Thursday 23 July 2020

Writing Setting into Crime Fiction by Olivia Kiernan

©Olivia Kiernan
The view was like something out of a John Constable painting. Ahead of me, a giant wedge cut out of the green horizon; rock, tree and river drawn into the valley below. Through a split in the dark cloud, the sun spilled down in thick beams. Around me, the ground hid pockets of moss, the hollows studded with protruding stone; a granite and quartz mix. 

Just hours before, I’d caught the ferry from Holyhead. The day was as clear as I could’ve hoped for and when we approached Dublin, the Poolbeg Chimneys materialized out of the morning fog like the arms of home. Driving free of the city, I headed south for the Wicklow mountains. I was searching for countryside, roads sheltered by overhanging trees, drive-through villages and isolation. Throughout the morning, I pulled over many times to capture a breathtaking view, eventuallly stopping at an area known as the Wicklow Gap, so named because it looks down the length of a long valley. Summer meaning little to the Irish climate, the weather was doing exactly what I was hoping for; a rolling mix of dark clouds, patches of blue sky and swirling grey drizzle. I wanted atmosphere and Wicklow was ticking all the boxes.

My third book, If Looks Could Kill, is about the different faces we wear, about what we see when we look at others and what they see when they observe us. It follows my detective, Frankie, as she takes on her next case where mother of two, Debbie Nugent, is missing but a bloody scene in her home suggests murder. There’s no body but all eyes turn to Debbie’s daughter, Margot, when it’s discovered she’s lived with this gruesome scene for days. So, Frankie leaves the familiar stomping ground of Dublin and heads to the rural Wicklow mountains. The countryside there is very remote. When night closes down the darkness is as thick as tar but in the daytime, the light, air and views can take your breath away.

I’ve always been drawn to books that play on great settings. And I love writing setting into my work. A setting can be as confined as a hotel resort or as vast as the Australian outback but I want to feel like it’s always there working with or against our protagonist. For my protagonist, Frankie, Dublin is like a close friend. Her flat, her family and her offices at the Bureau are all within reach. She has all the resources she needs at her fingertips. Dublin may hold surprises for her but she expects those surprises. She anticipates untruths from the city. When Frankie heads to Wicklow, for her, it’s hard to draw similarities between the two settings. But, to some degree, she thinks she can recreate what she has in Dublin in this rural community.

She takes control of what seems like an impossible situation. Organises search teams, forensics, witness interrogations and ekes out every detail she can about the victim, Debbie Nugent, from friends and family. But the community doesn’t operate on the same frequency as Dublin. She is an outsider there. The small garda station doesn’t have a full-time sergeant, the closest neighbours to the victim’s house are quarter a mile away and witnesses are few and far between. And there is the sheer magnificence of the breadth of landscape around her, multiple places to dispose of a body where there is little chance of it ever being discovered.

The garda station where Frankie eventually sets up a makeshift Bureau is based in Ballyalann. It’s a fictional town, imagined close to where I stayed during my research weekend. In this town, Frankie’s working in an area where most of the local station have never dealt with a murder case before and certainly not one where a girl they watched grow up is now a suspect in her mother’s murder. The terrain, the woodlands, the elements and the acidic soil all work against Frankie. And that’s what every crime writer searches for – conflict for our poor, tenacious protagonists. That and a great place to get away in the name of research.

The town’s name, Ballyalann, was put together from the anglicised version of two Irish words. Bally, derived from the Irish word ‘baile’ meaning ‘place of’ and ‘alann’ from ‘√°lainn’ which is Irish for ‘beautiful’. I’ve taken some creative license but the Ballyalann for this book means ‘Place of Beauty’. And for a novel whose tagline is, Appearance Is Everything, this seemed about right to me because Wicklow has looks in spades.

 If Looks Could Kill by Olivia Kiernan is published by Riverrun in hardback on 23rd July 2020.
DCS Frankie Sheehan is experiencing a crisis of confidence - having become wary of the instincts that have led her face-to-face with a twisted killer and brought those she loves into direct jeopardy. She is summoned to the rural Wicklow mountains, where local mother of two, Debbie Nugent, has been reported missing. A bloody crime scene is discovered at Debbie's home, yet no body. Not only is foul play suspected, but Debbie's daughter, Margot, has been living with the scene for three days. Aware her team cannot convict Margot on appearances alone, Sheehan launches a full investigation into Debbie Nugent's life. And, before long, the discrepancies within Debbie's disappearance suggest that some families are built on dangerous deceptions, with ultimately murderous consequences.

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