Two years ago the West Coast Crime Convention, which is usually held on the West Coast of America, made a special guest appearance in Bristol -- the west coast of England. The organisers enjoyed it so much that they decided to create an annual event, using the American model, and Crimefest was born. The first one took place in early June this year, and a good time was had by all.
As Bristol isn't far from my home, I was able to hop over as a daily visitor. (Although this did involve crossing from one country to another.) I think everyone enjoyed the international mix of authors -- British, American, Canadian, Scandinavian and probably others that I didn’t find out about. So many panels – so little time. Sessions ranged from an interview with Jeff Lindsay, the creator of Dexter, to a very funny panel devoted to animals and crime – mostly cats, a few dogs, the occasional horse -- and a parrot.
The panel that got me thinking for this post was billed as being about location. Three authors who set their books in Scotland and the north of England -- Anne Cleeves, Aline Templeton, and Sue Walker -- and Louise Penny, whose village of Three Pines is set in Quebec. All talked knowledgeably about the importance of atmosphere, the relationship between story and setting, and the delights of visiting their chosen area in the name of research. Yet, as they were speaking, I realised that all of them were also talking about places they had created -- they were often writing about fictitious locations within a given landscape. What they invented had to be authentic, and make sense in its context, but they were dropping in the perfect house, a village green, even a whole new police force, when they needed to - and they were having a great time doing it. In other words, they were world building.
In apparent contrast, on a panel on police procedurals, author Lesley Horton outlined a different approach. Her gritty crime is set firmly in Bradford and her research has involved attending crime scenes, investigating the trajectory of a bullet in a drive-by shooting and being locked in a police cell -- not something she recommends, not because of claustrophobia, but because of the boredom of staring at four walls. Yet within that hard-hitting setting, she has also created the private lives of her detectives, in particular her Asian sergeant, who copes with competing loyalties to his job and his family's expectations. All world building.
All authors invent things. Making up stories is what it’s about. At the furthest extreme, if you're writing fantasy, paranormal, or sci-fi, then you have a complete world to create, with its own laws and logic. Even, if you follow Tolkien’s model, its own language.
The whole thing got me thinking about the spectrum between research and reality and creation of alternative worlds. Is creating more, or less, difficult than research? If you’re world building from scratch there is no one to tell you that you got that wrong, but on the other hand, everything is down to you. You need it all in your head before you begin. Research can take you into some interesting alleys and byways. I know, I've been there. I think most authors will admit to doing far more research than a book warrants. It adds richness and texture, but it's also a very seductive displacement activity, if you're not careful.
So -- research at one end of the spectrum, world building at the other, crossing somewhere in the middle?
I'd be interested to hear others thoughts on the subject.