I was very fortunate to meet today’s guest author, Philip Caveney, at a writers gathering in the Armenian Tavern near St Albert’s Square in Manchester (England) last Christmas. As with every author I meet, I smiled sweetly and asked if he could write a post for the blog. Being the lovely man he is, he said yes, so here it is:
People often ask me about the importance of ‘location’ in my fiction. I always tell them that it’s very important, ranking just below characters in my list of essential elements for a good read. Whether it’s the completely invented medieval world of Sebastian Darke or the meticulously researched ancient civilizations of the Alec Devlin books, I’m always at great pains to get the location to look, smell and feel ‘real.’ Readers must be convinced that what they are reading could actually happen and, creating a realistic world is a vital step in making that happen.
Perhaps the best example of how a location can influence a work of fiction is in my recent novel, Crow Boy. Location couldn’t be any more important to this book – indeed, the whole thing sprang from a visit to its real life setting.
Allow me to explain.
Three years ago, I visited the Edinburgh festival with my partner, Susan. (If you’ve never found time to visit the festival, remedy that ASAP, because it’s just the most amazing experience, which has become, for us, a yearly pilgrimage.) Like most visitors, we crammed the time with theatre, stand up comedy and of course, the literary festival. We also decided to visit some of the city’s historic sites, one of which was a place called Mary King’s Close.
The close is an amazing experience. It is, quite simply, a network of seventeeth century streets and homes, that were built over back in the eighteenth century, when its lower stories were used as foundations for the Royal Exchange. Forgotten about for centuries, it was used as an air raid shelter in the 2nd World War and then forgotten about once again. It was rediscovered in the 1980s, when private tours could be arranged with a word in the right ear, but finally opened as a proper tourist attraction in the 1990s. Going down those steps into that strange, gloomy labyrinth is probably the closest you’ll ever come to stepping into a time machine. The walls simply exude atmosphere – and it’s easy to see why so many visitors to the close, believe that the ghost of a girl called Little Annie haunts one particular room and why, over the years, so many of them have left little dolls and cuddly toys as gifts for her.
As soon as I stepped into the close I knew I wanted to set a story there. I started playing the ‘what if’ game. What if, on an ordinary school trip to the close, a boy (let’s call him Tom) bumps his head and suddenly finds himself still at in the same location, but in 1645 – the year of bubonic plague? How would he survive? Who would he meet? And how would he ever find his way back to his own time? That was enough to get the creative juices flowing. But annoyingly, I couldn’t start writing the book straight away, as I had other commissions to fulfil. So I left the idea simmering on gas mark three.
The following year, I was back in Edinburgh again, this time at the festival, promoting a book called Night On Terror Island. I’d contacted Mary King’s Close beforehand and asked if I might get another tour, a private one this time, so I could ask as many stupid questions as I liked. The staff were incredibly helpful and sure enough, early one morning, I, Susan and my daughter, Grace, were given a special tour, allowing us to see parts of the close that aren’t included on the usual trips. (We memorably visited Edinburgh’s oldest flushing toilet, the walls still adorned with the original seventeenth century wallpaper, which we were advised not to touch – apparently the printed pattern includes liberal doses of arsenic!)
Back home, armed with the extra information, I could finally find an opening to start work on the book itself. I always hesitate to say that it came easily, because no book is ever easy, but it certainly flowed. At any rate, it was soon finished and it was time to start thinking about publication. It seemed to me essential that I should find an Edinburgh Publisher and that led me to contact Fledgling Press and its canny and very hardworking MD, Clare Cain. She liked the book and could easily see its potential. Pretty soon, we’d hammered out a deal and almost before I knew what was happening, it was time to think about a launch.
I’m absolutely delighted to say that Mary King’s Close were, once again, incredibly supportive – so much so that we had the launch right there in the close. Children were taken down in groups for the tour, where they were treated to a reading from the book by an actress dressed in seventeenth century clothes. We were also supplied with a terrifying plague doctor (actually the close’s affable general manager, J. Craig Miller) who prowled around with a lantern, scaring the living daylights of everyone he met. Visit the close today and you’ll find a big display of Crow Boy in the gift shop. You’ll also find the book on sale at many of Scotland’s other tourist attractions.
This year, I’ll be appearing at the Edinburgh book festival with Crow Boy and, I might even find time to mention that I’ve now started work on a sequel called Seventeen Coffins…
So you see, a work of fiction can stem from an actual visit to an actual place. I was delighted when one reviewer mentioned that when reading Crow Boy, he could ‘almost smell’ those ancient streets. Because that’s what fiction’s job is. To make us believe that what we’re reading is not just a collection of random words on a page or a screen… but actually real. Actually happening. Right now.
About the Author
Philip Caveney was born in North Wales in 1951. His first book, The Sins of Rachel Ellis was published in 1977. Another 12 thrillers followed and in 2007, his first children’s book, Sebastian Darke: Prince of Fools, was published all around the world. His series include the Alec Devlin adventures and Movie Maniacs. His next novel, Space Blasters, will be published in May 2013.