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.


An Evening at the Proms

Geoff mops his brow as he steps through the doorway and into the shade. Glancing down at his ticket, he remembers the invariable rule of the Royal Albert Hall: whichever door you enter, it’s diametrically opposite where you need to be.

Albert Hall

He heads from door 4 to 12, stopping off at the café for a Coke Zero.

All human life is there already: young people with rucksacks, alte kakker in Birkenstocks, middle-aged women with sunhats. Only one person seems to have dressed up for the occasion, and she’s got purple hair, a pierced nose and a tuxedo ripped in multiple places. When did people stop wearing smart clothes to concerts?

Sitting next to Geoff, a middle-aged woman nurses a large glass of rosé. Every two seconds she looks up at the entrance.

Her date finally turns up. Rosé woman comes to life, falling over herself to greet him. When the man sits down, she babbles constantly and paws his wrist.

Geoff gets to his seat in the Choir (West). The lights dim and tonight’s fare begins with a Brahms piano concerto. So far, so soporific thinks Geoff, despite the energetic pianist.

inside the Royal Albert Hall

Part two is Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass. It may not be a Mass, but it has everything else, Geoff reckons: choir and solo voices in some unidentifiable language, plus brass, wind, strings, drums galore and that massive organ which is almost in his right ear. Geoff studies the cellists. A fellow student once told him cellists were the raunchiest of the lot, as they were used to stroking a mighty instrument between parted thighs. He can well believe it.

According to the notes in Geoff’s lap, Janáček was keen on pan-Slavism, and his mighty work celebrates nationhood and peace.organ

That’s not something that Geoff can figure out from the music. There are noisy outbreaks from various instruments. Now the horns. Then the snare drums. Strings come in, and an exquisite harp.

Janáček, it’s also said, placed his nationalistic beliefs above the welfare of his own daughter. Geoff would have had words with him. Nothing on earth matters to him more than his son.

The conductor chops the air with his hands, then dangles his fingers like jelly fish. The orchestra hangs on every move of his digits. Then the organ erupts into a fantasia.

Nationhood and peace, muses Geoff. Chance would be a fine thing. The world could use a damn good conductor.


*For those not in the UK, the BBC Proms (or more exactly the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts) are an annual summer season of concerts in London, most of them held in the Royal Albert Hall.