Crime Novelist Marni Graff On Her English Settings

We’re very pleased to welcome a guest post by crime novelist Marni Graff. Marni is one of a distinguished group of American authors, including Kate Charles, Deborah Crombie, Elizabeth George, Charles and Caroline Todd, who set their detective fiction in the U.K.MKGHdshot

Marni’s first series The Nora Tierney Mysteries are an engaging blend of amateur sleuth and police procedural. An affectionate homage to British Golden Age mysteries, the novels have cast of characters, maps, room-plans, satisfyingly complex plots and red herrings galore. Norah Tierney is a delightful character, a young American living on the shores of Windermere and it’s fun to see the foibles of the British through her eyes. 

We asked Marni to tell us why she decided to use an English setting:

Why England?

The setting any author chooses is a deliberate and thought-out selection. It’s the world my characters inhabit and affects their actions, so it was a very important decision for me when choosing where my Nora Tierney Mysteries would unfold. I’m a big fan of writers who manage to bring me into their setting, and I feel most writers wish to have the place a book’s characters move in feel real to their readers. My mentor and friend, P. D. James, always started her novels by deciding on the setting for its influence on the story she’d develop, and I agree and try to have the setting permeate the plot.

After a successful thirty-year nursing career, I was finally able to turn to the mystery writing I’d always planned. There was no question I would set my first series in England. I’ve always loved the UK and on my first visit in my early twenties, I stepped off the plane and felt like I was coming home. It’s a feeling that remains with me every time I’ve been to visit since then. Perhaps I lived there in another life? Whatever the attraction, my affinity for England set my course early on.

Choosing to set my mystery series in England was a deliberate choice, yet one I knew would present challenges. It would also allow me to visit the country I loved, and I’ve returned many times. Visiting new places for future books’ settings is a great excuse to travel, and one recent trip saw me on a train trip after attending St Hilda’s Mystery and Crime Conference in Oxford. I traveled to Bath to visit a friend for several days to renew my vision of that lovely town, and was introduced to the owner of Mr B’s Reading Emporium. He agreed to let me use his store as the reason Nora visits the town, for a reading and signing of her children’s books, although he did seem disappointed when I assured him no one would be murdered there.The Green Remains_frontcover_dark

Then I set off to Devon, where I stayed in Torquay and was able to make the “pilgrimage” via a vintage bus to Agatha Christie’s home, Greenway. For an Anglophile mystery geek like me, this was nirvana. Next I was off to Cornwall and Penzance, a place that will feature down the road in a later Nora mystery. I went to St Michael’s Mount and to the outdoor Minack Theatre, gathering setting material. Then back to glitzy seaside Brighton and the warren of tiny streets called The Lanes, before visiting friends in Chiswick, outside London. Any excuse to get me to the UK is welcome.

Last summer my husband and I traveled to Normandy. France is his favorite place to visit. But you’d be wrong if you think I could be that close and not visit England! I signed up again for St Hilda’s and Doc came with me, but not until we’d spent a day in Cambridge, another first. I’ve been to Scotland and Wales, too, but very briefly and need to visit in more detail. Those are high on my list for my next trip abroad.scarletwench_cover_front

My American protagonist, Nora Tierney, is a writer who has been living and working in England for several years. While it’s fine to have her appropriate common Brit words like “loo” or “buggy,” her voice has to remain distinctly American versus the other characters in her circle. It’s one reason I read UK authors continuously, to keep the cadence and slang of that country in my ear—plus many of my favorite writers are from there. But the challenges go far beyond language.

Having this lifelong affinity for England and its environs, I originally chose Cumbria, the county containing England’s glorious Lake District, as the setting for the opening of the Nora Tierney series. My visits to the land of Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter hold a fascination for me and I decided Bowness-on-Windermere would suit me. It is one of the most beautiful natural areas I’ve ever seen, with the bluest skies and whitest fluffy clouds, set against the majestic fells and shallow tarns. I took photographs and came home armed with maps and brochures to use as reference material.

Then life intervened with an opportunity to attend a summer course in Oxford, and I found myself in the hallowed halls of Exeter College, studying Wilkie Collins and Daphne Du Maurier, two of my favorite writers. Sworn in as a reader at the Bodleian Library, I was able to read the original broadsheet reviews of The Woman in White.

Oxford is a jewel of a town encircled by the lush green countryside of the Thames Valley. Its mellow limestone “dreaming spires,” as described by 19th C. poet Matthew Arnold, change color with the light and weather. Magnificently preserved architecture reflects every age from Saxon to present, all exhibited somewhere amongst the federation of forty-odd independent colleges which make up the University of Oxford set right in the town.

This mix of “town and gown” is noticed at once when visiting: The university has its dons lecturing in sub fusc, scouts bringing students morning tea, an historic tutorial system, and those forbidden grassy quads (with their tradition of only being walked on by dons), while the town has its own muddle of traffic-choked streets, packed with bicycles and pedestrians, pubs and shops. Both exist alongside green meadows with grazing cattle, and rivers teaming with punters and canal boats.

Small wonder then that I fell in love with the place. I could picture Nora here, too, and suddenly the idea for a new mystery, one that had Oxford at its heart, took over. I set aside my original idea for a Lake District manuscript and started writing The Blue Virgin, a combination of cozy and police procedural. Trying to clear her best friend, Val Rogan, of the suspicion she has murdered her partner, Bryn Wallace, Nora quickly becomes embroiled in the murder investigation, to the dismay of DI Declan Barnes, the senior investigating officer.

I took great care to be accurate in describing Oxford’s history and he colleges, as well as the various locations and sites my characters visit. After all, this is the town that gave the world Lewis Carroll, penicillin, two William Morrises, and graduates spread across the centuries whose influences are still felt. A very short list includes: Shelley, Tolkien, Browning, C. S. Lewis, Oscar Wilde, T. S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers, and Christopher Wren. More modern grads you will recognize include Stephen Hawking, Richard Burton, Indira Gandhi, Hugh Grant and Val McDermid.

And Oxford exudes mystery, as any Inspector Morse fan can tell you. I knew that readers would be quick to point out any factual errors I made. I carefully described favorite student pubs, shops, and the wonderful Covered Market, and tried to give the reader the sense of that ancient town, and how living in it affected Nora’s actions.The Blue Virgin_cover_frontonly

When I came home to write The Blue Virgin, I kept an enlargement of the town map taped to my desk–no sense describing a cobbled lane if I had the name wrong. I referred to my research materials often, as well as my photo album from the trip. My characters move within the real town, have tea at The Old Parsonage, and brunch at The Randolph Hotel. The Chief Superintendent of the CID in St Aldate’s Station gave me insight into the Oxford station to add reality to the setting. Only a few settings, such as Nora’s flat, are fictional.

By the time The Blue Virgin was in print and I started writing The Green Remains, I’d moved Nora to Cumbrian. The cover from The Green Remains is based on one of my own photos, taken on a boat trip around Windermere. I saw a stone jetty with a folly at its end. That would make a perfect setting for the climax of a book, I’d mused, and used it in my second book.

The third book, The Scarlet Wench, is set in Bowness, too, but for the one I’m writing now, The Golden Hour, there are scenes in Oxford and Brighton. However, the majority of the action takes place in Bath—which is why I’d spent time there. A series writer must always be planning ahead, and I like the idea of moving Nora around instead of keeping her in one area where she can suffer from what I like to call “the Jessica Fletcher Syndrome,” with too many murders occurring in one small town.

Besides, isn’t that a great excuse to have to visit the UK again?

Marni Graff ‘s first two Nora Tierney Mysteries have won awards as “Best Classic British Cozy” and the third is short-listed for the same award from Chanticleer Media. A member of Sisters in Crime, Graff is Managing Editor of Bridle Path Press and writes a crime review blog at www.auntiemwrites.com.

Thanks, Marni. That was really interesting – and very kind to us. Sadly, we do have plenty of eyesores and a constant battle to keep developers from ruining our historic towns and countryside.

Marni’s most recent novel is Death Unscripted, returning home with the first in a new series of Trudy Genova Manhattan Mysteries.

And if you love crime fiction don’t miss Marni’s terrific review blog.

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