Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Wrong Place

Whether real or imaginary, the places I set my books are always entwined with the plot and the characters. In fact, sometimes my starting point is a particular place and the story and people grow from that basis. For instance, I decided to set a book at the Tower of London (The Bloody Tower).The plot could not happen elsewhere, nor could the characters and their relationships.

Last Autumn, I visited St. Michael’s Mount in southern Cornwall with a view to my protagonist, Eleanor Trewynn, staying at the castle for my next Cornish mystery. The basis of the plot had already been growing in my mind for some time. The place seemed ideal: a semi-island reachable only by boat at high tide or on foot at low tide.

St. Michael’s Mount, Cornwall, photo Carola Dunn

I wrote nearly 20,000 words before I decided the Mount was just too much of a good thing, too inaccessible. Besides the difficulties of getting there, the path to the castle is steep and rocky—and Eleanor is in her 60s (which was older 40 years ago than it is now), though fit for her age. Also, there’s nowhere on the island for other necessary characters to stay. With the mainland hard to reach and the return arduous, Eleanor would be too isolated for the story to work.

St. Michael’s Mount, Cornwall, photo Carola Dunn

I moved the whole kit and caboodle to Tintagel, on the North Coast. Necessarily, this changed a whole slew of scenes I had already figured out.

An example: The hideous Victorian hotel on the cliffs, overlooking the ruins of King Arthur’s Castle, is easy to reach by car, impossible by train. It’s much closer to Eleanor’s home (the imaginary Port Mabyn). I had to come up with a reason for her friend and neighbour Nick to be staying nearby. My solution was raising a violent storm to make driving home in his small car dangerous!

Tintagel ruins and Camelot Castle hotel,
photo Carola Dunn

It was sunny in the first version. I need fine weather for the following day, and then fog. Isn’t it lucky that the weather in Cornwall is REALLY that variable?

Carola Dunn is author of the Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries, Cornish Mysteries, and multitudinous Regencies.


  1. First, I love your photos. I've never been to the places mentioned, and the pictures enhance my understanding of your article.

    Second, I completely agree about the importance of place. Readers need to envision the locales in our books, or our stories lose vital dimension. When a reader "sees" our characters' surroundings (real or fictitious), we've made significant strides in pulling them into the depths, nooks, and crannies of our story because they can "go" there in their minds.

    Furthermore, readers who have visited our real settings will be testing our credibility regarding the accuracy of our descriptions, what can realistically happen there, and whether it's a place where our characters could logically be/go. We'd better be accurate.

    Even if the setting is fictitious, details need to smack of realism if we want readers not to be distracted by the absence of what could reasonably occur in that location. Careful attention to setting details is a must. Good reminder, Carola.

  2. Couldn't agree with you more, Carola, about the importance of the setting ... but I'm telling you I got my money's worth from your post just by seeing the term 'kit and caboodle' ... haven't seen that one in donkey's years! Pip pip and cheerio.

  3. I do prefer a story where the setting is intertwined with the plot rather than a backdrop. The hotter the cauldron, the thicker the stew.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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