WHEN people pick up a romance novel, I think they want to be whisked way from where they are now to someplace else. That can be a place they never saw before, one the writer has imagined, or one they'd one day love to visit. It could also be a place they used to know or a place they yet know well.
Whatever the story is, the contemporary romance writer has to try fit it into one of those places (perhaps not the second, as that would be historical romance; and yet, kind of, too - contemporary can be set in recent decades and places change quickly. A scene set ten or twenty years ago in one of our cities might be very different to one right now.
And you have to get it right. Eventually they'll visit the city you told them all about, expecting to see the things you did. Even now, visitors to Pamplona want to sit in the bars that Hemingway's characters did. And luckily there are a few places still standing. Not all are bars, though.
For a writer like me, living away from home, there are some advantages and disadvantages to this. I have seen and gotten to know more places. I can write several cities with some knowledge, moving my characters from suburb to city centre on the correct bus, choosing the best coffee shop or pub, or whatever.
At the same time, however, I can't always get back to where I want to set the novel to double-check some scenes. I'm reliant on memory, and memory fails. The short walk it seemed between Club 92 and Deansgrange is in fact a long, nearly an hour slog, that I only did because I was young and fit, and had a few pints on me.
For example, I once went out for a while with a girl from Sandymount, but ask me where she lived now, and I'd have no idea how to find it. I can get onto the strand from Booterstown, I can find the hockey club and cross the train tracks to take the sea road on the way to the airport, but that's about it.
Memory changes as fast as the concrete covers over former golf courses and football fields. Google Maps has allowed us to cut through some of this problem by giving us street views and letting us calculate distances, but both sides of this sword have been sharpened, because even readers who don't live there can check something that seems a little out of place to them and catch out the lazy, or forgetful writer.
I used this extensively when writing my most recent adult novel, The Ecology of Lonesomeness, which is set around Loch Ness. My memory of two weeks spent in Fort Augustus twenty years ago was still good, and luckily the town hasn't changed very much, but I needed to do the research to get things right.
I'm currently writing a young adult novel set in my home turf - the Southside of Dublin and the north of Wicklow. I have the benefit of many memories there, but the problem that I've not lived there in fifteen years, and though I can find my way around still, the details are not quite the same. Progress, and the M50 motorway, for example, has changed lots of the places I'd have loved to describe and have my characters visit. Other places are just different to how I remember them, when I double check on google maps or swing by on a trip home.
As an aside, driving in America and Spain has also affected my brain. The first scene of the story is set on the Stillorgan dual carriageway, a road I travelled by bike every day for nine years. Yet I have the girl cycling up the wrong side of the road in my mind's eye, and for the life of me I can't get my memory onto the correct, left side of the road.
That's why sometimes it's best to invent. For my novel, Five Days on Ballyboy Beach, though it was written while I still lived in Ireland and had regular weekends out west, I decided to piece the best parts of different locations together so that my characters would not have to jump in a car to get from their campsite on the sand dunes to the picturesque village and its two charming pubs... The beach is still real, the cliffs and the marram grass, the seagulls and the surf...
* 10% of the author's royalties will be donated to the World Wildlife Fund. *
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Thank you, David, for being my guest this week.I'll be back next Monday, April 11, 7.30GMT, with my fortnightly, personal column.
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