David W. Robinson is the author of, among many other things, a series of cozy mysteries with all the charm of the best British whodunits, topped with a particular Northern twist both in style and attitude. Today I've asked David to tell us how he makes the world of his amateur sleuth, Joe Murray, come alive even for those of us who may never have lived in his part of the world.
Creating the Location
When I first decided to write the STAC Mystery series, I decided that the settings would be real locations throughout Great Britain. From Somerset to North Yorkshire, Merseyside to Lincolnshire, they’re places I have visited often and know well.
It wasn’t difficult. STAC is the acronym for the Sanford 3rd Age Club: a group of born again teenagers, all in their middle years, with enough time and money to enjoy frequent weekend outings to all parts of the UK.
But Sanford, their hometown, doesn’t exist. It is a construct of my imagination.
That wasn’t a problem. Sanford is the setting for so little of the individual novels that I needed only a skimpy overview of the town: the location of The Lazy Luncheonette (Joe Murray’s café) a couple of pubs and one or two roads leading to the nearby motorway was enough.
When I came to the sixth STAC Mystery, My Deadly Valentine (Crooked Cat, 2013), the nature of the story meant that it had to take place in Sanford, and in turn that meant I had to put meat on the bare bones of this non-existent town. And it’s surprising what you have to think about when you set out on this quest.
The people are easy. I grew up in a mining area, and even though the pits are a thing of the past, the people have changed little. Cheery and welcoming on the one hand, blunt, outspoken and challenging on the other.
Sanford is a mining town. Correction: Sanford was a mining town. The colliery is history, along with the nearby iron foundry, which went the same way as the British steel industry. Sanford, therefore, faced the same problems many real towns had to contend with—switching from manufacturing to a service-based economy, and the knock-on effect of the town’s major employee ceasing to be.
And what of the town itself?
The landscape of such places has changed over the last thirty years. In the outer suburbs the small bungalows, with their well-tended gardens, mostly built in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, remain largely untouched, but around the site of the old mine, many of the run down terraces of small miners’ houses are gone, replaced by smart, modern, family homes. And yet, enough of the old housing stock remains to create a varied, if sometimes, disjointed look to the streets.
The town centre has seen the biggest change. The old High Street, a mix of nationally-known and local shops and businesses, is a thing of the past. There’s a degree of homogeneity about our towns and cities these days, beginning with the shopping mall. Everywhere has one, and once inside, while the architecture and art may differ, the names above the shop doorways remain the same.
The malls are usually given a name synonymous with the town’s history. Therefore, where I live now, the economy was based on cotton, and our shopping mall is known as Spindles. In keeping with this, when I dreamt up Sanford’s mall, I named it The Gallery. A gallery is the name given to a coal seam in a mine.
The final touch to creating Sanford, was the outdoor market, surrounded by older, Victorian buildings which have been turned over to budding entrepreneurs. It’s a familiar enough sight in Great Britain.
Market traders have a tough time of things, and visitors to any street market will find at least one secondhand dealer selling anything from furniture, TVs and technology, to china ornaments. As well as playing a small role in the developing drama of My Deadly Valentine, Mort Norris was created to fill this gap. There’s more than a hint of Del Boy Trotter about Mort. He’s a wise trader; one who knows that everything, no matter how old, no matter how ragged or rusty, has a value. A man with a sharp eye, Mort can give Joe a hint or two about the victim’s past, while passing off a china piece as Meissen instead of Mason.
Although Sanford is only the backdrop to the story, anyone who knows such places will feel immediately at home there. But for me, creating an entire town is not something I’d like to repeat, and for the next STAC Mystery, we’re going back to the seaside.
David W Robinson is a novelist and freelance writer based in Manchester, England.
The STAC Mysteries is a series of traditional British cozy-crime novels. My Deadly Valentine, the 6th STAC Mystery is available for the Kindle at http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00B9HHF8I (for Amazon worldwide, change “.co.uk” to “.com”)
and in all formats from Smashwords at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/281516
and in mobi, epub and pdf directly from Crooked Cat Books
Coming next week,
Author Grace Elliot
Coming next week,
Author Grace Elliot