Changing location – SD Sykes on keeping settings fresh in fiction

Historical crime fiction author S D Sykes discusses the challenges of keeping series fiction fresh and how she uses location to differentiate her novels.

Posted on July 21, 2017 in Scene of the Crime
Tags: Historical Crime

As a crime series writer, one of my biggest challenges is to approach the next novel with a new level of freshness. My aim is always to write a book that’s different to the last one – a novel that puts my characters through new experiences, tests and trials. There is nothing more boring (in my opinion anyway) than a series that endlessly repeats itself. I don’t want to read such books, and I certainly don’t want to write them.


With my new book City of Masks I decided to add this necessary freshness by taking my characters to a new location – somewhere that was unfamiliar to them, and somewhere that could offer different and original plot possibilities. I should admit that the choice of destination wasn’t difficult, as I had always wanted to write about medieval Venice, and now I had the perfect opportunity. My protagonist, Oswald de Lacy, is a young English nobleman of the fourteenth century, with both the means and the motivation to get himself across Europe. In taking on a murder investigation in Venice, he not only has a new crime to solve, he is also taking us on a journey through time to this most beautiful and mysterious of cities – in an age when she was at the very height of her powers.


So what decisions did I need to make, in taking Oswald to this new location? Firstly, I needed to give him a valid reason to leave England, and began by imagining that Oswald would be visiting Venice for trade – after all, he has a large estate in Kent that regularly sells fleeces to the European market. While I was researching this angle however, a more likely, and much more interesting possibility began to emerge. I discovered that many pilgrims in the fourteenth century would travel to Venice in order to take galley ships to the Holy Land. In fact, Venice was a popular staging post in the pilgrim circuit, with her own cathedrals, shrines and relics – attractions that were designed to extract as much money as possible from the pilgrims before they boarded the galleys to Jerusalem. The more I researched this topic, the more that the idea of Oswald being on a physical pilgrimage really began to take hold – particularly as I had always imagined that he would also have a personal and somewhat cathartic journey throughout book three. Soon the two ideas began to merge perfectly.


My next decision concerned his fellow travellers. In the first two books in the series Plague Land and The Butcher Bird, Oswald has a whole cast of supporting characters to both occupy and animate his world. In moving the action to a new location, I had to lose most of them and subsequently invent a whole new company of allies and enemies. This was a tough decision to make, as I loved some of those characters and they had been integral to the last two books. But they had to go… all except one. Oswald doesn’t have a detective’s sidekick as such – but he does have an overbearing, interfering, capricious Mother who acts as his occasional conscience, sounding board and general irritant. I decided that she would make a perfect travelling partner.


My next decision concerned language. My characters were in Venice and would be interacting with Venetians, most of whom would not speak English. One option, which I did seriously consider, was to ignore the language issue completely, and write under the conceit that they could all speak to each other without any problems. This might seem like a rather cavalier approach, but the need for an interpreter in every scene can become tiresome to the reader, especially if the constant translation of dialogue disrupts the narrative without adding anything to the plot. In the end, I made the decision that Oswald would be staying in an English-speaking household where much of the action would take place. When Oswald interacts with Venetians, he either indicates to the reader that he is speaking to them in the Venetian language – a concoction of the Greek and Latin he leant as a boy at the monastery – or he uses the services of a native Venetian speaker. This interpreter, a man named Giovanni, is an important part of the central crime plot, so I felt that he belonged in each scene for much more than just his skills of translation.


Lastly, I wanted to make this point. As a writer of historical fiction, I believe it’s important to decide very early on in the process exactly what you feel able to write about with some authenticity, and what, to put it frankly, is beyond your skills of imagination. This is, of course, different for each writer, and so I can only speak for myself in this respect. But I do know that I could not have written a book set in Venice, where my main characters were Venetian. Why? Because I don’t believe that I could have got inside their heads with any veracity. To do any justice to this approach, I would either have to have been Venetian myself, or to have lived in Venice for a very long time – neither of which is the case for me. I did, however, feel able to write about an Englishman travelling to Venice. I felt able to see this incredible city through his eyes – as a dazzled, enthralled and ever-so-slightly intimidated foreigner.

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