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Setting the Scene

A look at the location of THE LAST TIME SHE DIED

The location where a book is set always has a big influence on the plot. And if it doesn’t, then it probably should.

After all, they reckon there are only seven basic plot themes— overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth. Everything else, we are told, is just a variation on those themes.

Nevertheless, even if you took exactly the same story idea and gave it to, say, nine or ten different authors who were noted for writing books set in very different parts of the world, can you imagine how different those stories would turn out to be?

The contrast between the same basic plotline, when it’s set in 1920s’ Bombay, Buenos Aires in 1945, modern-day Paris, or one of the deceptively idyllic islands of the Aegean would be enormous. I am no expert on Africa, but I can imagine that setting a tale in Ghana is utterly different to setting one in Botswana, or any of the East African nations.

Sometimes location dictates plot
Sometimes, the location heavily dictates the plot in the first place. I usually say that one of my Charlie Fox novels, FIRST DROP, could only have been set in Daytona Beach, Florida, during Spring Break. But if it had to be set in another city—in another country—over another weekend festival where teenagers were predominantly involved, then I wonder how the final book might have been changed by that.

Likewise, when I chose Appleby-in-Westmorland in Cumbria as the location for my second Lakes crime thrillerBONES IN THE RIVER—not simply because I was looking for another Lake District setting, but because of the Gypsy and Traveller gathering that has taken place there practically every year since the Middle Ages. And because it’s well known among the locals that the influx of forty or fifty thousand strangers into a small town is a very good time to settle old scores.

When I set out to write the first in my new mystery thriller series, THE LAST TIME SHE DIED, I had the storyline I wanted but it wasn’t tied to a particular location. I wanted a rural area where everybody knows everybody else’s business—or thinks they do. I wanted a relatively sparse population, but with urban conurbations nearby. I needed woodland and seclusion, but somewhere that was in reasonably easy reach of a seat of power.

In some ways, Scotland would have been ideal, but other writers—not least of which is our own Caro Ramsay, of course—have a far better claim on the area north of the border than I do. (I blog regularly on Murder Is Everywhere with Caro and her Anderson and Costello series has Glasgow sewn up.)

Derbyshire good fit for story
I decided on Derbyshire because it’s somewhere I’ve come to know well over the past few years, and the more I worked on the story, the better it seemed to fit into the landscape. It was an hour and a half from London by train—the kind of distance a Member of Parliament might be comfortable travelling for weekends in the country, for instance. There were plenty of steep drops to catch out the unwary, careless motorist, too. And plenty of space for certain manor houses to be within reach of the nearest village, but at the same time completely out of sight of their neighbours.

In some ways, the more restrictions I have when I’m working out a plot—and the more creative I have to be to work around them—the more fun it is to write. I’ve always liked to play with preconceptions. You think you know where the story is going, but you don’t.

In the case of THE LAST TIME SHE DIED, I wanted to start with an idea that might sound vaguely familiar, and then take it off in a more unexpected direction.

The book begins with a funeral. Family patriarch Gideon Fitzroy has died and his second wife Virginia, his stepchildren, and brother-in-law have gathered for the occasion. They think they know exactly what will happen next, as far as the division of Fitzroy’s estate is concerned.

Then somebody claiming to be a missing heir turns up. Blake—the daughter who vanished ten years previously and has been assumed dead.

For certain people, there is no ‘assumed’ about it. They know she’s dead. Because they killed her and hid the body on the night she disappeared…

Didn’t they?

Who is this imposter?
So, who is this ‘imposter’, and what does she want? It can’t be as simple as the money, because Gideon Fitzroy made no provision in his will for the only child of his first marriage. (His second wife has read the document in question, and there’s absolutely no doubt about it.)

Is there?

But if the young woman now claiming to be Blake is indeed a fake, then how does she know so much about the vulnerable fifteen-year-old who went missing? Or the quirks of the family home? Not to mention the layout of the village where events take place. That village I mentioned, where there always seem to be secrets that are never quite as well buried as people hope.

Having spent the last six years or so living in a small village in the Derbyshire Peak District, I really wanted to set a book here—or somewhere very like it. I compromised by not actually naming the place, and I’ve played fast and loose with the geography for the location of the Fitzroys’ country estate, although not entirely. The lane exists, but the manor house called Claremont does not, which is a shame. I have a very clear picture of it in my head.

On a walk through local woodland I found a rutted track leading off the lane into an old plantation, with a stone gatepost at the latch end of the five-bar gate. The track continued on into the trees, leading to the edge of a gravel pit, long since fallen into disuse. It was eerie even in daylight.

But at night, in the dark, it would be perfect.

Good way to stir things up
Bringing an outsider into this situation to ask awkward questions, and to stick his nose in where it isn’t wanted, is always a good way to stir things up a bit. Enter Detective Superintendent John Byron of the Met. Right from the start, it’s obvious that his role is not that of a straightforward mourner at the funeral. One of the youngest detectives to achieve such a rank, he’s now on a long leave of absence for reasons initially unspecified.

His interest in the life—and death—of Gideon Fitzroy seems anything but casual, so is he there on official business or not? And his interest in the young woman claiming to be Blake is something neither of them can quite define.

Anyone who’s read any of my books will know that I favour female characters who are… self-sufficient, shall we say. I’m beginning to hate the term ‘strong’ because it’s become almost meaningless. Strong as oppose to what—weak? And does anyone feel the need to define their male protagonists in such terms?

Male characters are ‘tough’ and ‘uncompromising’ if they’re likely to answer a difficult question with a punch or a bullet. (Charlie Fox can be a bit like that, but she’s usually referred to as ‘kick-ass’ or—my pet hate—‘feisty’. Either way, she will always try to talk her way out of a fight when she can manage it, and only stand her ground when there is no other option.)

An asset and a flaw
So, if my female characters are strong then it’s because they refuse to rely on anyone else to dig them out of trouble, and occasionally this leads to a stubbornness that’s to their own detriment. In the case of the young woman who is claiming to be Blake, her inability to trust others is both an asset and a flaw.

One that might just get her killed.

The reason I’ve talked so much about THE LAST TIME SHE DIED is because it comes out on Wednesday, October 20. I hope you will forgive the BSP, but Wednesday is put up or shut up day, when I find out what people think of my take on this particular storyline, set in this particular area of the country, with this particular pairing.

I’m keeping my fingers, eyes, and legs crossed that readers like it. Because I’m already writing book two!

This week’s Word of the Week is querencia, a Spanish word that describes a place where we feel safe or at home, even if it isn’t where we actually live. It’s from where we draw our strength and inspiration.

THE LAST TIME SHE DIED is published by Bookouture in eBook, print, or audio format, on Wednesday, October 20. Or pre-order now. You can read or listen to an excerpt here.

You can read the illustrated version of this blog, or comment, at Murder Is Everywhere.