No Place Like Home – Harrogate Crime Writing Festival

The later start on the Sunday morning is always a welcome change, but in most cases the extra hour is spent clearing the hotel room, loading the car ready for the drive home and checking out of the hotel, with just two events left until hometime.

There is a strange tipping point at the festival.  On the Saturday morning events, with plenty of good stuff still lined up, it feels like the festival will have days to run.   Get just past lunchtime on the Saturday and all of a sudden it hits that the following morning it will be packing time.  And so, whilst the panels always seem surprised and impressed at how many turn out for the first event on the Sunday morning (especially after such a long night in the bar for many), it’s a genuine passion for the events and the authors that gets people shrugging off their duvets , keen to enjoy every last moment.

After packing, loading the car, having breakfast and checking out of the Holiday Inn, I made my way over to the Old Swan Hotel for the last time, still with enough time to grab a coffee and a chat with last year’s ‘alibi –search for a New Crime Writer’ winner, Patrick Egan in the reception there.  Turned out that this was a great place to have chosen to hover as the third gentleman to enter the room in search of coffee was Dennis Lehane.  Very fortuitous, as I had a cardboard tube tucked under my arm with a very nice ‘Shutter Island’ movie poster within, which he graciously signed for me there and then.

What a great start to the morning!

10.30am and it was time to take our seats for the penultimate event of the festival: No Place Like Home, chaired by Laura Wilson with a panel, to discuss location in their books, made up of Anne Zouroudi (Greece), CJ Box (Wyoming), Urban Waite (Seattle) and Elly Griffiths (Norfolk).  The discussion kicked off with the suggestion that crime writing seems to have become somehow spliced with travel writing.

CJ Box uses crime and locations to show how people think and react to that crime at that place.  Elly Griffiths actually lives in Brighton, but added that she’s not allowed to write about there as Peter James has that sewn up, besides which she has always thought Norfolk a little strange and spooky.  If she wrote about Brighton it would be all ‘kiss me quick’ hats.  Anne Zouroudi said that she visited Greece as a stranger and had a love affair with what she thought was a beautiful setting, without knowing anything about a dark underbelly that she might not be seeing.  She wanted to write to explain about why her love affair had gone a bit sour – but she’s since comeback to love it again.

How much is made up?

CJ Box invented a fictional town for Joe Pickett to live in as it gives him as the writer a ‘God-like power’ to place things where suits him best. When he writes about actual places he ensures authenticity so that he can face no criticisms.

Elly has to check her details on rock formations etc as she’d leave herself wide open for criticism if she go any detail wrong. Her character works in the same location as Jim Kelly sets his character in his novels, so she’s often wondered what would happen if her character walked into his police station.

Urban Waite has had criticism in the past for how much distance was covered between two locations in a certain timescale in his book – this despite the fact that both locations were fictional !

Anne includes maps in her books and finds that readers like that – she now sketches out the maps herself first as a guide to her writing. The panel seemed to warm towards the idea of more illustrations in novels – why should they just be for kids?!? She went on talk about discovering about the ‘night of exhumation’ in which bodies are dug up after 4 years and the bones cleaned up and placed in an ossuary. It gave her the idea for a book, ‘The Whispers of Nemesis’ – it was a story that could only be set there and within that culture.

Both CJ and Urban have an advantage in that in their locations they have mountains and valleys to provide mobile phone signal problems. As CJ put it, it can provide an ‘urban closed-room mystery’ when you get somewhere where there is no mobile or internet access.

This then led on to discussion of westerns and the fact that Urban’s love of western movies meant he loved the fact that in his novel ‘The Terror of Living’ he got to include a lot of horses.  It was at this point that Laura Wilson became quite flustered and had to fan herself back down when she started to talk about strong silent, well-hung types, and the discussion took a pause whilst she composed herself.

CJ said that, in his books, he likes to mix up the old and the new, so he has a ranger with an ipod and a playlist entitled ‘Ranch Music’.

Elly said that her character probably just hears the sound of banjos about places like Norfolk – ‘it’s unique to places that you don’t pass through – they don’t lead to anywhere else.’

The discussion touched upon the things that the location and environment control and over which their characters can have little control themselves. A grizzly bear will eat a dead body, the sea will steal, erode and reveal.

Anne spoke about the fact that the Greeks built their churches on sites of their old temples – they are very much aware of their own mythology. We lack this in the UK, we don’t teach our children enough of our own history. In Greece they still use God’s names. She said that when in Greece with her sister a while back someone asked if Adonis had been in – she responded by saying she was sure she would have noticed if he had! ‘If my books tempt readers to go and visit, it feels like a kind of payback for all that Greece has given me.’

Laura asked Urban how much he’d loved writing such a great dark character – the man with the black hat – she then promptly apologised to CJ Box, who was of course sporting his.

Urban agreed that it was great to write about the guy who knows where to get the best knives, where the best dumpsters are to dump bodies.


They then spoke for a while on their favourite books and authors.

Elly said she loved Wilkie Collins – The Shifting Sands – the best writer of place.

Anne cited Sherlock Holmes’ London and, for a non-crime location book, Memoirs of a Geisha.

CJ mentioned that travellers may well get more value sometimes from reading a fiction writer who really knows the location than from a travel book. He went on to praise Denise Mina as a favourite of his.

Where else could they go and write?

Anne would love to consider China, but doubts that she could write about the place.

Urban Waite is currently working on disturbing but enjoyable research on cartels in Mexico.

Elly, having heard Anne speak so lovingly about Greece, said she felt that her character, Ruth, might deserve a holiday there – and maybe she could meet Adonis!

CJ said he was unlikely to leave his area – it still has a deep mine for him to still cover.


Taking care not to overdo the research.

CJ said he made early mistakes with research but recommends bearing in mind what Elmore Leonard says – ‘Leave out the parts that readers skip’. He also added that you need to ensure you include enough background for your character for possible future books, rather than try to force things later in a series.

Urban said that ‘it doesn’t always rain in Seattle – we just tell people that to keep them away!’

CJ said it never rains, he knows people who have never owned an umbrella – never needed one and wouldn’t know what to do in a flashflood.


Perfect locations. Yellowstone Park, empty hotels (ala The Shining), empty underground stations, closed offices in old mines.



Anne said that dynamite fishing is very effective in Greece but that the Greeks are constantly shooting themselves in the foot.

Urban – has a very small carbon footprint that he’s proud of. He rarely prints things off and rides his bike a lot.

CJ – the climate changes every year.

Laura Wilson closed off by adding that both CJ and Urban have a lot more scope than others as they have all the space to do what they want – ‘you have road movies!’

And the discussion came to a close with a quick run down of what’s next from the panel:

Anne – Book 6 in her series – provisionally titled ‘The Bull of Mythros’.

Urban – New book set in the 1990’s based on cartels on the Mexican border.

Elly – A Room Full of Bones – Due Jan 2012 and featuring aboriginal bones in a Norfolk Museum.

CJ – The next Joe Pickett book: Force of Nature.

And that leaves just one final event – coming up soon – Dennis Lehane.



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Filed under Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival Harrogate 2011

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