As part of researching a new book, I always like to visit the locations. Google Streetview is very helpful but I find it difficult to write about a place until I’ve stood in it – breathed in the air and let the place get under my skin. It helps me to understand what it would be like for my characters living there.
It’s about more than geography. It’s about getting a sensory perception of a place that helps me bring it to life. I’ve already visited plenty of book locations, including London (where I risked getting arrested by taking photos of New Scotland Yard from every angle), Yorkshire (a trip that inspired me to rewrite any scene that didn’t involve horizontal rain) and of course my home city of Birmingham.
Last weekend was the turn of Gretna Green, and its neighbour Gretna. And what a surprise it was.
Gretna is where Alex Strand, the star of my upcoming multiverse investigations series, grew up. I was expecting it to have its quirks – as a place famous for elopements, it’s not going to be run of the mill.
But I wasn’t expecting it to be so small, and so devoid of any life other than the immensely tacky tourist attractions, including no less than three gift shops full of tat, a tiny museum and the delights of a Courtship Maze. It seems that Gretna Green is dominated by the touristy stuff, while Gretna (closer to the border but less famous for weddings, don’t ask me why) is dominated by an outlet village. I think it had more shops than there were houses.
All of which made it a very short but very useful trip. Growing up in a town like Gretna would make its mark on you, and I’ll have fun exploring how it’s influenced Alex’s psyche.
My next research trip will probably be to London (again) as I’m due to start work on Part 3 of the Division Bell trilogy, which I think I might set in the House of Lords. The tea room there is even nicer than the one in the Commons, so I have something to look forward to…