What’s in a name? Unless an author writes science fiction set on another planet, or fantasy in a fantasy world, he has to set his story in places and countries on earth. I once read a novel by a well known writer; unlike his other books set firmly in cities we knew, it was a tale of wanderings in vaguely European lands, in an unspecified century. I felt no attachment to the characters at all and did not enjoy reading it.
That doesn’t mean the novelist must only write about real places. A crime thriller or romance can be set in a village with an invented name, helpful to avoid a libel case; you only have to look at the map book or drive around Britain to know real villages and towns have names stranger than a writer could create.
I recently read ‘The Cornish Coast Murder’ by John Bude, written in the 1930’s. His penname is derived from a real Cornish place, the name of the village in the story is invented, but the name Boscawen sounds genuine.
Authors are safe in big cities, they are sprawling and anonymous. London has a well know centre surrounded by an endless variety of suburbs. In my novel ‘Brief Encounters of the Third Kind’ the story starts in the back garden of an ordinary house, in the large suburb of Ashley. You won’t find Ashley on the map, but like many other outer London suburbs it has a common popular with dog walkers, several underground stations, a busy bus service, a hospital, a town centre and local shops. The residents of Ashley think nothing much ever happens there, but they are wrong.
When characters hop on ‘the tube’ to go into central London well known landmarks feature in the plot. In ‘Three Ages of Man’, second of my ‘Brief Encounters Trilogy’, the stranger who appears at the beginning of the novel is overwhelmed by sprawling Ashley and the city centre, but I know where he is. Waterloo Station is Britain’s busiest station, characters can pass through unnoticed. Here you catch the train to an obscure part of Wiltshire; a good walk from the station, near a little known village is Holly Tree Farm; an ideal place for people who need to keep a low profile.
Perhaps one day I will set a novel in my current home town. It is big and busy, with students and holiday makers and occasionally, bizarre real life murders; plenty of scope for a novelist. Its real name is Bournemouth, Dorset, but in the novels of Thomas Hardy it is Sandbourne in the fictional county of Wessex.
In my two anthologies ‘Dark and Milk’ and ‘Hallows and Heretics’ you will find stories set in London and the Bournemouth area. In ‘Hallows and Heretics’ you can read the Hambourne Chronicles. Google Hambourne to see if it is a real place!