The importance of place in storytelling

I’m currently binge-watching Broadchurch on Netflix, a murder mystery set in an English coastal town. I love moody, atmospheric mysteries, and this one got me thinking about a story I once wrote that takes place in a similar setting.

As a South African growing up in the nineties, I was raised on a diet of Poirot and Midsomer Murders on SABC3. My love of the good old-fashioned English whodunnit evolved into a lifelong passion for anything remotely Agatha Christie-related. It was only natural that once I discovered a love of writing that I would attempt a whodunnit of my own. The quaint English village with its old stone vicarage and wild bramble lanes seemed an obvious setting.

But setting a novel in another country involves a fair amount of research. There is a lot of detail that needs to be taken into consideration, like the weather, seasons, flora, accents, currency and of course all the different police ranks, which are completely different to their South African counterparts. And once you’ve navigated your way around the sergeants, inspectors and chief inspectors, you have to wrap your head around the police procedures.

I wanted to set my story in southern England, which meant flying to the UK and hiring a car to explore the area – twice. It was a lot of fun, but expensive. (I always tell my writing students that you can’t write from the perspective of a night nurse until you’ve gone and seen exactly what a night nurse actually does.)

Don’t get me wrong, research is a thoroughly satisfying exercise, in the same way that getting all the little details right in a piece of historical fiction makes all the trouble worthwhile. (There’s quite a lot of satisfaction in knowing that heels were only added to Victorian women’s lace-up boots after 1861.)

But as I settled back to enjoy episode five of Broadchurch, it struck me that part of the reason I was enjoying the series so much was because it was so quintessentially English (the vicarage, the windswept cliffs, the old-timey inn etc). It made me feel like I was there. Just like Luther’s London reminded me of my own gloomy holiday to the city a few years ago.

Authenticity of place is so important in storytelling. Half the joy of reading a book set in a country you’ve never visited is the feeling of immersing yourself somewhere new. You can stroll through the sunny streets of Paris, the rainy forests of Forks or the colourful markets of Morocco. You can even explore the pyramids of Giza.

And say what you want about Dan Brown, Angels and Demons is better than any guidebook about Rome.

Writers draw you in through your senses. In The Map of Salt and Stars, author Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar shares the tastes and smells of Syria to deepen her readers’ experience of the story. When Nour savour’s her mother’s aromatic lamb I found my mouth watering too.

Cape Town has always been a character in itself in my books. As a writer, I can’t help but include some of my favourite aspects of my home in my stories. It grounds a book and adds a sense of familiarity for local readers. But now I wonder how non-South African readers must experience them.

And suddenly the idea of place and setting seem all the more important.

It must be wonderful to discover Cape Town for the first time between the pages of a book – the way the mountains hug the city, protecting it from the sea. How lovely it must be to explore the Bo Kaap, marvelling at the brightly-coloured homes and cobbles peeking out the pavement as the sound of the call to prayer heralds the evening.

The Mother City is truly a feast for the senses.

Every morning the smell of the sea is a sharp reminder that you are in one of the busiest ports in Africa, known hundreds of years ago as the Shipwreck Coast and the Cape of Storms. No matter where you are, the sight of Table Mountain with its white tablecloth is the only point of direction you need. And even after living here my whole life, I still get a fright from the daily boom of the noonday gun being fired from Signal Hill.

It was my love of the English countryside that once inspired me to choose that setting for a murder mystery. And that love was inspired by the beautiful work of writers who have called England home. Cape Town is my home, and its one of the most magical places in the whole world. I want to invite readers to experience my city. I want to show them streets and places they’ve never seen and describe all the lush details that make this place so special.

Researching new places is fun, but how wonderful – what an absolute privilege – it is to write about your own country.

I’m almost jealous of the readers that get to experience South Africa for the first time through books.




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