adoption. This is his first full-length novel.
Synopsis: The mythical and magical story of a 22-year-old Korean-American’s escape to Prague in the wake of his uncle’s suicide and the aftermath of 9/11. He tries to convince himself that living in a new place will mean a new identity and a chance to shed the parallels between himself and his adopted father.
How we heard about: Social media


TheDressmaker_cover_400xThe Dressmaker (Penguin Books, August 2015*)
Author: Rosalie Ham
Expat credentials: Born and raised in Jerilderie, Australia, Ham now lives in Melbourne. Like most Australians, she has had a period of traveling and living overseas.
Synopsis: A darkly satirical tale of love, revenge, and 1950s fashion. After twenty years spent mastering the art of dressmaking at couture houses in Paris, Tilly Dunnage returns to the small Australian town she was banished from as a child. She plans only to check on her ailing mother and leave. But Tilly decides to stay, and though she is still an outcast, her exquisite dresses prove irresistible to the prim women of Dungatar. Note: The book is soon to be a film starring Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times
*Originally published in 2000, this is the film adaptation of the book.


CirclingtheSun_cover_400xCircling the Sun (Ballantine Books, July 2015)
Author: Paula McLain
Expat credentials: None! Her breakout novel, The Paris Wife, was about an expat: Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, whose passionate marriage ended as her husband shot into literary stardom. This time her focus is the Happy Valley set, a decadent community of Europeans in 1920s colonial Kenya. As she told NPR in a recent interview:

You know, I wrote most of The Paris Wife in a coffee shop in Cleveland. I don’t have to tell you that a Starbucks in Cleveland is about as far away from a Parisian cafe as you can possibly get. And I also wrote about Kenya, the wild African frontier, from my home in Cleveland without having ever gone there. You can’t really visit colonial Kenya, can you? You can’t really visit Paris in 1922, except in your imagination.

Synopsis: Based on the real-life story of the fearless and captivating Beryl Markham, a record-setting aviator who became caught up in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, who as Isak Dinesen wrote the classic memoir Out of Africa.
How we heard about: A New York Times review by the expat writer Alexandra Fuller.


TheAmbassadorsWife_cover_400xThe Ambassador’s Wife (Doubleday, July 2015)
Author: Jennifer Steil
Expat credentials: A Boston-born former journalist, Steil is married to a Brit who once served as ambassador to Yemen, where a suicide bomber attacked him. She is also the author of The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, a memoir about her experiences running a newspaper in Yemen. She lives in Bolivia, where her husband is the European Union ambassador.
Synopsis: A harrowing account of the kidnapping of an American woman in the Middle East and the heartbreaking choices she and her husband, the British ambassador to an Arab country, must make in the hope of being reunited.
How we heard about: Shortlisted in the New York Times Book Review as a “marriage plots” novel.


TheStarSideofBurnHill_cover_400xThe Star Side of Bird Hill (Penguin Press, June 2015)
Author: Naomi Jackson
Expat credentials: A Third Culture Kid, Jackson was born and raised in Brooklyn by West Indian parents. After attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she traveled to South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship and earned an MA in creative writing from the University of Cape Town.
Synopsis: The story of two sisters, ages ten and sixteen, who are suddenly sent from Brooklyn to Bird Hill in Barbados after their mother can no longer care for them. The young Phaedra and her older sister, Dionne, live for the summer of 1989 with their grandmother Hyacinth, a midwife and practitioner of the local spiritual practice of obeah.
How we heard about: Shortlisted in the New York Times Book Review as a “coming of age” novel.


TheWolfBorder_cover_400xThe Wolf Border (Harper, June 2015)
Author: Sarah Hall
Expat credentials: Born in northwest England, Hall lived in Wales while attending Aberystwyth. She went on to study in Scotland (St. Andrews) for an MA, where she met and married an American law student. Though the marriage was short-lived, its legacy was substantial: a move to the US proved the catalyst she needed to embark on novel writing. The pair was based in the small town of Lexington, Virginia, after her husband was awarded a scholarship to a nearby law school. At that time, Hall visited the Idaho reservation that appears in this book. She currently lives in Norwich, UK.
Synopsis: About a controversial scheme to reintroduce the Grey Wolf to the English countryside, which brings zoologist Rachel Caine, who has lived a solitary existence in a remote section of Idaho, far away from her estranged family in England, back to the peat and wet light of the Lake District. The novel explores the fundamental nature of wilderness and wildness—as well as the frontier of the human spirit.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times


IntheCountry_cover_400xIn the Country: Stories (Knopf, June 2016)
Author: Mia Alvar
Expat credentials: Born in the Philippines, Alvar was raised in Bahrain and the United States. She now lives in New York City. This is her first book.
Synopsis: A collection of nine short stories about Filipinos living overseas. Alvar has imagined the lives of exiles, emigrants, and wanderers who uprooted their families from the Philippines to begin new lives in the Middle East, the United States, and elsewhere—and, sometimes, turned back again.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times


TheDiversClothesLieEmpty_cover_400xThe Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty (Ecco, June 2015)
Author: Vendela Vida
Expat credentials: Born and raised in San Francisco, Vida is the daughter of two immigrant parents: a Swedish mother and a Hungarian father. She has become known for producing “travel trauma” narratives, exploring the lives of competent women who feel disintegrating marriages for distant lands (i.e., the Philippines, Finland and Turkey). Her latest novel, considered to be her “finest work” to date, was inspired by a trip she took to Morocco where her bag was stolen.
Synopsis: A literary thriller that probes the malleability of identity, told with lush detail and a sense of humor. Robbed of her money and passport in Casablanca, Morocco, an American woman feels free to be anyone she chooses.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times.


ChinaRichGirlfriend_cover_400xChina Rich Girlfriend (Doubleday, June 2015)
Author: Kevin Kwan
Expat credentials: Born and raised in Singapore, Kwan has lived in Manhattan for the past two decades. He says he still craves “craves pineapple tarts and a decent plate of Hokkien mee.“
Synopsis: Follows the story of the culture-shocked Rachel Chu as she searches for her mysterious birth father in Shanghai in hopes he’ll walk her down the isle at her upcoming wedding. The book is a sequel to Kwan’s 2013 bestseller, Crazy Rich Asians, picking up a few years after those events. Both books take place in the world of Hong Kong and Singapore’s super-super elite.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times


TheRocks_cover_400xThe Rocks (Riverhead Books, May 2015)
Author: Peter Nichols
Expat credentials: Nichols grew up partially on Mallorca (while attending boarding school in England), where he got to know other Northern Europeans. He has worked in advertising and as a screenwriter, and a shepherd in Wales. He divides his time between Europe and the United States. In 1997 he produced a riveting memoir, Sea Change, telling of the time when he set off alone across the Atlantic in his beloved 27-foot wooden engineless sailboat, Toad, which he and his (now ex-) wife had lived on for six years, fixing it up, making it into their home, sharing adventures on it.
Synopsis: A tragic double romance, told in reverse, primarily set in a seaside resort in Mallorca and its enduring expat community.
How we heard about: From a book review in the New York Times.


coming-home_cover_400xComing Home (Mira, April 2015)
Author: Annabel Kantaria
Expat credentials: A Telegraph Expat blogger who has been featured on the Displaced Nation, Kantaria has lived in Dubai with her family for several years.
Synopsis: The story of a woman living in Dubai because she wants to flee the pain of her brother’s death but then heads for home upon receiving word of her father’s sudden death. Kantaria says that writing the book helped her “explore that push and pull and sense of displacement you feel when you have a foot in two countries.”
How we heard about: A Telegraph Expat post on expat-themed summer reads, by Rosie Milne


APlaceCalledWinter_cover_400xA Place Called Winter (Grand Central Publishing, March 2015)
Author: Patrick Gale
Expat credentials: Born in the Isle of Wight, Gale was an expat of sorts when his family moved to London. During his misspent youth, he lived at one point in a crumbling French chateau. He now lives on a farm near Land’s End.
Synopsis: The story of a privileged Edwardian man who has a homosexual affair and, for fear of arrest, is forced to abandon his wife and child: he signs up for emigration to the Canadian prairies. He reaches a world as far away as possible from the golden suburbs of turn-of-the-century England. The story is loosely based on a real-life family mystery of Gale’s gentleman great-grandfather. The plot in a nutshell: “To find yourself, you must sometimes lose everything.”
How we heard about: Gale was a featured author at the Port Eliot Festival, which takes place yearly on an ancient estate in Saint Germans, Cornwall, UK.


TheArtofUnpackingYourLife_cover_400xThe Art of Unpacking Your Life (Bloomsbury Reader, March 2015)
Author: Shireen Jilla
Expat credentials: A journalist-turned-novelist who now lives in London, Jilla has been an expat in Paris, Rome, and New York. The Displaced Nation did a feature on her first novel, Exiled, about a British expat wife in New York.
Synopsis: The story of a group of university friends who set out on the holiday of a lifetime, a safari in the Kalahari, only to find they don’t have much in common any more.
How we heard about: Social media and then Beth Green interviewed her.


TheTehranText_cover_400xThe Tehran Text – The Tana Standish Spy Series #2 (Crooked Cat Publishing, February 2015)
Author: Nik Morton
Expat credentials: Morton spent 23 years in the Royal Navy, during which he had the chance to visit (among others) Rawalpindi, the Khyber Pass, Sri Lanka, Tokyo, Zululand, Mombasa, Bahrain, Tangier, Turkey, Norway, Finland, South Georgia and the Falklands. He has also traveled widely in his private life. He and his wife are now retired in Alicante, Spain.
Synposis: Second of Morton’s Cold War thrillers featuring psychic spy Tana Standish (first was The Prague Papers). Iran is in ferment and the British Intelligence Service wants Tana Standish’s assessment. It appears that CIA agents are painting too rosy a picture, perhaps because they’re colluding with the state torturers…
How we heard about: Lorraine Mace interviewed Morton for her Location, Locution column last July.


Outline_cover_400xOutline (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 2015)
Author: Rachel Cusk
Expat credentials: Born in Canada, Cusk spent much of her childhood in Los Angeles. She moved to the UK in 1974 and is a graduate of Oxford University. She now lives in London.
Synopsis: About a divorced writer who lives in London with her two youngish children, covering the several days she spends in Athens, where she has gone to teach a writing class. She ends up spending time with a much older Greek bachelor she met on the plane.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times

* * *

Tell me, what have I missed? I’m sure I’ve missed loads!! Kindly leave your recommendations for novels for, by, and about expats that came out in 2015 in the comments!

ML Awanohara, one of the Displaced Nation’s founders and its current editor, has a section in the weekly Displaced Dispatch where she mentions the latest expat books. Why not subscribe for the new year?

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: All photos via Pixabay or Morguefiles.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Uprooted from life in the UK, Vanessa Couchman writes novels about people with roots

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

This month’s guest, Vanessa Couchman, was uprooted from her native UK in 1997, when she moved, with her husband (who is Swedish) to an 18th-century farmhouse in the Midi-Pyrénées region, in southwest France. Between the pair of them (he has lived in France twice and in the UK) they have clocked up nearly 60 years of living abroad!

Like many Scandinavians, her better half is fluent in several languages, but Vanessa has done her best to catch up. “My French was hopeless when we first moved here,” she told me, “but, by force of perseverance, I am now almost fluent.”

She still enjoys occasional visits to London for art galleries, bookshops and museums, but in general, she says, England makes her feel like a fish out of water. As she puts it on Life on La Lune, the blog she keeps about her life in France:

I love living here, even if aspects of French life are still unfathomable.

As for work, like my guest last month, Rachel Abbott, Vanessa is a refugee from corporate life in the UK (she worked first in publishing and then in public sector auditing and research). Unlike Rachel, she still has a day job: running her own copywriting business and writing magazine and journal articles about aspects of French life.

But being an expat has also enabled her to become what she calls on her writer’s blog a “young author” of fiction (“young” because she started comparatively late): specifically, historical fiction, which harks back to one of her great passions in life (she read history at Oxford University). She produced her first novel, The House at Zaronza, a year-and-a-half ago with Crooked Cat Publishing.

Thanks to modern technology, Vanessa can live in rural France without being cut off from other English-language writers. She belongs to Writers Abroad, an online community of expat writers based in countries from Nova Scotia to Australia. “This is a great support network and has helped improve my writing no end,” she says. “The members have all become friends, even though I may never meet some of them.”

And these days there are more English-language writers in her local area—enough for Vanessa to help establish, in 2013, an annual Franco-British literary festival in the nearby village of Perisot.

But I mustn’t gloss over an extremely important detail about this expat author’s story. Although she has written short stories set in rural France, Vanessa chose to set her first novel in early 20th-century Corsica. As she told another interviewer:

Corsica is almost a character in its own right in “The House at Zaronza” and a lot of people have remarked that it comes over strongly. I ought to be getting commission from the Corsica Tourist Board!

Vanessa Cushman France and Corsica

Living in one place while dreaming of another. Photo credits: (top row) Midi-Pyrénées region in southwest France, where Vanessa Couchman lives (via Pixabay); the square tower of the Château of Cornusson, in Parisot, by Thérèse Gaigé via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0); (middle row) Vanessa Couchman and Nonza Paoline Tower, Corsica (both supplied); (bottom row) Corsican village and Filitosa IX stern face captured in granite (both supplied).

Corsica?! What’s more, the novel explores a topic that seemingly has not been nearly as important to Vanessa as it is to her characters: “how centuries of Corsican history and culture remain deeply rooted in people, even if they move away,” as she puts it. We see this dynamic in her main character, Maria, when she leaves Corsica to serve as a military nurse on the Western Front during World War I. Unlike her creator, Maria feels displaced.

So what has drawn Vanessa Couchman so powerfully to this particular location? Perhaps there is something about this Mediterranean island’s own displacement that appeals to her? Annexed by France in 1769, Corsica retains a distinctly Italian flavor. Vanessa, too, is some kind of mix: an Oxford-trained historian who feels more at home in the French countryside than in the UK, a “young author” of historical fiction…

But instead of speculating, let’s see what Vanessa herself has to say on the topic of location, locution.

* * *

Welcome, Vanessa, to Location, Locution. I can vouch for the fact that you have a strong sense of place in your writing, but tell us, which tends to come first, story or location?

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine.

For my first novel, The House at Zaronza, story and location came together, really. As you said, it is set mostly on Corsica. In fact it is based on a true story my husband and I came across on holiday there. The owners of the B&B found some old love letters hidden in a niche in the attic when they restored the house. They were from the local schoolmaster to the daughter of the house in the 1890s. Her parents would have disapproved, so they met in secret. She was required to marry a cousin to keep the family property together, which was common in Corsica into the 20th century.

The story kept nagging at me, so I had to write it. I’m very attached to the Mediterranean island of Corsica, with its rugged and majestic scenery—we’ve visited six times! And so it made perfect sense to set the novel there, especially as it has distinct cultural and historical elements that I was able to use in the story. The house and the village of the title are loosely based on real life, which enabled me to visualise the place as I wrote it, although I changed a number of aspects, including the name. The name of the village in the title of my book, Zaronza, is invented.

The House at Zaronza_cover_pm

As you hinted in your introduction, Corsica won’t leave me alone and so my second novel—a work in progress—is set there, too. A third is in my head, also against the backdrop of the island.

That said, I do also want to set novels in southwest France, where I live, one day. As you also mentioned, a number of my short stories are already set here.

What techniques do you use for evoking the atmosphere of Corsica?

I believe it’s important for readers to feel they are there so that they get fully involved with the characters and their surroundings. That means evoking a complete sensory picture of the place. I went to a great workshop about creating a world for your novel. We were told to go outside for 10 minutes and make notes of what we saw, touched, heard, smelled and even tasted. This heightened sensory awareness is very valuable when describing a place.

I also think that using particular objects or landmarks in a novel gives them symbolic significance and helps to add depth to the setting. So, in The House at Zaronza, the front door often catches on the flagstones, a ruined tower on top of a hill is a place the heroine, Maria, always goes to think, and her father’s stylet (a Corsican dagger) becomes a symbol of him.

Which particular features have you used to create a sense of what clearly is to you a special location? Landscape, culture, food?

All of those things are important to me and I try to weave them into my writing. When it comes to Corsica, I am particularly interested in its culture. I’ve been greatly influenced by a wonderful book called Granite Island: Portrait of Corsica, by Dorothy Carrington, who first visited Corsica just after World War II. She was so taken with it that she eventually lived there and became an international authority on its history and culture. I wish I could have met her, but she died aged 91 in 2002.

Despite being French since 1768, and Genoese before that, Corsica has always been a land apart. It has been invaded, conquered and occupied from prehistoric times, so the island was a cultural melting pot, and as you speculated at the outset, I think that appeals to me. Different traditions have overlaid one another, such as Christianity on top of paganism. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up when we visited a megalithic site at Filitosa, where standing stones carved with stern human faces have been excavated.

Until very recently, the Corsicans had strong superstitious beliefs, some of which I am writing into my second novel. The geography of this mountainous island and the isolation of many of the villages also led to the development of solid clan bonds. The concept of honour is very deep-seated and to infringe someone’s honour was a serious matter that could lead to vendettas of long duration. I find all this fascinating, though it’s easy for people to parody it.

Which of your works provides the best illustration of place, and can you give us a brief example?

Here’s a short extract from The House at Zaronza. A young British woman has come to Corsica for the first time to find out more about her Corsican forebears:

She moved to the other window and opened it. A salt-laden breeze wafted in. For a moment, the sight of the purple-tinged mountains on the other side of the bay made her hold her breath. The sun’s lengthening rays tinted the sea with red and gold. Another scent prickled her nostrils, aromatic and dry like sun-baked mud. She closed her eyes and breathed it in. This was the unique aroma of Corsica, that many Corsicans claim they can detect miles out to sea: part of the magic of the island, the Circe that had enchanted many a traveller before Rachel.

VanessaCouchman_quotes_small

Photo credits: (left) Corsica Ferries, by Conan via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); The witch Circe poisons Odysseu’s men, by Alessandro Allori (1580), Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

How well do you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

I wouldn’t advise using a real place as a setting if you don’t know it at all. There are exceptions— the summit of Everest, for example, or the South Pole—which most people are unlikely ever to visit; and there are plenty of descriptions of them to draw on. Having said that, the novelist Rosie Thomas has been to both of those extreme locations and is a distinct example of someone who has visited all the exotic places she writes about. But if you really want your readers to get inside a place, I believe you have to know it yourself. I would feel uneasy trying to describe somewhere I have never been.

Having said that, I do think it’s possible to know a location too well. If you write about the place you live in, there’s a danger that you start taking for granted what visitors see as fresh and new. I try to prevent this by visiting places I know well in SW France, finding out new things about them and then recording them on my French life blog.

I also take many photos, both of Corsica when we are there and of my region in France. These visual prompts help me a lot when I’m writing.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

There are so many! But some stand out for me and have influenced my own writing. Hannah Kent‘s first novel Burial Rites is set in 19th-century Iceland, and she evokes brilliantly the uncompromising landscape and climate, the hard and unforgiving life of the people and the plight of unmarried women at that time. Jessie Burton‘s The Miniaturist is set in 17th-century Amsterdam, a time when the city was wealthy and thriving but stifled by the strict morality that prevailed. They both evoke a strong sense of place in these two very different novels. This is challenging in any novel, but particularly in an historical novel, where you have to describe locations that may have changed significantly over time. Khaled Hosseini‘s novels set in Afghanistan have given me a much deeper insight into that troubled country and its modern history.

Vanessa Inspirational Reads

Vanessa’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Vanessa!

* * *

Readers, any questions for Vanessa Couchman? Please leave them in the comments below before she immerses herself in all things Corsican again…

And if you’d like to discover more about Vanessa, why not visit her site about living in France, Life on La Lune, as well as her author site. You can also follow her on twitter at @Vanessainfrance and Facebook.

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!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

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).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Rachel Abbott, proof positive it’s never too late to become a best-selling novelist—and expat

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

My guest this month, Rachel Abbott, did not start out as a writer, though she claims she always had a novel in her head. Born in Manchester, she trained as a systems analyst but then ended up founding her own interactive media company, where, as managing director, she wrote everyday but mostly board reports, user manuals, and creative treatments for clients.

Around 15 years ago, she sold the company and moved with her husband to Le Marche, in central Italy. The pair set to work on renovating a ruined small monastery, where they lived for several years.

When six-foot snowdrifts prevented her from leaving the house for a couple of weeks, Rachel started writing and found she couldn’t stop. She self-published her first novel just over four years ago, a psychological thriller called Only the Innocent, which is set very briefly in Italy but mostly takes place in rural Oxfordshire.

Only the Innocent reached the number 1 spot in the Kindle store just over three months later and went on to become the second highest selling self-published title in 2012. It was subsequently published by Thomas and Mercer in the USA, where in just a few months it achieved number 1 in the US charts, making Rachel’s debut a number one bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Guardian newspaper dubbed Rachel “the e-publishing sensation of 2012” while The Observer stated “self-published authors such as Rachel Abbott are the trade’s hottest property.”

That’s how this Mancunian fell into a brilliant new career. Two years after her break-out success, Rachel released her long-awaited second novel, The Back Road—which quickly reached number 2 on the UK Kindle chart and has over 450 five-star reviews. (The back road of the title is in a made-up village called Little Melham, in the heart of the English countryside.)

Rachel's first two psychological thrillers, both international bestsellers.

Rachel’s first two psychological thrillers, both of which rapidly became international bestsellers.

Her latest works, Sleep Tight (partially set in Anglesey, one of the Channel Islands, which Rachel visited as a child), Stranger Child and Nowhere Child have followed the same pattern of success. All of them take place mainly within Rachel’s hometown of Manchester.

Rachel's latest three books. Stranger Child, a stand-alone novella but featuring the same characters as Stranger Child, came out in October.

Rachel’s latest three books. The very latest, Nowhere Child, came out in October. It’s a stand-alone novella but features the same characters as Stranger Child.

As far as the expat life goes, Rachel now divides her time between Italy (where she lives in her second property, an apartment in an old fort, which overlooks the sea) and Alderney, in the Channel Islands, which is just off the coast of France. She explains her decision to spend time on this beautiful island as follows:

“There are so many wonderful aspects of living in another country—not least getting to understand their culture. Italians are extreme in their emotions, and that—for me—was a joy to watch, even when they are shouting at each other (because it usually doesn’t last). I did, however, struggle with the language. I can now speak reasonable Italian, but as a writer I found it difficult not to be speaking English all the time! I discovered that from time to time I struggled to remember the correct English words, and I felt it was time to move back to an English-speaking country if I was to continue to write. So I moved to Alderney. Not quite the UK, but close. It’s a wonderful island, and life here is as perfect as it gets.”

Despite her new-found worldliness, Rachel insists she remains a Lancastrian at heart.

Photo credits: Rachel Abbott (inset); Whitworth Street, Manchester, by Mikey via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) ; Montalto delle Marche, by Sgobbone via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Braye Beach (Alderney, Channel Islands), by TheOnlyMoxey via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

Photo credits: Rachel Abbott (inset, supplied); Whitworth Street, Manchester, by Mikey via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Montalto delle Marche, by Sgobbone via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Braye Beach (Alderney, Channel Islands), by TheOnlyMoxey via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

* * *

Welcome, Rachel, to Location, Locution. It seems your writing career and your expat life developed in tandem, but which comes first when you are writing, story or location?

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine.

In all cases, my story has come first. My most recent books are set in Manchester, but the locations within Manchester are determined by the story. My concern is that I am going to run out of spooky places for the strange goings on that I need in my stories!

What techniques do you use for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

I have a very visual imagination, and in every major location in any of my books, I know exactly what it looks like. That’s my starting point. I can wander the halls of houses, or creep along canal banks at night. So I know what I can see. I then start to think about what it might smell like—and much of that is determined by what is happening. A house can smell of baking cakes, or of rotting food—so I imagine myself there, and think how it might smell. Finally, I listen. What will the sounds be like? Where is the location—outdoors or indoors? What are the surroundings like—are there trains nearby, or a distant motorway? I close my eyes, and I am there—feeling what my characters are feeling.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

It depends on the stage in the story. The character might be walking along a country lane, but if she is scared, the overhanging trees, dripping with rain from the recent storm would be the features to focus on. If it’s a happy day, it might be the cows munching contentedly on the grass in the fields. With this in mind, any feature can help to create that sense of the location.

Which of your works provides the best illustration of place, and can you give us a brief example?

Here’s a passage from my latest, Nowhere Child:

The freezing November wind is bouncing off the damp walls, hitting us in icy blasts as if someone keeps opening and closing a door. But there isn’t any door—just a gaping black hole. There are four or five groups of us down here, sitting in twos and threes huddled around our feeble fires. We keep to ourselves mostly. I can see the odd face, lit from below by the weak yellow flames, features hovering, disembodied, against the black walls, the eyes hollow pits. I can hear the occasional murmur of conversation but mostly I listen to the steady drip from the roof. It is relentless, and I’m not surprised when Andy says that dripping water is used as a form of torture. Another drop joins in, this time with a slightly different tone. There is a pause, and for a second I wonder if it’s stopped. But of course it hasn’t. Drip-drop. Drip-drop.

Nowhere_child_quote

How well do you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

Some settings exist in my imagination. Others have to be realistic. I am currently writing a story about an area of Manchester that I didn’t know existed—even though I lived there for a large proportion of my life. I have been unable to visit it myself in time to write the first draft of the book, but my sister lives nearby. So she has been out on research trips for me, taking photos and videos. I have used to map to pinpoint the places that I want her to take pictures of, and I’ve also used Google Maps—in walkabout mode—to get me close enough. I have studied this place in as much detail as possible without an actual visit, and I will visit it myself before the final version is written.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

I love the sense of location in Daphne Du Maurier’s books—in particular, Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. One is set in a magnificent, if malevolent old property, the other a run down and gloomy inn, which is never open to the public. The locations are so vivid in these books that a mental image is formed even before seeing them on the big screen!

The locations of these two Daphne du Maurier classics are so vivid, you don't even need to see Hitchcock's films!

The locations of these two Daphne du Maurier classics are so vivid, you don’t even need to see Hitchcock’s films!

Thanks so much, Rachel!

* * *

Readers, any questions for Rachel Abbott? Please leave them in the comments below before she jets off to one of her exotic locales…

And if you’d like to discover more about Rachel, why not visit her author site. You can also follow her on twitter at @RachelAbbott.

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!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

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).

%d bloggers like this: