setting deja vu

Filed under: One Night Stand, reading

Being a writer has all kinds of odd side effects. Aside from the obvious ones—bad back, bad neck, bad hands, spreading butt, an inability to carry on a normal conversation about television or recognise real people in the street—there’s an interesting side effect when you set one of your stories in a real-life place.

This morning I’m going into Reading to do some Christmas shopping, and for the past three years, I haven’t been able to do that without thinking of the scene in One Night Stand where my pregnant heroine goes Christmas shopping in Reading. She says:

Reading was hell at Christmastime. Hundreds and thousands and millions of people all descending on the town centre to do their shopping, queues of traffic clogging up the roads, and car parks practically bulging at the sides.

I didn’t have to drive to get to the high street, but I did have to squeeze my way through crowds of screaming children and grumpy shoppers whenever I walked into a shop, a task made even more unpleasant by my growing belly, threatened by other people’s sharp elbows and unwieldy shopping bags. At one point I had to leap backwards to keep my foetus from being stabbed by a man carrying a fake Christmas tree.

I’m not pregnant, and I have a bit more Christmassy cheer than grumpy Eleanor, but Reading really does get that crowded at Christmas, and when I negotiate the crowds with my shopping bags, I always have to smile. Because I’m not only living my real life, but I’m remembering my characters as if they’re friends, and living their memories too.

I’ve set at least parts of four of my novels in Reading, so this sort of double-life happens to me quite often. It’s as if my imaginary landscape is overlaid on my real one. Last week I wrote a short story set at Mad House, which is the local soft-play area, and I went there yesterday for a birthday party. I kept on expecting to see one of the characters there. (Of course this probably was exacerbated by my hangover, which meant I’d hardly have been surprised if slavering zombies had erupted from the ball pit, but let’s gently skim over that part…)

I had the sort of fictional equivalent last month, when I read the wonderful Mariana by Susanna Kearsley. She’s set the story in a fictional Avebury. Now, I set Getting Away With It in a fictional Avebury, too. And I’ve been to the real Avebury many, many times. Reading the book, I kept on getting this sort of double deja-vu. It was really fun.

Have you had an experience like that lately—experiencing a real place through the lens of your, or someone else’s, fiction?

Leave a Comment


18 Responses | | Comments Feed

  1. You made me laugh with your zombies in the soft-play area.
    I was recently watching a film where there’s a scene in a cemetery. The moment I saw it, I knew it was the same one in Nina Jones even if I have never been there. I got so excited to recognize what you’d described in your book.

    • Do you think I could get a plaque set up there, Sarah? 😉

  2. I love it when I drive down leafy, cobbled Kirkgate in Cockermouth, Cumbria. I glance right as I shift down for the narrow section and smile, because that’s where I settled Jenny and Kier from Run Among Thorns. After all their hard times and adventures, it’s lovely to think of them, for one indulgent moment, as real, and living their happy ever after in a place I chose for them.

    Even lovelier when a Cockermouth resident recognised the setting when they read the book, and got the same warm, smiley feeling. 🙂

    • You need to show me that spot, Anna. I’d love to see where Jenny and Kier get their happy ending.

  3. I saw a programme the other day and they were walking along the canal at Reading and I was jumping up and down knowing you’d written/talked/walked/blogged about it.

    • LOL, Richard Hammond was driving around Reading on Top Gear and Fecklet and I got very excited indeed! 🙂

  4. Lol at the slavering zombies, a bit what I feel like when hungover in a room full of bright plastic and screaming children even without them emerging from a ball pit.

    My current MS is set in Rajahsthan. I spent four months travelling in India, and while I unfortunately can’t have any real deja vu experiences right now, I feel like I’m being transported back to the heat and vibrancy of the country as I write.

    DH and I definitely intend going back there when the kids are old enough, but right now I’m enjoying my ficticous escape. Holed up in a Maharaja’s palace, my heroine is having a far more glamorous time than my dodgy, semi clean lodgings however.

    • That sounds absolutely divine, Carol!

  5. It’s a no-brainer, of course, to set your books in locations you’re familiar with, but only a writer worth reading can go to those places and sense their characters standing behind them. If you don’t think about it too hard, it’s not even all that creepy…

    • It might be creepy if you were writing horror. About slavering zombies, for example.

  6. For me it’s my version of Brixham seen through Zee’s eyes in Crystal Clear.

    • Crystal Clear made me really want to go to Brixham, even though I’d never heard of it before reading your book, Nell.

  7. Okay, for some reason my computer believes I am Jeremy Clarkson. It did it all by itself.

    This is eerie.


  8. Whew, that was weird. My webmistress was updating my Word Press, I think, and part of that was Word Press believing I was the tall annoying one out of Top Gear.

    Anyway. I’m back.

  9. LOL the Zombies and Juli (previously known as Jeremy Clarkson) :P! It’s true that you almost need protective head gear to go shopping at Christmas. Those trees come out of nowhere! I’ve been attacked by a Christmas lights display too.

  10. I set my Sophie Green books around where I live and gave my heroine the flat a friend of mine used to live in. The hero lives in what used to be a barn but is now a set of executive houses–I always squint at it, trying to remember the barn which I’d fictionally converted for him. It would have been way nicer than those houses.

    I once had a reader ask me if the Eden holiday village in Still Waters was real. Yes, I said, it actually is, only in real life it’s called Center Parcs, and there are far fewer murders.

    I also set one of the stories in a fictionalised Port Isaac at Christmas. I’ve never been there at Christmas, but this year am visiting for New Year, and I’m quite excited to see what it’ll look like. I also get the feeling that when I dip my toes into the harbour where Sophie nearly drowns, that I’ll wish I could rewrite because I don’t think I made any mention of hypothermia…

  11. I concur. Also if said character was a thinly-disguised self-portrait, avatar or murderous Mary-Sue. Probably a bit disconcerting to feel your own breath on the back of your neck…

    (further reading: The Dark Half)

  12. […] Julie Cohen has a neat post on real world settings and how fiction and reality can sometimes meld fo… […]

Top ↑