How Important is Setting to a Novel?
One of the great pleasures of a mystery story is its setting—choosing a locale and soaking up its ambience, learning about new places and the people who live in them. When I decided to write my debut crime novel, The House on the Cliff, I set it in Wales, where I live. In particular, I based most of the action around the wild, rocky western coast, a stunning landscape that is by turns serene and sinister, depending on which way you look at it.I’ve been coming on holiday to West Wales for many years. In the past, with a small family in tow, we used to frequent the more pleasant spots: safe, sandy beaches in sheltered bays, open countryside with beautiful views, pretty pubs in idyllic little villages where you could sip local ale and watch the sun go down of an evening. But now that my kids are grown, it’s all changed.
Today, when I travel to the western coast, I spend my time on the lookout for sinister locations: rocky beaches where it’s dangerous to swim because of the strong currents; high cliff-top paths where you could easily slip and fall; moors dotted with abandoned mineshafts that could swallow you up forever, should you have the misfortune to step on them. No, I’m not trying to bump anyone off. It’s simply that I’m constantly searching for good places to dispense with my characters.
As any mystery writer, published or unpublished, will know, this is one of the hazards of taking to crime. On holiday, you’re not the slightest bit interested in going anywhere relaxing, peaceful, or friendly. Instead, you find yourself forcing your companions to visit godforsaken, windblown spots in search of the perfect place to commit violence. If you can persuade your companions what fun this will be, it’s not a bad way to plan a holiday itinerary. And there are few places in the United Kingdom that are more suited to such a task than Pembrokeshire, West Wales, where a stunning landscape of mountains, beaches, forests, and moors allows the gothic imagination to run wild.
The location of the house in the novel is based on The Druidstone Hotel, overlooking St. Bride’s Bay. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful spot, with views far out into the Atlantic, and has been a popular bohemian haunt for many years. But I used a bit of poetic license when describing the house. In reality, the building is a large, handsome farmhouse made of local stone. In my novel, it’s transformed itself into an elegant Jacobean pile, of which there are some stunning examples dotted around Wales, especially in the north.
Similarly, I thought the real beach at The Druidstone a little too safe, sandy, and idyllic for my purposes, so I swapped it for a much more sinister one at Dunraven Bay, on the Welsh coast of the Bristol Channel. This is an extraordinary place, a rocky cove pitted and turreted like the surface of the moon. A geologist’s paradise and a swimmer’s nightmare, it’s only accessible by steep steps, and you can easily get cut off by the tide and stranded there.
I’ve only ever looked down on Dunraven Bay from the walled gardens above it, swept by the salt wind but still tended. The gardens are all that remain of Dunraven Castle, a mansion demolished in the sixties, whose single remaining tower gives the place a slightly eerie feel.
Back to Pembrokeshire, and I’ve earmarked a few choice locations for skulduggery in future novels. First, the West Blockhouse near the pretty little beach at Dale. This is a 19th-century fort built out into the sea with the most fantastic views you could imagine, especially at night when an array of spooky lights over Milford Haven harbor make the landscape look like something Tolkien, or perhaps Roger Dean, might have dreamed up. The thick walls give the place a somber feel, almost like being in a dungeon, albeit a very comfortable one with delightful sea views. Also in Dale is a memorable B&B, Allenbrook, a lovely old country house that features comfortable rooms, delicious breakfasts, and peacocks strutting about on the lawn.
The blue lagoon at Abereiddy is another promising spot for dastardly deeds. An abandoned slate quarry that’s been flooded by the sea, it’s more than 20 meters deep, and, because of the minerals in the rocks there, the water has taken on a strange, turquoise hue.
Moving on from the perils of the natural world, the great medieval cathedral at the little town of St. David’s has always attracted me as a possible site for dark deeds. The place is full of surreal carvings, notably underneath the wooden misericords or “mercy seats,” on which the clergy rested their backsides during long services. Here you can see rude pagan graffiti carved by medieval craftsmen, mocking their pious brethren. Murder in the cathedral, anyone?
Finally, for a really strange setting, venture into the Gwaun valley, where people celebrate New Year on January 13, according to the ancient Julian calendar. At the one-room Dyffryn Arms, known as Bessie’s pub, the landlady pours your pint of real ale from a jug and serves it through a hatch. The room is sparsely furnished in the style of the 1940s. It’s like being in a time warp—a dark, mysterious one and the perfect place, perhaps, to start another novel.