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Thursday, 29 March 2012

Why I Set my Novel in the Yorkshire Dales.


Writers choose locations for their fiction for all manner of reasons. Sometimes it's because the place is a familiar haunt. Sometimes the setting is exactly right for the fabric of the story. Sometimes the landscape is so alien to the author that it stimulates his imagination.

I grew up in Yorkshire and it has been my home for much of my adult life, though by no means all of it. Many years ago, when I was married to my first wife, in fact, (and I've been married to my current lovely lady for coming up to 24 years) we were walking in a particularly remote and rugged part of the Yorkshire Dales. There are some sink holes in this area. For those who don't know, these are geological features that are best described as vertical caves. Often quite deep, usually narrow, they are places where water has eaten away the porous rock and left a deep pit in the surface of the Earth. The Buttertubs, as this particular set of sink holes is known, are a series of pits close to the narrow and precipitous road that leads from Hawes to Muker. Readily accessible, they are a tourist attraction for many motorists but few walkers.

It was a chill and windy day when I approached these holes in the ground, grey clouds skimmed a pale sun, and the gusty wind made waves through the long grass. At that time, the pits were unfenced and entirely open to public gaze with none of the modern obsessive concern for 'health and safety' rules. It was possible to step right up to and, indeed, over, the edges of these shafts. I am uncomfortable with heights and, since I was determined to gaze into the bottom of the largest and deepest, I sank to my knees and crawled forward until I could safely peer into the dim depths. As I did so, quite inexplicably, I was visited by a brief image of a woman's body at the bottom and the question was posed in my writer's mind, 'What would you do if you found a dead body down there?'

That thought stayed with me over the years. A divorce and remarriage took me to different parts of the country and overseas for the first time. But I was drawn again and again to the Yorkshire Dales until, almost on a whim, my wife and I with our new daughter just 2 years old, moved into the area to live. Our walks became regular events, regardless of weather. We experienced everything from dry thirsty heatwaves to icy winters cloaked in deep drifting snow and everything in between, as can only happen in good old island Britain.

It was whilst we lived in this location that the initial question slowly coalesced into a plot, peopled by the characters I had long lived with in my imagination. The story developed and the setting became part of the narrative, as much a character in the tale as Faith or Leigh, in fact. It was the natural setting for the rugged and tough tale and the fact that I was living in it made the descriptions so much easier. So, the first draft was completed at the same time as I renovated the house we'd bought and worked part time for a local holiday accommodation company.

Life came along, in the form of redundancy, just days before the new millennium was about to commence. At the age of 51, I understood my chances of re-employment in the area were slim and I moved the family back to my native East Yorkshire, where I found a job. It was some years before I found time to write again and dug out that first draft. I changed the viewpoint characters, giving both the male and female protagonists a chance to have their say in first person. I changed relationships that formed essential background to the story. I changed incidents. I changed the ages of the protagonists. What I didn't change was the setting. The Yorkshire Dales remained as valid a landscape as it had been from the beginning.

For those who don't know the area, it is a National Park. An area of outstanding natural beauty and considered by many to be the best walking country in Europe. It's populated by a native people who are as tough as the characteristic dry stone walls, as stubborn as the local sheep, as different as individuals as are the inhabitants of any region.

I changed the time frame to a period that was historically real: the severe drought of 1976, since the weather and the burgeoning philosophy of 'free love' allowed me to introduce a degree of external nudity that would otherwise be unlikely in this wild country. The nudity was an essential element in the relationship of the two protagonists and a useful tool in examining the fight between innocence and corruption that is at the heart of the story.

So, there you have it. Those are the reasons I came to set my romantic thriller, Breaking Faith, in one of the most beautiful parts of the English countryside. Many readers have commented on how apt the setting is. Whether you'll agree or not can only be determined by reading the book. And I give you the opportunity to do that for free here on this blog. Each week of this year I am posting a chapter. There are 50 in all, so it'll last for almost the whole year. And each post is accompanied by one of my photographs taken in the Dales, so you can experience the landscape for yourself. I started in January and the link to that first instalment is here. You'll find the rest of the early chapters listed in the archive and you're welcome to join the readers as we take the journey together to the end.

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