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.


The Top 5 Cities for Dating

It depends what you’re looking for (and, as a friend rightly says, how old you are, there being obvious differences between Vienna and, say, Ibiza).

I was on the look-out for settings for my latest novel and wanted guidance.  The advisory panel retired to a bar to deliberate the top cities for dating.  Several rounds later, they had discarded New York and Rome, and came up with these five choices.

1.  ParisParis frame 2

For: Possibly the most heavenly city on earth, with no shortage of romantic places for a rendezvous.

Against:  the pickings can be slim, according to a writer friend who lived there and longed for more than a married lover for some cinq-à-sept.


Amsterdam framed2.  Amsterdam

For: Vibrant, hip and imbued with sex as well as culture, this city can put you under its influence without ever going near one of the infamous coffee-houses.

Against: the weather is unpredictable.  And the men love to eat raw fish.

3.  DublinDublin framed

For: A beautiful and historic city, with plenty to see.  And Dubliners are wonderfully gregarious.  There are no strangers, just friends you haven’t yet met – with some bound to be single.

Against: the weather is predictable.  It rains all the time.

Havana framed

4.  Havana

For:  If your idea of dating is to go salsa dancing as soon as you land, or be serenaded to Guantanamera when you only stopped to cross the street, this is the place.

Against: prepare to consider yourselves ‘engaged’ by the end of the night.

5.  Cleethorpes

London was going to be on the list until my friend Rachel convinced everyone how much Cleethorpes has to offer.  There’s the seafront, a lovely pier, a light railway, romantic trams, even a statue of The Boy with the Leaking Boot.*  The Greenwich meridian goes through the town, and the weather’s not so bad if you wrap up warm (you weren’t going to have sex on the beach, were you?).

Despite these obvious attractions, I did the dirty on Cleethorpes.  I plumped for London as the setting for my novel on dating.

I know it’s beautiful, because I live there.  Alongside the obvious pubs, restaurants and bars, there are some of the finest shops in the world.   There’s also free entertainment:  museums, galleries and parks, or just a stroll by the river. Time it right, and you can catch Tower Bridge opening. Tower bridge framed

Cleethorpes may have lyrical trams, but in London a lot can happen on its iconic red buses or the extensive underground system.   Commuters being what they are, you can even give birth on the Piccadilly Line without anyone batting an eyelid.

I set several scenes in Marylebone because it’s buzzing.  There are upmarket grocers, specialist bookshops, funky gadget stores, designer boutiques, not to mention charity shops which stock a lot of designer cast-offs.  Despite there being more cafés, patisseries and restaurants than anyone could possibly need, they’re always full of customers lured by the aroma of warm bread and freshly ground coffee.  Marylebone is very much the place to be, especially if you have nothing very much to do.

The Jacaranda bar, where most of my characters meet, is off Marylebone High Street and has the longest zinc bar in town.  It’s named after the original Jacaranda bar in Liverpool, the first venue ever to host the Beatles.

It would be poetic to say the advisory board met there, but it wouldn’t be true.   My Jacaranda bar isn’t a Mecca for Beatles trail tourists.   If you go looking for it in Marylebone, or anywhere else in London, you’ll be disappointed.  I made it up.

Still, my city is the star of my story, just as much as each character.   It’s cosmopolitan, it’s loaded with heritage, and, best of all, if you don’t like the one you’re with, it’s big enough to avoid said person.  Not something you can say about Cleethorpes, is it, Rachel?

*Cleethorpes is said to be the number one destination in the UK for seaside holidays.  For more, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleethorpes