A change is as good as a holiday, or so the saying goes, and I admit leaving the torrential rain in Wales behind me and entering the sunny, albeit slightly grimy landscapes of the capital has done wonders for my mood and inspiration.
Although as a rule, I dislike London, on this occasion I’m having a pretty good time of it, as I’m staying in a part of town I hadn’t been to before, so there’s lots to discover. I’m exploring new smells and new sounds, eccentric new neighbours and unusual shops and advertising signs. There’s so much to make a note of: inspiring architecture, both old and new, and colourful traditional markets full of fragrant food stuffs I’ve yet to taste.
It made me think how a change of scenery can breathe new life into a serial – after a few instalments our readers might have fallen in love with the characters we have created but if we don’t keep our readers and fictional characters on their toes, the familiar surroundings our protagonists use to get from plot beginning to plot end will eventually appear stale and less challenging for both writer and reader.
If your hard-boiled, alcoholic detective inspector usually solves his gruesome crimes in New York, New Delhi or Hong Kong, why not take your hero and their team out of their comfort zone and send them off on a police seminar in rural surroundings or a holiday to another country or state? To add to the conflict, give your detective a rookie partner who drives your hero nuts or a temporary new boss who hates your hero’s guts.
Changing locations means doing more research, but this can also be fun, as both writer and reader face new challenges together. A new location forces a writer to come out of their comfort zone and really think about their characters and their inter-relationships. While their skills normally allow your team of sleuths to either clash or work well together in their familiar territory, new surroundings can expose different strengths and/or weaknesses.
Because certain things aren’t possible logistically or the climate of the location enforces certain choices, the whole set up requires far more thought than familiar surroundings the writer – and reader – knows well. A writer may have to do far more characterisation than in previous books, thus really giving readers what they crave, namely a greater insight into hero, secondary characters and possibly even the villain, if it’s a recurring one.
If the plot centres on a murder committed in a ski chalet in the Swiss Alps, just popping down to the shops will involve snowshoes, skis, sleighs and putting on several layers of warm clothing. Few people manage to look alluring and sexy, once they are swathed in bobble hats and woolly scarves, thermal undies and three layers of socks. This is the moment when you can send up your hero, making them more “human” in the eyes of the reader by revealing flaws, phobias or a surprising lack of skill.
If your hero doesn’t know how to ski and negotiate the steep slopes outside the chalet, the villain will get away clean and your hero must pick up the pieces by employing the famous “little grey cells”. However, you could also have a lot of fun with a chase down the mountain side, as your hero is forced to take a crash course in snowboarding or skiing, if the bad guy is to be caught.
In other words, use unusual locations to your advantage to reveal a new side to your hero/heroine.
Take Venice for example, where there are more waterways than roads. The choice of vehicle means you can either show your hero’s tenacity and ability to think on their feet or you can reveal they are not very good with modern gadgets like GPS, they can’t swim or are hopeless at map reading and finding their way around Venice without a tourist guide.
Every time your hero takes a wrong turn and lands on their belly like a fish out of water, a writer can use that particular location to reveal something about the main character’s foibles, weaknesses or strengths. Your hero might crash-land in a Venetian glass factory and express real regret at having destroyed 500 years of exquisite artefacts, revealing your hero to be cultured despite their rough edges. Or your hero might pilot their speedboat into a pizzeria and deliver a sarcastic one-liner about fast food.
If you want to teach your arrogant protagonist a valuable lesson in team work and how to be a humbler person, or if your hero is out to impress a girl but you feel he doesn’t quite deserve her yet, make it a gondola chase – life in the slow rather than the fast lane. Not only will this insert some much needed humour into your detective story but it will also allow you to take down your hero’s ego a notch or two, sending them on a brief journey of self-discovery.
As writers we are often told to “use what we know best” as the basis for our books, but I believe the opposite is also true…coming out of our comfort zone and entering new landscapes hand in hand with our hero can work wonders for our writing.
(source of all animation gifs: heathersanimations.com; all photographs royalty free stock photos)