Thursday, 18 May 2017
Crime Fiction Month: The Write Stuff with... Chris Lloyd
Today it's my pleasure to be handling the blog over to Chris Lloyd, author of The Elisenda Domènech Investigations series, to talk about the challenges (and fun) of setting stories in a real location.
It was the name that got me.
There are moments when you read or hear something that punches the breath out of you. I was researching in the city archives in Girona, in Catalonia, for a guide book and I came across the story of a small statue not far from where I was. Outside, I looked for the statue and found it above one of the medieval gateways into the city. She was serene and beautiful, a Madonna and child surrounded by ornate and brightly-painted curlicues and cherubs, and she was called the Virgin of Good Death.
She was called that because she was the last blessing for prisoners as they were led out of the medieval city to be executed outside the city walls. It was the beauty and the brutality that struck me, the benevolence and menace, and it was the germ of the first book in my Elisenda Domènech series, about a police officer in present-day Girona. Back in the archive, I then came across a series of local legends that left my head reeling at their folklore wisdom and savage imagery, and that sealed the deal. I knew I had to write about it all. The problem was whether anyone who didn’t know Girona or Catalonia would be interested. I’d lived in Girona and Barcelona for 24 years and I’m passionate about Catalonia and its culture, and the one thing I was concerned about was maybe I was being just that bit too niche.
And that, I think, is one of the first dilemmas you face when you set your stories not just in a real location, but in a foreign one. There’s a balancing act between looking too narrowly at your setting while finding stories to set there that will appeal to a wider audience and to readers who might not know the place you’re writing about. It’s a question of finding a harmony between the local and the global, telling a universal story that we can all feel through a unique and very specific setting that only you can tell. But it’s precisely that intensely local atmosphere that can create its own strength and become even more powerful and evocative as long as you can find a way to use it as the vehicle to tell a story that touches on everyone’s life.
Related in a way to this is the idea of accuracy. Inevitably, you’re writing about your vision of a setting and the stories that it inspires in you, but there’s also a sense of duty to try and convey the location as truthfully as possible. This question of accuracy raises another dilemma: I want English-language readers who might not know Girona to enjoy the stories but I have to remain true to the setting. That inevitably means using names they probably find unfamiliar and having to explain some local foibles and features by trying to weave them into the story. Having said that, I also want people from Girona and Catalonia to recognise their own culture, so I have to try to reflect that as honestly as I can. It becomes a bit of a tightrope walk as you try to convey a familiar emotion in an unfamiliar setting.
The other problem with accuracy is that it keeps changing. What might be true when you’re writing the story can become untrue after. And believe me, someone will pick you up on it. The moment my first book came out, a bar I’d mentioned in it closed. A shop where Elisenda bought cakes in an earlier draft closed while I was writing it, so I had to change it. The police were going to be moving to spanking new headquarters, so I wrote a whole draft taking that into consideration and having the characters preparing for the move, when the police suddenly announced that because of the recession, they weren’t going to be moving after all. That was a rewrite I didn’t enjoy.
And then there are the times that the accuracy has to fly out of the window. If you’re using real places, you have to be careful you don’t write anything that might upset the owners or that might be defamatory. So amid all the actual locations, you end up having to invent fictional places so you’ve got somewhere for all the bad things to happen and the horrible people to inhabit.
Those are some of the challenges of using a foreign location. They’re far outweighed by the benefits – and the sheer fun – of using a real setting. Number one on this list has to be that it’s an endless source of ideas and inspiration. As I mentioned, it was after discovering some local legends in the city archives and traipsing around the old town in Girona looking for statues relating to the stories that I got the idea for City of Good Death. An archaeological dig and a museum with a display of pre-Roman ritual killings – two five-thousand-year-old skulls with a spike thrust through them – was the inspiration for the second book. And the whole story about a missing child and an unpopular politician for the third in the series came to me in a moment when a street performer in Girona dressed as an eighteenth-century dandy doffed his hat at me.
But it’s not just stories that the location can inspire. Sitting on the Rambla in Girona with a glass of wine and just watching people walk past, caught up in their own world, is a great way of getting characters. The way people interact with each other, the way they dress, their walking pace, their expressions and gestures – they all create a world. One of the things that I found most helpful in getting the characters was going into shops and restaurants or sitting on benches in residential squares and streets and watching and listening. You can see the places each of your characters would go to buy bread, the bars they wouldn’t be seen dead in, the smells they get and the things they see as they go home, the people they’d say hello to and the ones they’d avoid. I found it useful to imagine how my characters would talk to the people I spoke to in the street or in shops, and that way get an understanding of what makes them tick.
The setting, and especially its climate, are wonderful for giving you the mood of the book. The narrow streets in Girona’s old town are like deep canyons, some of them little more than two people wide. They’re beautiful, but for crime books, they’re perfect for imbuing the stories set in them with a menace, a sense of claustrophobia. Elisenda lives in the old town, and to her its labyrinthine alleyways are a refuge from the open streets of the new town, but in just a moment’s breath, they can turn into a threat. I find them an endless source of inspiration. The climate, too, can play an important part in setting scene. Girona is Mediterranean, it’s bright and sunny and warm, but it’s also humid, which can become cloying, pulling you into a breathless trap. The river can sometimes flood, the rising water a preview of impending doom. Storms can rise in just a few hours, the calm suddenly shattered by torrential rain reducing visibility in the old streets to a few metres, making people invisible. They’re all there to help create an atmosphere for your characters to inhabit.
And for me, by far the best thing about using a real setting is being able to lose yourself in it. Walk around the streets and you’ll find the stories and the characters queuing up to announce themselves to you. Do your homework, talk to people, and go looking for specific sights. An ordinary street corner and the sights and sounds and smells and the people you see are a great source of ideas. All it takes is a small statue high on a wall to set you off along a path.
Chris was born in an ambulance racing through a town he’s only returned to once and that’s probably what did it. Soon after that, when he was about two months old, he moved with his family to West Africa, which pretty much sealed his expectation that life was one big exotic setting. He later studied Spanish and French at university, and straight after graduating, he hopped on a bus from Cardiff to Catalonia where he stayed for the next twenty-four years, falling in love with the people, the country, the language and Barcelona Football Club, probably in that order. Besides Catalonia, he’s also lived in Grenoble, the Basque Country and Madrid, teaching English, travel writing for Rough Guides and translating. He now lives in South Wales, where he works as a writer and a Catalan and Spanish translator, returning to Catalonia as often as he can.
He writes the Elisenda Domènech series, featuring a police officer with the newly-devolved Catalan police force in the beautiful city of Girona. The third book in the series, City of Drowned Souls, was published on 6 February 2017.
A killer is targeting hate figures in the Catalan city of Girona – a loan shark, a corrupt priest, four thugs who have blighted the streets of the old quarter. Each corpse is posed in a way whose meaning no one can fathom.
Elisenda Domènech, the head of the city’s newly-formed Serious Crime Unit, is determined to do all she can to stop the attacks. She believes the attacker is drawing on the city’s legends to choose his targets, but her colleagues aren’t convinced and her investigation is blocked at every turn.
Battling against the press, the public and even some of the police, she finds herself forced to question her own values. But when the attacks start to include less deserving victims, the pressure is suddenly on Elisenda to stop him.
The question is: how?
Be careful what you dig up...
Still recovering from the tragedy that hit her team, Elisenda takes on a new case. Except it’s not new. On an archaeological dig by the coast a body is uncovered, seemingly executed with a spike thrust through the front of the skull – an ancient tribal ritual. It soon becomes clear that this body is neither ancient nor modern, but a mysterious corpse from the 1980s.
Assigned to the case along with her team, Elisenda soon uncovers a complex world of star archaeologists, jealousy and missing persons. They find a dark trade in illicit antiquities, riddled with vicious professional rivalries. And even though she’s staying close to the crime scene, Elisenda is also never far from enemies of her own within the police force.
Just as the case seems to become clear it is blown wide-open by another horrific murder. Elisenda must fight her personal demons and office politics, whilst continuing to uncover plots and hatreds that were long buried. How far will she go to solve the crime? Is her place in the force secure? And can she rebuild her life?
When a child disappears, the clock starts ticking
Detective Elisenda Domènech has had a tough few years. The loss of her daughter and a team member; the constant battles against colleagues and judges; the harrowing murder investigations… But it’s about to get much worse.
When the son of a controversial local politician goes missing at election time, Elisenda is put on the case. They simply must solve it. Only the team also have to deal with a spate of horrifically violent break-ins. People are being brutalised in their own homes and the public demands answers.
Could there be a connection? Why is nobody giving a straight answer? And where is Elisenda’s key informant, apparently vanished off the face of the earth? With the body count threatening to increase and her place in the force on the line, the waters are rising…
Be careful not to drown.