Saturday, April 18, 2015

Setting your story in the "here and now"

It's no secret that my books are inspired by real life locations and history. I've set three novels in the German Eifel and three in Flanders, and my ghost story locations include real places in Slovakia, France and Germany. If I'm going to write a scene set in a specific place - the top of a bell tower, a deserted factory, a sewer - I like to visit that place to soak up all the little details. I find real life locations inspirational - the idea for my first book, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, came to me spontaneously from the experience of living in Bad Münstereifel (pictured), where the book is set. But there are other advantages to using real places as settings. If you are familiar with the place you choose, it's unlikely you will make continuity errors about the layout and other details. When I have invented an important location in one of my books - such as the church in The Glass Demon - I have had to sketch out the layout in a notebook so that I won't make mistakes. It's hard to maintain the tension in a dramatic scene if the reader is distracted by noticing some error, eg. that the stained glass windows appear to have swapped places or the door now faces south, not west!

As well as using actual places in my writing, I also like to use another kind of landmark: key calendar events. The Vanishing of Katharina Linden begins with a terrible accident at an Advent dinner. The book also features Karneval, a celebration with carnival floats and parties that takes place early in the year, and St. Martin's Day (pictured), at which a local man dressed as the saint rides around the town accompanied by local people carrying flaming torches, and then re-enacts the story of his most famous act of charity. 

The reason the idea of using real seasonal events as the backdrop to fictional action came to mind today is that we are approaching Walpurgis Night, which features in another of my books, Wish Me Dead (the gorgeous cover art for the Latvian edition of the book is pictured below). 

Walpurgis Night is the last night of April. I didn't really know much about it until we moved to Germany in 2001. I am a great fan of ghost stories and creepy legends, whether "true life" ones or fictional, so when we moved to Bad Münstereifel I asked a few people whether there were any attached to the area. As it turns out, there are a great many local legends there, which were collected and retold by a Catholic priest, Father Krause, in the early 1900s (you can read versions of some of them in The Vanishing of Katharina Linden). However, the first few people I asked about local stories either weren't aware of those, or else didn't like to mention them. After some pressing, one person did reluctantly say that "there was Walpurgis Night." That was all I could get out of him. 

Walpurgis Night is the eve of the day of Saint Walpurga (1st May), and according to German folklore, it is the night when a great coven of witches meet on the Brocken mountain, the highest in the Harz range. As Walpurgis Night is not a tradition specific to Bad Münstereifel itself, it did not find a place in The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. But I was still intrigued by it. I liked the idea of a spooky date that was less well known than Hallowe'en, and therefore more mysterious. It became the starting-point for Wish Me Dead, as a group of teenage friends decide to visit the ruins of a notorious witch's house, because they have nothing much else to do and it's Walpurgis Night - just the right time to try a little magic of their own...

I feel sure that there are a great many other sinister calendar dates that could be used to advantage in creepy stories. Friday 13th has probably been overused by now, but how about 29th September, feast of St. Michael (pictured), the angel of death? 

Of course, there is also a whole world of possibilities in dates that are associated with resolutely un-spooky things, because of the opportunity to contrast terror with the cosiness of the chronological setting - hence our fondness for ghost stories at Christmas. It might be fun to set a scary story amongst the red satin hearts and roses of Valentine's Day, too. 

Stuck for inspiration? Look through your calendar...


  1. Sweet! Love this post, esp as your books and posts have been inspirational while planning my latest....(rural Sussex, Bonfire Night, etc)

  2. Brilliant! I feel I ought to do something for Walpurgis, even if it's just nipping out after dark to see whether any witches are flying!

  3. I'm sorry. I felt so done in after a long fraught day that I wasn't up to flying.