As you’d imagine, location is important to Crime Cymru writers, whether it’s the bleak hillscapes, raging coastlines or vibrant cities of home or further afield. This week, Jan Newton talks of the essential nature of location to introduce a captivating short story without a hint of crime, but with a beautifully rich sense of place.
Location is always the most important aspect to be considered for me, whatever I’m writing. Once I’ve set the stage, I can then go about assembling the cast, and giving them something to do.
My first novel, ‘Remember No More‘ is set on the Epynt, an upland area in mid Wales, which was commandeered by the Army in 1940. They wanted somewhere their troops could train for the war effort, but the injustice of the way this happened, and the way the land has been used subsequently, made me think I should bring its recent history to a wider audience. This is where the story starts, out on the hill:
‘From his perch high on a sandstone outcrop, the buzzard watched the silver motorbike zigzagging along the narrow strip of tarmac. The road was hemmed in either side by reeds and grasses, which had been bleached by the winter’s snow and were still untouched by the spring sunshine, so that the bike looked like a salmon, darting through weed-laced water. The buzzard began to lose interest. he had to find food for his chicks. He scanned the flock of mountain sheep, checking for stricken lambs – easy pickings out here in the open. A red Land Rover had turned off the road and was bouncing along the rutted track, which led towards his vantage point.
A sharp crack startled the bird. Gunshot. He launched himself from the rock as the motorcycle swerved and left the road. For a second, it too was flying, suspended above a shallow ravine before it plummeted into the stream below. The growl of the engine was silenced by the water, but the back wheel continued to spin, slowing and finally stopping as the buzzard began gliding lazy circles overhead. The Land Rover slewed to a halt; its engine still running. The driver clambered out and there was a flash of light as he focused his binoculars. Then he climbed back into the vehicle, hurled it into a ragged three-point turn and sped back along the track, disappearing beneath the folds of the hill.’
Remember No More, Honno Press, 2017
My second novel, ‘Rather to be Pitied‘ is set in mid Wales again, above and around the Elan Valley and Rhayader, and the location was just as important.
I also really enjoy writing short stories which again, invariably start with a location. This story sticks to the hills (Lake District ones this time), but not the crime theme. I hope it’s allowed, and that it reminds you of summer days and the joy of everyday outings before social distancing.
MISS POTTER’S LEGACY
I shouldn’t be here. I told them, I’m a classically trained actor and they wouldn’t have treated Dame Judy like this. It was the weasel-faced woman in the Kendal office who sent me, the one who always wears the Scandi-Noir woollies, even when they’ve got the heating going full belt. I could tell by the lopsided grin and the way she tapped her keyboard that she was enjoying every second of it. She’s always had it in for me; she’s even had the nerve to query my resumé more than once. I told her, in college I played the greats. My Hedda Gabler made it to the North Lancs Echo and Lady Bracknell, well, that was a tour de force even by my exacting standards, not least with Lady B being sixty years older than I am. She said oscar-winning performances notwithstanding, if I didn’t accept this job they’d stop my benefits. So here I am.
I’d never appreciated how difficult it can be, traversing the outer reaches of Cumbria. Darren had to give me a lift on the back of his moped and then they wanted to charge me as a foot passenger on that ferry from Bowness. It’s only a couple of hundred yards across too. Still, as Darren pointed out, it would have taken considerably longer for us to get round Windermere with me on the back and him folded flat over the tank to decrease wind resistance. It’s only as I’m standing here thinking about it that it occurs that he might have been casting aspersions on my size. He doesn’t appreciate what it’s like when you’re ‘resting’. It’s all too easy to seek solace in a Tunnock’s Teacake or a fun-size Curly Wurly.
He says we should go out walking. He loves to go exploring, rugged, manly places like the Trough of Bowland and the Furness Fells. He’s even done the Preston Guild Ring, but I can’t help thinking that sounds like a medieval instrument of torture. Besides, can you imagine me in an anorak and hiking boots? I have to say though, the little road from the ferry and Far Sawrey up to this beautiful spot was gorgeous. Even on a moped.
Someone’s decided it would be a nice idea to entertain the tourists while they wait for their tours of Hill Top. Darren’s Mum’s been to Hill Top. She used to read all the stories to him when he was little – Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, the Flopsy Bunnies. I wouldn’t have minded being a Flopsy Bunny, but Mrs Tiggywinkle’s just so unglamorous. I’ve been standing here now for four hours in a hedgehog suit and accessories which make me look like Dad’s Auntie Enid from Garstang. She’s like a Garstang tomato, totally round and red in the face. I’m pretty round myself in this get-up. If I fell over I’d have a devil of a job righting myself. I’ve tried to loosen my pinny, it’s almost cutting me in half, but it’s lodged in these rubber spines and my arms aren’t long enough to reach round. The lady wearing the National Trust jumper who helped me get dressed was a bit vigorous with her knots.
I never realised that the Japanese were so keen on Beatrix Potter and her little furry friends. I must have seen thirty kiddies clutching that blasted rabbit with his blue jacket and his carrot this morning. Apparently they’ve even built a life-size replica of Hill Top just outside Tokyo. One of the volunteers was telling me. She brought me a cup of tea but the only way I could tackle it was with a bendy straw and her and her friend forming a human tent so the kiddies wouldn’t see me. Apparently it would be too disconcerting for them to see a hedgehog drinking from a National Trust mug. I’m not sure I’d be overly happy with the sight of a five-foot-four hedgehog in a pink blouse and a mob cap. I wonder if many of them have nightmares? I wonder if I’ll have nightmares?
I really thought that by now I’d have been snapped up for some production at the Palace or the Royal Exchange in Manchester. I suppose if I’d cast my net wider I’d have had more success. I was all set to head for the bright lights, try for the West End. There are so many more opportunities down south. I went and auditioned for that new musical at the Lyric in Hammersmith, but Darren’s got a new job at Shorrockses in Preston and he’d be distraught if I went off to London and left him here on his own. Mind you, it was so crowded and noisy. Once I’ve got a proper job, and a bit of money coming in I’ll go and have a few singing lessons, brush up my technique. You get rusty after a while.
They’re so patient, these tourists. They just stand in line, chatting away quite happily. I’ve run out of leaflets. There are supposed to be more coming by courier this afternoon, but I feel a bit conspicuous just standing here. I’ve tried a tentative bit of dancing. It’s just a simple little routine we did when I was in the chorous of The Little Shop of Horrors, but there’s a limit to what you can manage with spines and a hobble skirt. It seems to be going down well, judging by the smiles. One little girl’s just put a sweet in the pocket of my apron and I’ve had to mime ‘thank-you’. I wasn’t told whether Mrs T was a speaking part, but I’ve erred on the side of caution. I wouldn’t be sure what sort of characterisation to plump for anyway to be fair.
I’ve lost count of how many photographs I’ve had taken this morning. It occurred to me that without the costume it would be really good publicity, but then another thought nudged it out of the way. I’ve been going about this acting all wrong. I’ve stopped thinking about the audience and started thinking about me; I’ve been getting in the way. I’ve seen more smiles in this last four hours than in the last four years. Iwonder if any of those little dark-haired children will remember Mrs Tiggywinkle, one sunny afternoon at Hill Top?
* * *
It’s four o’clock and I’ve just been released from my hedgehog suit. They’ve taken me into the shop so I can get changed, and the lady unknotting my apron is asking if I could bear to do another day tomorrow. She must be something in the Cub Scouts with an encyclopaedic knowledge of knots. They’ve spoken to the lady at the Job Centre and apparently she would be delighted to let me come for as long as they need me. Darren will be working tomorrow, so I’d have to find my own way, but I’ll work it out.
On a table by the door I’ve spotted a little Mrs Tiggywinkle key ring. I take it to the till and the lady smiles at me. ‘You take it,’ she says. ‘You’ve been perfect today, they loved you. You’re a real natural.’
You can find out more about Jan Newton on her website.
While you’re here, don’t forget the amazing new Gŵyl CRIME CYMRU Festival, Wales’ first ever international crime fiction festival, which will be making its home in Aberystwyth over the early May bank holiday weekend. We’ll be online in 2021, and then in person in 2022 – from 30th April to 2nd May 2022. If you have a 5 year diary then add in we’re online in 2023, in person in 2024. There’s a pattern, we’ve profiled it. For updates, follow us on Twitter at @GwylCrimeFest