Setting As Inspiration
by Andrea Carter
Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Some places speak distinctly. Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwrecks.”
I lived on the Inishowen peninsula in County Donegal for eleven years. It’s a windswept and beautiful place, with brooding headlands, deserted beaches, towering sea stacks, and ruined forts. When I began writing crime novels, I could not have set them anywhere else.
I ran the most northerly law practise in Ireland while I lived there, so it was no coincidence that my protagonist/amateur sleuth emerged as a female solicitor named Benedicta O’Keeffe, known as Ben (my own friends and family call me Andy). No coincidence either that Ben also runs the most northerly law practise in Ireland (last legal advice before Iceland, as a friend of mine pointed out).
But what truly inspires me is place—landscape and buildings. When I visit somewhere for the first time, I find myself imagining what might have happened there, and whether the memory of those events might have remained embedded within the walls, in the atmosphere, marking it out as a place of contentment or sadness. Or fear. My grandmother (who also believed she had the gift of second sight and that the banshee followed her family) believed that to be the case; she thought that a place retained the essence of what had occurred within, and that one could sense it. And despite years of level-headed, rational legal training, I think she was right.
Which is why each of my books starts with place: a forgotten crypt below a deconsecrated church on a cliff, a deserted beach, a remote island, an old house.
Setting is important in crime fiction. It contributes to and affects the plot, evokes mood, and influences the characters. Inishowen is another character in my books, as important as the protagonist herself. I’m not sure they would work if I set them anywhere else.
Some disagree, but my advice is: don’t set your story in a place you haven’t at least visited. Readers can tell if you’ve over-googled. And if you are writing about somewhere you don’t live, keep newspapers, pictures, brochures, to bring you to where you need to be. I live in Dublin now but sometimes an old Donegal Creameries milk carton is enough to take me back to Inishowen.
Setting is not just about accuracy—many writers create fictional locations – it’s about evoking a sense of place. Use language, customs, food and weather to bring a place to life, not just physical landscape. Use all your senses, not just sight, ask yourself what the place sounds like and smells like (something google will rarely tell you). Use a few memorable details rather than too many. Write about place through your character or narrator’s eyes. Are they new to this place? Or do they dislike it? If you are writing about somewhere you know well, become a stranger in your own town – try to notice things as if you are seeing them for the first time.
When I moved to Dublin, Inishowen became easier to write about when I was detached from it – its colours and sounds more vivid because I missed them. But now I return all the time. I’ve just come back from a week there, tapping away on my laptop while gazing out at the North Atlantic Ocean.
At no point do I plan out my books. I simply write as I like to read; with every chapter the mist clears a little, and I can see what will happen in the chapters to follow. I am driving along a foggy road at night and there are times when the road stretches clearly ahead and other times when it is barely visible; either way, I can never see further than the next bend. I think it’s this very quality of not knowing how it will end that drives me to finish the book.
I write the first draft straight through, because for me it is about story: that age-old human need to relate and to hear stories. The first draft is rough, like a piece of stone I need to sculpt, and I have been known to construct scaffolding which I remove later.
But my story starts with setting—always.
Andrea Carter grew up in Laois and studied law at Trinity College Dublin, before moving to the Inishowen peninsula in Co. Donegal where she ran the most northerly solicitors’ practice in Ireland. In 2006 she returned to Dublin to work as a barrister before turning to write crime novels. She was a winner of the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair and is the recipient of two Arts Council of Ireland Literature Bursary Awards.
She is the author of the Inishowen Mysteries, most recently The Well of Ice and Murder at Greysbridge. She is published by Oceanview in the U.S., Little, Brown in the U.K. and Goldmann Verlag in Germany. The series will shortly be adapted for television.
The Sunday Times has said ‘Carter excels in re-creating the cloistered, gossipy confines of a small Irish village…the Inishowen peninsula community where everybody knows everybody else’s business is a fine stand-in for the mannered drawing room society of a Christie mystery.’