I’ve just read a lovely novel set in ‘God’s Own County’ (which is what Yorkshire folk call the place where they live). It’s ‘There Must Be An Angel’ by Sharon Booth which is set in the fictional village of Kearton Bay which is based on Robin’s Hood Bay on the North Yorkshire coast. For me there’s something wonderful about reading about somewhere I know. It adds another dimension to a novel as I get to see somewhere familiar through someone else’s eyes.
Robin Hood’s Bay is a fabulous place, a village built on a ridiculously steep hill with a history of smuggling. The name is apparently a bit misleading as they say Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest fame never went there. Reading Sharon’s book I could imagine the village that I know filled with the wonderful cast of characters that she’s created. They’re the kind of warm, interesting people that I like to think live in such a wonderful location.
Setting is really important to me when I read and when I write. ‘Sovereign’ by CJ Sampson is set in York in 1541 when Henry the Eight visited the city. I know some people found the historical details a bit heavy handed but I loved reading about places that are familiar to me now through the lens of historical fiction. In the acknowledgements CJ Sampson talked about how visiting Barley Hall in York had helped his research. I used to be a volunteer guide at Barley Hall and as I’d read the book I’d thought that the lawyer’s house seemed a bit familiar. It was great to know that Barley Hall had been his inspiration.
However if you’re going to use this city or county then you have to get it right. I’ve read a couple of books where authors clearly don’t know York very well. Alleys mysteriously appear where they don’t exist, characters walk down the wrong streets to get to where they’re going. I’ve been known to put books down and never pick them up again for errors like that. A friend stopped read Danny Wallace’s ‘Charlotte Street’ even though she was enjoying it because, as a regular visitor to Whitby, she knew there wasn’t a McDonald’s and couldn’t forgive that mistake.
As I have a ridiculously overambitious tendency to write about places where I don’t live (so far Glastonbury and Orkney) in I’m very aware of the risks of making those kinds of mistakes. You don’t want to jolt your reader out of your fictional world by getting something like that wrong. I’m starting to think that Sharon’s approach is the right one and I may be fictionalising all my settings in the future. But then, if I’d made up a place like Glastonbury, who’d have believed me?