5 ways to create a creepy sense of location by Tracy Buchanan

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Tracy Buchanan-lowres


Location has played an integral role in all my novels, whether it be the ravished shores of Thailand during the 2004 tsunami in The Atlas of Us or the eerie underwater world of submerged forests in My Sister’s Secret.


And it’s no different with my latest novel No Turning Back, which is set in a seemingly beautiful seaside village harbouring its own devastating secrets.


I love using location to create an impending sense of doom and here are five ways I do that:


  1. Use all the senses


I learnt this one while working as a travel journalist. It’s not just about what you see, but also what you hear, smell, taste and touch. Not only do you make a location come alive by engaging all the senses, you can also hint at the rotten core beneath. Take a beautiful seaside village like the one in No Turning Back for example, children shrieking with happiness as they run in and out of the waves, the yellow sun above warm on their shoulders. But then add a seagull jabbing its beak at rotting fish and chips, their stench weaving its way towards you. Or the feel of fingers sinking into dry stale sandwich from the local café. Just little hints of the rotting core beneath…


  1. Bad things can happen to good places

The location of a crime or thriller doesn’t have to be gritty and obviously dark. I love writing about beautiful places which have something rotten beneath the surface. In No Turning Back, the village of Ridgmont Waters is popular with tourists thanks to its cobbled streets and beautiful views. But dig deeper, and you see there’s a darkness lurking there, from the nuclear-infested ground its shiny new-build estate sits on to the rusting shipyard that looms over it.


  1. Don’t worry about being a cliché queen

Authors are always warned off using weather in obvious ways when writing, especially when opening up a novel. But when it comes to scaring the bejesus out of readers, clichés – especially weather clichés – can work to a writer’s advantage. In No Turning Back, I use rain and storms to create a mounting sense of tension. The novel is also set in a hot sultry summer. By describing the cloying heat, it creates a claustrophobic feel, reflecting the main character Anna’s mounting stress and fear.




  1. Treat location like a villainous character

Okay, confession time. I plan my novels using Excel. And in every Excel worksheet I set up for a novel is a section on characters. And in that section is where I place all my notes about the location of my novel because (and you’ll hear this from a lot of writers) I treat location like a character. In No Turning Back, location is both Anna’s friend and her foe. When she’s combing its beautiful beaches for cockles or having a beach picnic with her daughter, it’s a chance to escape it all. But its landmarks, including her family lighthouse, are constant reminders of her difficult past.


  1. You don’t have to write what you know

Yep, it’s nice to have an excuse to go on a jolly and visit the places I write about. And many times I have. But it’s not essential. I’m a writer after all, I like to use my imagination! I hadn’t visited the submerged forests I described in My Sister’s Secret, for example. I did it from online research and pure imagination. It’s the same for No Turning Back. Though elements of the seaside village it’s based in are drawn from my own childhood visits to the seaside, I’ve also used my imagination. Attached to the village Anna lives in is an abandoned shipyard, its two rusting cranes looming over the residents, creating a foreboding feeling. I’ve never been to a shipyard but it was enough to look at photos online then close my eyes and imagine how creepy they would be to be able to write about one.

Right, I think that’s it, I’m off to lie on my chaise lounge (yes, I really have one!) and imagine the world of my next novel…





Gritty authors Jaime Raven and Julie Shaw reveal how their own backgrounds contribute to their writing

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Authors Julie Shaw and Jaime Raven tell Killer Reads how their own edgy backgrounds have contributed to their gritty and gripping writing today. With close links to the cultures of crime and gang communities, you cannot doubt the authenticity of their books – The Madam and Bad Blood.

In The Madam by Jaime Raven, Southampton based ex-prisoner and prostitute Lizzie is finally out and free to seek her vengeance on the people who framed her. This is hard-hitting fiction which packs a real punch, drawing on Jaime’s own background, as you’re about to find out…

Bad Blood by Julie Shaw tells the true story of Christine, a young woman struggling to bring her baby up on the notorious Canterbury estate in Bradford, a place rife with crime, alcohol and drugs. Where family is everything, and nothing.


Jaime Raven, author of The Madam

The Madam, Jaime Raven

The Madam, Jaime Raven

All writers are influenced to some degree by their own personal experiences. I for one didn’t wake up one morning and suddenly decide that I was going to be a crime novelist. I was being steered in that direction long before I embarked on the path to publication.

It began with my late mother’s passion for books by Agatha Christie and Mickey Spillane, two of the world’s greatest crime writers. Mum encouraged me to read them and I became hooked during my mid-teens.

At the same time I was being exposed on a regular basis to real-life crime. This was because I lived in Peckham, South London – a part of the capital synonymous with crime and street violence. My family were working class stallholders and we lived on a council estate that was home to a couple of nasty gangs. At school I witnessed a stabbing in the playground and anti-social behaviour on a grand scale. I also met a number of notorious villains who were family friends and acquaintances. These experiences had a profound effect on me and would later have a bearing on the kind of books I would decide to write.

My career as a newspaper and television journalist was another determining factor. While reporting for newspapers such as The Sun and The Mail I covered a great many crime stories. In fact they were always the most interesting and challenging. Murders, robberies, major trials at the Old Bailey. I was in my element writing about the awful things that people do to each other.

So when I eventually decided that I wanted to become a novelist I knew instinctively that based on my personal experiences the obvious genre to focus on was crime. I drew on those experiences whilst writing The Madam, which is about Lizzie Wells, a young prostitute who is convicted of a crime she didn’t commit and ends up in prison. On her release she sets out to get revenge on the people who framed her.

The Madam is set in Southampton, where I’ve lived for some years and which has always had a thriving prostitution industry. For my next book, The Alibi, which is due out in January 2017, I return to my roots in South London.

Writing The Alibi was like a trip down memory lane. The main character is a feisty young crime reporter named Beth Chambers. She lives in Peckham and gets involved with gangsters and crooked cops. Her mum was once a stallholder and has links to some of the area’s biggest crime bosses. It might sound like an autobiography but it’s actually a gritty thriller!

The fact is neither book would have been written if not for all those personal experiences. They made it possible for me to create characters like Lizzie Wells and Beth Chambers, and to develop realistic plots against the kind of working class background that I’m familiar with. They also enabled me to merge elements of fact with fiction, which I believe greatly enhances the entertainment value of any story.


Julie Shaw, author of Bad Blood


Bad Blood, Julie Shaw

Bad Blood, Julie Shaw

I’m often asked where my inspiration to write comes from, and when I think about it, I guess whether I am writing true crime stories or fiction, there is always a little nugget of my past hidden in there somewhere. I often reflect on my upbringing in order to set a scene, and even if I am writing about something that has never happened to me personally, chances are that I knew or heard of someone that experienced it.

Growing up I lived on a rough council estate and my friends, neighbours and some family lived by the rules of the street – not the law as we know it. Police, social workers, teachers etc were all seen as the enemy and best to be avoided, and if your next door neighbour was a burglar, a thief or a drug dealer, you just accepted it and kept your mouth shut. In fact the only time anyone got involved with anyone else’s criminal activities, was if it had anything to do with harming a child. Then, all hell broke loose. ‘Vigilante violence’ – that was often the headline in our local paper.

I also lived on the same street as our modern day Jack the ripper – Peter Sutcliffe, and as a young teenager living in a town centre pub in Bradford, my parents knew quite a lot of the girls who were murdered by him. Our pub, The Metro Inn, was known as a bit of a safe haven for ‘working girls’ or prostitutes, so I grew up surrounded by lots of ‘aunties’ who had to sell their bodies for a living, but who were very protective towards me and my family.

Albert Pierrepoint, the world famous hangman who executed over 400 people in his lifetime also hailed from the same place as me. My grandparents and great grandma used to tell me stories about some of the people he hung, so even as a small child my imagination was riotous. In fact I thought it a great day out when a cousin or a friend sent me a visiting order from prison. I would take buses and trains up and down the country to be mesmerised by tales that the inmates had to tell.

All of this has enabled me to write authentically, I believe, and is why ‘realism’ is my very favourite genre to either read or write.

Top 5 Fictional Neighbours, by author Cass Green

Category: Author Post

They say everybody needs good neighbours…

The Woman Next Door by Cass Green

My character Hester in THE WOMAN NEXT DOOR thinks she is the perfect example of neighbourly friendship. After all, who wouldn’t want to live next door to someone like her, a woman prepared to give up everything in your darkest hour? And Hester really is prepared to go that extra mile.

But sometimes, as her neighbour Melissa discovers, this kind of assistance comes at a price.

Dodgy neighbours are something most of us have experienced at one time or another. Mine have included the menacing couple who yelled at us for walking around on our floor ‘inconsiderately’, to the man whose frenzied screaming at his wife and kids had me itching to call 999 on several occasions. We never really know what we’re walking into when we move into a new property. Thankfully, I’ve never lived next door to anyone quite like Hester. Or, in fact, Melissa…

So in celebration of all the monsters who might be living next door, here are the books and movies featuring my all-time favourite fictional neighbours.


A KIND OF INTIMACY by Jenn Ashworth

Lonely, odd Annie, with her self-help books and cow-shaped milk jugs, is a deliciously twisted character and I devoured this book in one sitting. If you like Hester, you’ll definitely take to Annie.



Stephen King called this ‘scary as hell’ and he’s right. But the incredible thing about this story of murderous dealings at 23 Beulah Grove is that somehow it manages to be grimly funny too. It’s something I was hoping to pull off in my own way in THE WOMAN NEXT DOOR.


THE MAGPIES by Mark Edwards

I listened to this on audiobook and was riveted by the story of Jamie and Kirsty, a young couple who are full of optimism as they move into their new flat. The future looks bright, but then they star receiving prank ‘gifts’ and calls and things turn very dark indeed.



I’m a huge fan of actor Michael Keaton and this movie, set in the exclusive, eponymous area of San Francisco is a quiet gem. He plays a psychopath called Carter Hayes who moves into the basement of a house a couple are renovating without their permission and won’t move out. It never descends into schlocky violence and retains a pervading sense of menace throughout.



This has to be the ultimate ‘neighbours from hell’ story.  I first saw this movie at a rather tender age and it utterly terrified me (Thanks for the lax 1970s parenting, Mum and Dad!). Remember when the Mia Farrow character eats the raw liver? And when she’s given the creepy necklace with the funny smell? The shadowy cinematography gives this film the feel of a genuine nightmare and Polanski’s 1968 movie is a horror classic.


What a deliciously nightmarish collection. So next time your neighbour parks ‘in your spot’ or puts the bins back in an annoying way, be grateful you don’t live next door to this lot.

Or indeed, Hester.

But then … you never really know. Do you?



Cass Green is the pseudonym of Caroline Green, an award-winning author of fiction for young people. Her first novel, Dark Ride, won the Rona Young Adult Book of the Year and the Waverton Good Read Award. Cracks and Hold Your Breath garnered rave reviews and were shortlisted for eleven awards between them. She is the Writer in Residence at East Barnet School and teaches Writing for Children at City University. Caroline has been a journalist for over twenty years and has written for many broadsheet newspapers and glossy magazines. The Woman Next Door is her first novel for adults.