Choosing a location for the setting of a crime novel

I wrote the following article for the Crime Writers' Association (CWA) Debut Dagger Award to help those entering for the competition, and thought it might interest readers of my blog here on Crimespace. The Debut Dagger is open to anyone who has not yet had a novel published commercially. All shortlisted entrants will receive a generous selection of crime novels and professional assessments of their entries. The first prize is £700. The 2011 Competition will close on 5th February 2011. If you fancy a stab at it, and the chance to be a published crime writer, you can now submit the opening chapter(s) – up to 3000 words – and a short synopsis of your proposed crime novel. More details are on the Crime Writers' Association web site.

Winning the Debut Dagger doesn’t guarantee you’ll get published. But it does mean your work will be seen by leading agents and top editors, who have signed up over twenty winners and shortlisted Debut Dagger competitors.

Choosing a location for the setting of a crime novel by Pauline Rowson


We all know that when choosing where to live location is an important factor for many reasons. It's also equally important in crime novels and believe it or not Sweden is not the only place in the World for setting atmospheric crime novels! While everyone seems to be obsessed with things Swedish there are many great crime novels set in various parts of the UK from gritty Glasgow to captivating Cornwall, and of course in many countries across the World. There is also marine mystery country, the location for my crime novels, which happens to be the Solent area on the South Coast of England. Here my rugged Harley Davidson riding detective, Inspector Andy Horton, pitches his wits against the criminal classes, which takes him, and others in the team, into the harbours of Portsmouth, Langstone, Chichester, and to the Isle of Wight.

Every known murder scene has a detective combing for clues. Every detective has a prime enemy - and it's not always the criminal. For the detective, the first enemy is often the crime scene itself. It is here that the battle begins to uncover the grim truth about the murder. And a detective's 'nightmare crime scene' has got to be a place where all the best clues could be swept away by the tide. There couldn't be a better place to set a crime story or perhaps a worse depending on your viewpoint.

For me it has many advantages. The sea is never constant. In one day it can change from being calm to turbulent thus providing a great backdrop for pace in a novel and great settings for a climax, which I’ve used in Deadly Watersand In For The Kill.

It’s also dangerous, misleading and evil like many villains, and although it can look safe on the surface underneath can be a sandbank, a rock, a wreck, a dangerous current all of which can cause havoc and kill and be used to good effect in a crime novel. The sea is also completely uncontrollable. No matter how much you think or wish you can control it, you can't but you do need to respect and fear it. In life sometimes you need to go with the flow and other times swim against the tide, the trick is knowing when to do which. My detective, Andy Horton, hasn't quite got it sussed, or when he thinks he has something happens to throw him completely off course, just as in life.

The sea provides great inspiration. Many of the marinas and harbours around the Solent are featured in my novels. I can't pass a boatyard, beach or cove without thinking there must be a dead body or a skeleton here somewhere.

The great variety of locations also provides diversity of scenes within a novel. Horton can be on a stony or sandy beach, at an expensive marina or a rotting boatyard, on the police launch in the Solent or crossing on the ferry or Hovercraft. In choosing a waterfront location such as Portsmouth I also have the contrast of a modern city with a historic one complete with a Roman Fort in Portsmouth Harbour; a nature reserve and sites of special scientific interest rubbing shoulders with modern tower blocks, as well as a diverse multicultural population, commercial ferry port, historic dockyard, fishing fleet and home of the Royal Navy – what more could a writer wish for?

But surely you must need to know a lot about sailing and the sea, I hear you ask? Well, actually no. In fact you wouldn’t let me loose on any boat and to be perfectly honest I am a terrified sailor. It’s the opposite case here of a little knowledge being a good thing. Sometimes the more knowledge you have the more you are tempted to show it and put it in your novels and in so doing you risk the danger of it ending up reading like a manual. The same applies to knowledge of police procedure. OK, so I need some knowledge of how the police work for my crime novels but if I explained exactly how a major investigation is run then it would end up reading like a police manual, it is FICTION after all. And if I explained every nautical detail then it would be as stagnant as sludge.

There are things that I need to know though and for this I draw on my husband’s expertise (an experienced sailor) and I consult navigational charts. For example, I need to know whether or not it is feasible for a body to be found where I have placed it and if the time frame is correct, which means consulting tide timetables and charts. If the murder occurred in the past then I need to know the tide timetables on that day. In Footsteps On The ShoreI have a body on the coastal path on Hayling Island on 20 September 1997. So when a witness claims he saw someone suspicious on that day I need to know if the tide was in or out and what the witness saw. If he claims he saw yachts sailing in Langstone Harbour at 2pm and it was low tide then is he lying or have I got the detail wrong? That’s for me to check and for me to decide.

In Dead Man’s WharfI have the dredger moored up at the wharf at the same time a body is discovered but the dredger can only navigate the narrow channel at Langstone Harbour on an incoming tide so timing is everything.

And it’s not only the time of the tides but the height that could make a difference to the plot or subplot. Can the type of boat the victim, suspect or my hero, Horton, is on board get into a certain harbour on a certain day at a certain time. How deep is the harbour? Does it dry out at low tide? If so then I can’t possibly have the police launch motoring in and out of it whenever it suits them. The reader will, of course, be unaware of this research and perhaps no one will ever check that I’ve got the details correct, but I’m banking on there being one bright spark who will crow with delight on an Amazon review if I’ve got it wrong, if only to show off their superior knowledge.

I don’t consider this research a drawback. On the contrary I enjoy it and believe it’s important to get it right, because if it is real to me then it will be real to my reader. Wherever that reader is, the heart of America, China, or the UK, close to or thousands of miles from the sea, I want them to be able to smell the sea, see it, feel it and taste it through the words on the page, and if I can achieve that then that’s what I call a good location and an atmospheric crime novel.

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