LJ Ross is the bestselling author of the DCI Ryan series of crime novels.
Her books are known for their strong sense of place, with landscapes and well-known settings as much a part of her writing and plot as her characters.
Louise, as she’s also known, will be at this year’s Berwick Literary Festival to talk about how to transport scenery to storyline. I spoke to her to about the importance of landscapes in her novels, and what authors can do to create a credible sense of place.
You grew up in Northumberland but now live in Bath. What is it about the landscape of that county that inspires your writing so much?
Yes, I spent my childhood in Northumberland and my parents still live there, so we visit regularly and I always think of it as ‘home’.
It is hard to pinpoint just one thing which draws me back and inspires me to write. The history of Northumberland is so rich, full of adventurous and bloodthirsty tales. It is a landscape of kings and castles, of rugged coastlines and green valleys, and when you visit somewhere like Bamburgh you can see why it was once one of the most powerful kingdoms.
Against that backdrop, it is almost impossible not to be inspired by somewhere so atmospheric! But, I believe that a setting is only given depth once you take into account the people who live and breathe there.
You’ve used some pretty iconic places in your books, from Holy Island to Sycamore Gap and the Angel of the North. How do you decide where to set a novel? What comes first – the plot or the place?
I try to avoid throwing descriptive passages into a plot as an incidental backdrop; I prefer the reader to feel that each location is a character, fully immersed into the story in its own right.
I have an almost endless list of beautiful places in my mind’s eye, but the ones I ultimately choose need to suit the plot of the story – or perhaps it is vice versa!
In the case of Sycamore Gap, I felt that it was a fitting coincidence for a beautiful tree to exist in the same place as the remains of a murdered woman. Nature’s way of marking the spot for somebody to find one day and give her the respect in death that she deserved in life. That stretch of Hadrian’s Wall is remote and beautiful, so it is easy to imagine all kinds of crimes going undetected for many years.
Do you physically explore/visit your place settings before and during the writing process?
Yes, definitely. Usually, I have a base knowledge of the scenery, most likely having visited it many times before.
However, I always make sure I visit the place several times through the writing process, to get a ‘feel’ for the landscape, to note any unusual details or settlements – in some small way I try to view it as a detective might, looking at the vicinity in practical terms as well as aesthetic.
What are you top tips for making place a genuine part of a narrative and not just scenery?
When writers, agents or anyone working in the profession refer to giving a reader a ‘sense of place’, it is just that: a sense of the place.
When you truly connect with a landscape, it is tempting to extol its virtues ad nauseum, but this leads to overly descriptive writing which can be very irritating for readers! Instead, I would suggest a short reference at the start of a new scene, or near it, to let the reader know where the characters have found themselves. Short descriptive passages, or sometimes even the odd word, can suffice to convey the atmosphere, so my first tip is that less is always more.
Dialogue can be an excellent receptacle for inserting natural observations of the landscape. It tends to be much more organic than an entire paragraph of scenery which belongs on a tourist website! In my books, where I have indulged in a short descriptive passage, I follow immediately with more prosaic language, bringing the reader straight back into the action of the story.
Settings which become a genuine part of a narrative have been invested with characteristics by the rest of the fictional characters you have created. In other words, if your main character nearly drowned at some point in his earlier life, it is more likely that he will approach a deep river with a measure of fear, or trepidation, rather than marvelling at nature’s wonder. The character’s perception of the place would be reflected in the adjectives used to describe it – ‘calm waters’ might become ‘murky depths’, or something of that kind. In my most recent book, I remember describing the boxy, squat 1960s building housing the fictional Northumbria CID as an ‘old, familiar friend they hadn’t seen in too long’ because the characters in that scene were desperate to get back to impart important news and it was an effective way of conveying their relief.