I am delighted to welcome dear friend and fellow crime writer, Christina James, to the blog today to talk about the inspiration for the settings of her crime series in the Lincolnshire Fens. Christina’s latest release is Sausage Hall which is receiving excellent reviews.
I have said several times to reading groups and audiences at my author events that one reason for my choice of the Fens for my DI Yates novels is that not many novelists (there are some) have made this part of South Lincolnshire their setting, whereas Yorkshire and London, both places I know equally well, are much more popular locations for crime fiction. I do think local knowledge helps: some readers, especially in crime fiction, really do demand precise factual geographical detail! However, perhaps a bit of autobiographical reminiscence will go further in explaining why the Fens have appropriate atmosphere for a crime story.
My son has recently moved to Cambridgeshire and, while staying with him and his wife last week, I was chilled to the bone during a very short walk from the station to his car. It reminded me of the long Lincolnshire winters of my childhood. The countryside in this part of East Anglia is very flat, some of it well below sea level, causing concern for its future. Reclaimed from fen and marsh during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it is in danger of being snatched back by the sea as the struggle to defend the coastline becomes more and more unequal. In winter, like the one two years ago, the bitter continental east or northeast wind comes sweeping in off the North Sea, with no hills and few trees to save the citizens of inland towns and cities from its freezing blast. The term ‘wind chill factor’ could have been invented for this region.
As a child, I had nothing with which to compare it, so I didn’t know how bad it was. We didn’t so much embrace the winter as ignore it. Poor weather was certainly not an allowable excuse for missing school: I remember my school having been closed only ever once, when it was flooded after more than a day of torrential rain, and even then pupils who were residents of Spalding itself (most travelled into school by bus from the outlying areas) were summoned to help clean the mud from the corridors and rescue the goldfish that had been flushed out of the ornamental pond on to the hockey pitch.
From the age of thirteen until I left school, I was a paper girl. My paper round took me on my bike from Toynton’s shop, in the main market place in Spalding, where I collected the papers, down Pinchbeck Road and into West Elloe Avenue, where the round started at the town’s laundry (this was later burnt down as the result of an accident with a hair-dryer). It continued all the way along West Elloe Avenue, taking in all the side streets along the way, and finished at the swing bridge at the top of Marsh Rails Road. I’d then cross the bridge and cycle down Commercial Road to my home. The whole process took about an hour. I remember many winter mornings when my hands and feet were numb with cold on my return, and the agony of ‘hot-ache’ as I thawed them out against the stove that was never allowed to go out in the winter.
Rainy days were worse. Dickens’ depiction in ‘Bleak House’ of rain in Lincolnshire is just so accurate! Whether delivering papers or cycling or walking to school, I had only the protection of my navy gabardine school mac against the wet, and these coats were not waterproof. (I don’t think any truly waterproof coats were available at that time – even ‘mackintoshes’ leaked if subjected to more than a shower.) There were many days when my brother and I left our wet coats to dry in the kitchen in the evening and had to put them on again, still damp, the following morning.
I’m making it sound very gloomy, and often it was: the winters lasted many months and, when Easter arrived, it was still almost invariably cold and wet (though I remember one glorious Easter Monday when it was warm enough to bathe in the sea at Hunstanton). But there were some consolations, too. The Fens had less than their fair share of clear frosty days – the fogs were notorious – but when these came they achieved a magic all of their own. I several times cycled to visit my great aunt at Deeping St Nicholas or a friend who lived at Pode Hole and was enchanted by the deep hoar frost that covered lone trees, outbuildings and the fields and dykes in a twinkling, almost preternatural, silver-white.
I doubt that the quality of winter in the Fens is much different today, though probably the ability of the inhabitants to protect themselves against it has improved. There are more street lights now and proper weather-proof clothing is both available and affordable. Children are also better safeguarded than they were then. If I had a daughter, I doubt that I’d allow her to cycle down the ill-lit Pinchbeck Road, laden with newspapers, in the heart of winter, with the massive sugar beet lorries zooming out of the darkness or the fog or both and coming too close for safety. Like schools in most other places in the UK, those in Lincolnshire now close when weather conditions are extreme. I survived and lived to tell the tale: not everyone did. I knew several people who were killed on the roads, including a trainee teacher at my school who borrowed the headmistress’s car when it was foggy and collided with a lorry on Cowbit High Bank (a stretch of road that is still lethal today). Part of me is glad that my generation wasn’t coddled, but there is another part of me that hopes that there are not still children who have to endure the agony of hot-ache, or struggle into a garment clammy with yesterday’s rain.
My DI Yates novels are about contemporary people and current issues, but set in the Spalding and the Lincolnshire of my childhood, which helps to achieve a certain degree of fictionalisation, yet also allows me to capture the spirit of the place and its people. I’m not a very ‘noiry’ writer, but crime fiction inevitably deals with the darker side of human nature and the Fens, with their often bleak and lonely hamlets and villages, winding, muddy lanes and deep dykes where many people have met their end, have a profound psychological effect on the people who live there… and that, precisely, is what appeals strongly to me and provides the substance of my novels.