Why Do Authors Love Setting Novels in London?

There are a zillion places to set a novel, even more if you include locations that don’t exist yet, but this side of the pond London is at the top of the list.

It’s no surprise that London’s attractions shape my writing: I was born in the capital, and after a junket of a decade or two came back here to live and work. But even if you’re not a Londoner there are plenty of good reasons to set your action there.

Abbey Road crossing

1 Things happen all the time in London: knife crime, break-ins, births in hospital carparks. So you can slip in a fictional car-crash or multiple murder and it won’t seem nearly as odd as it might in a dozy village.

2 London is incredibly romantic, even in the rain. That means lots of places for your characters to wander arm in arm in Highgate cemetery, should you wish them to. 

Highgate cemetery

Or, if you prefer, to argue on the top of Primrose Hill.

Primrose Hill

3 Everyone knows something about London. Its iconic features can be used as a kind of shorthand, such as the Tower, the London Eye, and the Tube. However, if you want to include real detail, there’s no substitute for the author joining the melée and checking it out.

Tower of London, field of poppies

4 Medieval buildings can be found all over the place, including smack dab by Big Ben.

© Elvis Santana (tome213)

Then again, there’s no shortage of great new architecture, and more to come, judging from the number of cranes.

The Shard, London

5 It’s very green. Should your characters wish to stretch their legs, or their children’s, offer them Regent’s Park, Clapham Common, or perhaps just a walk by the Thames. Time it right, and they can watch Tower Bridge open.

Tower Bridge

6 London is very diverse, with some parts that are distinctly upmarket, like trendy Marylebone, where my novel One Night at the Jacaranda kicks off.

Waitrose, Marylebone High Street

I’ve also included Edgware Road, where you’d be hard put to find any newspapers that aren’t in Arabic.

There, groceries spill out onto the pavement, with watermelons as big as Beirut, and shiny aubergines, pearly white onions and wrinkly green things that I’ve forgotten the name for, all lying with fat bunches of sweet-smelling herbs.

On the street there are always clusters of young men in T-shirts and jeans, standing on corners as they shout into mobiles or talk urgently with their hands, and, during the annual Saudi summer invasion, streams of women with pushchairs, most of them in a black abaya, some veiled so you could only see their eyes. They glide by, with their Fendi handbags and large retinues of children, while older men sit outside cafés and juice bars, smoking shisha. The men stared hard at passers-by, at any passing Mercedes. They have nothing else to do.

No surprise my next novel is also set in London.

Royal Albert Hall

7 It’s full of characters, like the woman walking down Finchley Road with a black bin liner under her hat. And when I say walking down Finchley Road, I mean in the middle of the bus lane. Or the man in Goodge Street dressed from head to foot as an African grey parrot. This being London, nobody gives either of them a second glance.

8 Finally, consider the US market: to Americans, London IS Britain.

 

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Seven Days as a Novelist

Thanksgiving Day 2013 and my novel comes out after spending years getting ready. 

front cover reduced

First cover of my novel

Day One is great:  congratulations arrive on Facebook, in cards and by email.   I don’t have a launch party but I go to Women in Journalism’s Christmas bash.   Everyone can see that I’m floating about 6″ off the ground.  That’s because I’m wearing red suede heels like these.

By Day Two, I’m seeing stars in the form of my first review.  Five stars to be exact, and from an author I respect hugely.  I tell all my friends, which means I post the news on Twitter.  Writers lose their real friends because they spend all their time writing. 

On Day Three I see a neighbour who wants to know all about my book. When I explain how she can buy a copy, for instance here, I get a blank look.  She asks “What do you mean, buy?”

It’s the Primrose Hill Christmas Festival on Day Four   The place is crawling with models, writers, actors, whatever (MWA, darling).  I don’t see any celebs out and about with their noses in my novel, but I spot these supermodels in their new winter coats.

Ruff & Tumble

Monday night is Day Five.   I attend the British Lung Foundation’s Christmas Carols by Candlight at St Pancras Church.  It’s a big occasion so I’m wearing THE shoes off the cover, not a stand-in pair.   Along with Linda Robson, Tommy Walsh and David Oakes, I read a poem. By now my book and I are feeling proper festive.  

jacaranda tree

But that day my elderly mother has another fall and can’t stand up.  I catch a flight out as soon as I can.

She’s in a geriatric hospital.  Her lipstick tells me she’s still fighting but the rest of her tells a different story.  She has severe osteoporosis and has broken several more bones.  They give her morphine which barely helps her pain.  You have to work up gradually to the right dose and we’re not there yet.  

The red heels have come off.  I sit by her bed and help her drink from a drinker, the kind my children had as toddlers.

This, now, is reality.  Fiction?  That’s just escapism.  But what a welcome escape it can be.