The setting is always important…

All of my books have settings which are important to the plot, but the location that I’m probably asked about the most is The Lying Game. Is Salten a real place? Did I go to boarding school somewhere similar?

Talking about the background to my other books is much easier. The house in In a Dark Dark Wood is totally made up, for example, though it does owe a lot to some of the more crazy, modernist projects on Grand Designs. However the Kielder Forest is a real place.

Regarding The Woman in Cabin 10 my answer is even shorter – I have never been on a cruise. Everything about that book is imaginary! (Apart from the fjords, obviously.)

With The Death of Mrs Westaway, Brighton is real although I did take some minor liberties with the history and geography (the West Pier, where Hal works, burned down decades ago.) However, St Piran is completely made up, and Trepassen House is a sort of amalgam of a real stately home near where I live in Sussex and of Manderley, Maxim de Winter’s house in Rebecca.


The only one of my novels where the place came first…

However the answer for The Lying Game is more complicated, and it’s also the only one of my novels where the place came before the plot or the characters – a long way before, in this case.

The story starts several years ago, when I went on holiday with my family to a little fishing village in northern France called St Suliac. It’s often described as the most beautiful village in Brittany, and it is very beautiful, but I also found it very melancholy. In tribute to its history as a former fishing commune, the villagers have strung nets across the buildings and over the streets, just as I described in Salten. It gives the buildings a cobwebby, dilapidated air, a little like the towns in Southern American Gothic films, where swags of Spanish moss hang from the trees.

Outside the town is a wide, wild tidal estuary, and one morning as I was driving back from fetching bread, I looked across the estuary and my eye was caught by a shape on the horizon. It was a derelict tide mill, black and hulking against the early morning sun. You could see the sky through holes in the roof, and the windows were empty of glass – but it was extraordinarily atmospheric, and I knew at once that I wanted to put it in a book.

At the time I was working on something totally different, and there was no place for a tide mill or a coastal town. But when I sat down to write The Lying Game, I realised that Kate’s house, and the town of Salten was already there in my head, waiting to be populated. Of course, I’m an English writer, and this particular book was one that needed to be set in England. But one of the nice things about being a writer is an ability to shift things around, resurrect beloved monuments (see also the West Pier, as above) and generally play fast and loose with the real world. So I picked up St Suliac and moved it bodily, along with Kate’s tide mill, to the south coast of England, to an imagined spot near Romney Marsh.

Romney Marsh is a place of extraordinary beauty – a reclaimed salt marsh, that used to be deep below the English channel. The ancient town of Rye, now some three or four miles inland, was built as a port, with waves buffeting its town walls. Even much further inland, there’s a sense of a place that is half land, half sea, its marshy fields criss-crossed with little drainage ditches and rickety bridges. It was the perfect setting for Salten and Kate’s tide mill, and I could well imagine some long-dead Victorian deciding to build a girls’ school in the health-giving sea air (as in fact they did further down the coast at Brighton and Eastbourne).

The boarding school of course is the totally fictional part of the setting. I’ve never been to boarding school, and I hope any real school as slack as Salten House would have been closed down years ago for safeguarding issues. In that sense, it owes a good deal more to the Dead Poet’s Society than to any real institution.

You can read a bit more about my love of boarding school stories here but in the meantime, if you want to visit Salten, you’ll need to polish up on your French, and you won’t find the Salten Arms or any other pub in town. You will, however, be able to get a very good crepe along the way.