Often in my books I end up merging fiction with reality to create a location. In most of my books I have used real places. I like to fictionalise them though and often change some of the names of roads and buildings whilst keeping some the same. Sometimes I add a feature for my own convenience, such as a playpark or a clifftop. The only novel I’ve written where I have used a true location is This Is Nowhere, which is set where I live in Hurn, Christchurch, and I have kept everything about the location the same. For that novel, the location is very important and drives the mood and atmosphere of the story.
For my new book, A Song For Bill Robinson, I decided to use the location of a council estate. This was partly because I had used this setting when I originally penned the story aged 16. This time around I paid a lot more attention to the setting and based it on the council estate I grew up on. I renamed it Holds End, which is a bit of play on words from the estate and its neighbouring areas.
The real estate I grew up on is actually on the other side of the river from where I live now, and it’s called Townsend. I’m not sure what reputation it has now but when I was a kid it had a bad one. My mother did not let us go out on our own until we were in our teens because she didn’t want us ‘hanging around’ or getting into trouble with other kids. It had the kind of reputation that makes you think twice about telling people where you live, because they might automatically assume you are badly behaved.
To be honest, I don’t remember anything that bad or dramatic about living there, but my mum did keep us as sheltered as she could. I grew up in a terraced house on the edge of the estate and we were lucky enough to have allotments on one side of us and a huge green in front of us, beside some blocks of flats. It all felt pretty safe to me back then, although I can recall being quite scared whenever my mother asked me to go to the shop to buy something. There would always be kids hanging around outside in an intimidating manner, but none of them ever did anything. In our close, all the neighbours knew each other and looked out for each other kids. Neighbours used to lift their kids over the back fence to play in our garden with us and vice versa. It was really quite idyllic, and I loved it.
When I was a teenager though, my parents who had been divorced for some time, finally decided to sell the house we’d all grown up in. In the end, my dad kept the house for him, and his new girlfriend and my mum bought another house on the other side of the same estate with her new boyfriend. Things got very complicated and sad, but I decided to move with my mum because that meant I could keep my dog.
On the other side of the estate things felt more claustrophobic and it is here that I have set A Song For Bill Robinson and also my last release; Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature. The close we moved to was called Hopkins, but I renamed it Hoppers for both books. (All of my books have links to my other books.)
These houses were smaller with thinner walls and noisier neighbours. It was less friendly and no one on either end of the close seemed to talk to each other. It didn’t have as nice an atmosphere and I remember feeling unsafe there at times as there were often blazing rows between neighbours, or through the thin walls and further rows between my mum and her boyfriend.
However, I still have good memories and the estate was the perfect setting for this book. The houses had small back and front gardens, but all the back gates opened up onto green spaces, and green fields curled around the estate as if it were being hugged by a big green arm. I spent many hours roaming those fields, walking my dog and daydreaming. Kids used to make dens under the trees and play hide and seek in the bushes. There were playparks scattered amongst the maze of alleys and roads, and a big skateboard park on the back field. Beyond the fields were farmers fields of cows and horses and crops, and beyond that, the tiny, ancient villages of Throop and Holdenhurst. We used to love riding our bikes around there in a loop. It seemed like there were never any cars and the sense of freedom, away from the estate, was immense.
So, what’s real and what’s fictionalised in the book? Well, the houses and roads and the fields and the parks, the school and the shop are all real, and appear in the book exactly as they existed for me in real life. What I added was a community centre. I’m not sure Townsend has one now. It might do as I know there are new buildings there, but back then one did not exist, which was a shame, as it may have helped build more community spirit. In the book, there is a community centre which is loved and relied on by the residents but is under threat of closure due to local budget cuts. The community centre in the book is based on ones I know of now in real life. Where people hire out the hall for birthday parties and wedding receptions. And where people go to do yoga, baby ballet, Weight watchers, salsa class, writing group and dementia friendly groups. These places are amazing. I’m involved with one locally and have worked in others too. I think they provide the heart to a community. Somewhere people can go that provides activities for the young and the old. In my opinion, they should be valued and cherished.
One of the storylines in A Song For Bill Robinson is the fight to save their community centre. Again a little bit of fact merges with fiction here, as over the last few years I’ve seen a few community centres in my area fight to stay open and win. But I think all stories involve the merging of fact and fiction. It’s the same with characters. They all have a little bit of people we know in them and perhaps a little bit of us too. Creating a world for your characters to live in is challenging but a lot of fun. I find it does help to fictionalise a place I already know, as it makes it easier when visualising or describing a scene and what the characters are doing in it. It also means a bit less research, if it’s an area you know well, or one you have made up. I think my books will always be set in places that are half real and half made up.
Tensions are building on the notorious Holds End estate.
The local community centre is fighting for survival and the murder of 15-year-old Lewis Matthews remains unsolved…
Wannabe teenage singer, Bill Robinson, just got out of hospital after surviving a vicious attack. He thinks he knows who attacked him…and why. When a violent feud escalates between him and local thug Charlie McDonnal, Bill vows to find the killer and help save the community centre by taking part in the local singing contest.
How can music bring a shattered community together? And can Bill keep his own demons at bay long enough to win the singing contest and find out who killed Lewis Matthews?
UK - https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B081XC9P91
US - https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B081XC9P91
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