I guess I could file this post under the ‘What Works For Me’ heading, but it should also be of interest to those of you who are here more for reading than writing, in particular those who’ve already read STRAIGHT TO YOU.
WARNING – MILD STRAIGHT TO YOU SPOILERS AHEAD!
I wanted to talk about locations today: how rather than finding the right scenery to fit your story, sometimes the story can be shaped by a location or, in this case, a journey. If you’ve not read STRAIGHT TO YOU yet, why not grab a low price ebook or signed paperback then come back and see how some of the scenes in the new version of the story came about.
I’ve already spoken at length about how I wanted the rewritten version of STRAIGHT TO YOU to feel more honest and emotional in comparison to the hopelessly naïve original, and I decided early on in the planning process that in order for that to happen I’d need to give the book a foothold in reality.
Here’s me pictured in the idyllic Welsh village of Criccieth last Sunday, and in the background you can see the castle which features prominently in the book. Click the link below to find out more, but please be warned – there are potentially some spoilers ahead.
My first few novels took place in almost entirely fictitious locations: places which, although often inspired in part by the real world, had been liberally adapted to suit the situation – given new names, huge liberties taken with the geography etc. It was very much a case of story first, locations later, and that worked to an extent (have a look at these AUTUMN retrospective pieces from a couple of years back to find out more). Things changed when I came to write THEM OR US, the final HATER novel. Though the locations for the first two books had been quite vague, I found myself thinking if I was Danny McCoyne and I’d been through what he’d been through, where would I go? The answer was Lowestoft – the most easterly point in the UK, well away from the chaos unleashed at the end of DOG BLOOD. Here’s a post I wrote about the decision to set the book in Lowestoft, accompanied by some great post-apocalyptic artwork by David Naughton-Shires.
STRAIGHT TO YOU was always going to be different, because the bulk of the story is a journey… a pre- and post-apocalyptic road-trip. As I began to plan the re-write, I found myself poring over maps, trying to work out Steven Johnson’s route as well as the revised plot of the book.
This weekend just gone I was at the SciFi Weekender in Pwllheli, North Wales (and an excellent time was had by all – thanks to everyone who turned out). It was when I was making the same trip last year that I realised I’d stumbled on the ideal setting for STRAIGHT TO YOU. I drove from my home in Birmingham to Pwllheli via Shrewsbury – a cross-country journey I’ve done many, many times before, through some absolutely stunning scenery, to places where I’d been on many holidays as a child and where I’d later taken my own family. Making this connection between my own life and Steven Johnson’s journey added an unexpected extra layer of emotional attachment. In particular the village of Criccieth, just a few miles from Pwllheli, is a place I’ve known and loved for a long, long time and I knew it, and its castle, would make the perfect location for the novel’s climactic scenes.
I realised, though, that Steven’s journey in STRAIGHT TO YOU wouldn’t be gruelling enough if he only had to cover the 130 miles or so between Birmingham and Criccieth. He needed to be on the road and suffering for far longer(!), so I made Birmingham the mid-point and went back almost as far as Lowestoft in the opposite direction. I eventually settled on having Steven and Sam living in Cambridge, giving Steven around 260 miles in total to travel – a drive which would probably take about six hours on a good day (and if you’ve read the book, you’ll know that Steven’s days on the road are far from good days…!).
Now here’s the bit I found really interesting. I’d got the beginning and end of Steven’s journey in the book all mapped out, but I needed to know what exactly happened to him between Cambridge and Criccieth. In the original novel it was just a matter of him dealing with odd problems as they arose – traffic queues, car breakdowns etc., but transplanting the action to the real world and following the route immediately gave rise to a number of questions and potential situations. It allowed me to use the places I knew he’d reach along the way to better show how the world was falling apart.
First, have you ever driven from Cambridge to Birmingham along the A47 and M6? Jeez, it’s dull. Really, really dull. It’s long, relatively straight, and boring as hell. I do it regularly, and it’s hard going at the best of times. So what about at the worst of times? I tried to imagine covering around a hundred miles of grey tarmac at barely any speed, bumper to bumper, in unimaginable heat… It doesn’t bear thinking about.
And then I knew Steven would reach Birmingham, and I tried to imagine what post-apocalyptic Brum would be like. No jokes here please, because I know parts of my home city already resemble scenes from HATER… So given that it would inevitably be bad there (and in all other major cities, come to think of it) what would Steven do? I’m skirting around plot points from here on in, because I don’t want to spoil the book, but it made sense for him to try and bypass the city, and go cross-country.
As I recalled the route I’d driven to get to Criccieth, the second half of the story began to take shape…
You reach Lake Bala – over four miles long and a mile wide. How would this have changed after months of relentless heat?
Travelling through the Snowdonia National Park. Imagine being alone on this stretch of road when an energy pulse strikes…
You’re finally off the hills and you reach Trawsfynydd – a small and completely deserted village. And as you continue down the road, you see a shape emerge between the trees…
…a nuclear power station – no longer operational, but still frightening enough. And so it goes on… the Oakeley Arms Hotel on the road into the town of Porthmadog where a frightened couple seek shelter and take Steven in after another devastating energy wave:
Porthmadog itself; the slate mines dotted around the area which might offer some escape; the Eisteddfa campsite I stayed at as a kid and where I later took my kids; the small, odd-shaped, roadside car park on the way into Criccieth where a pivotal scene takes place…
…wholly unexpectedly, all these places inspired different parts of the story and helped shape STRAIGHT TO YOU, giving it that real world basis I’d been looking for.
So there you go. I hope that this brief guided tour was of interest! To finish, I think it’s worth reiterating the point of this post from a writing perspective: sometimes you have your story all mapped out and you adapt your locations to suit, other times the locations help dictate the story. I found it fascinating how, with STRAIGHT TO YOU, actually going on Steven’s journey myself helped shape the novel into something far more satisfying than the original book.
STRAIGHT TO YOU is available in print or as a low price ebook. You can buy signed copies direct from www.infectedbooks.co.uk.