If you intend to write about the Great War, the book must be set where the brunt of that war was felt.
Problem is, although our heritage is English, we’re Americans. Still, we’ve been travelling—driving—in England for years, long before we put pen to paper and created Inspector Ian Rutledge. And that travelling about the countryside, getting into the nooks and crannies of places, discovering how things were done differently—and pronounced differently, come to that—laid the groundwork for us as writers about 1919 Britain.
Setting a mystery in one’s own country is hard enough. Research is necessary to make that mystery believable, exciting, a page-turner. To consider a setting in another country, and not just as a picturesque backdrop, requires major attention to detail. An ear for how people speak, an eye for small things in a shop or a churchyard or a cottage, a feeling for what’s there historically and how people reacted to that history. It’s complicated and rewarding at the same time.
To find the right setting for a book requires knowing something about the countryside to start with, and then pinpointing the village where murder will be done. The setting affects how people respond to the nuances of murder, of being suspects, of knowing someone in their midst is a killer. What’s more to the point, Rutledge must also learn these things, and it’s through his eyes that we draw in the reader as we lay out the plot. The setting determines so many things in a story that we must go there, spend time there, absorb what is unique there. Otherwise Rutledge is in the dark.
Add to that going back a hundred years when people seldom traveled ten miles from home. That world is slipping away quickly, but there are still places where the past can be glimpsed, and how people lived before the Ms or TV. Digging out the past is exciting. Finding a building that was there in 1920 or a postcard showing a town as it was in 1914 matters. It’s also why we like villages. They have such a mixture of people, from the greengrocer to the doctor living cheek by jowl, something that you don’t find in London, where every class had their social life in different parts of the city. In a village, murder is personal, and harder to solve because it’s so out of place. And those who live there have much to gain—or lose—when Scotland Yard arrives. Getting into their heads is one of the major challenges we face.
Our visits aren’t a holiday but a working trip where even the food we eat is a part of the scene, because Rutledge could be eating parsnips as well. And so we have a tiny foothold in England, in Kent, because we need the experience of living where we work. From there, nowhere is too far away. We can drive to Anglesey in a day, or spend a week in Cornwall or reach Scotland in time for a late dinner. Or take the Chunnel to France and the battlefields of Flanders. You can’t simply Google all these things.
Published by HarperCollins