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.
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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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
À bientôt! Till next time when my guest will be a Finnish novelist who lives in England, and writes about the future.
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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.
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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)..