Saved on my phone are a series of voice memos that go like this:
“Hedgerows very dense to the left, to the right very tall fern, growth well above car height. The road surface gradually worsening. Left: mountains some distance away but immediate ground descends sharply and is packed with trees, so much so, I can’t see the depth of the valley. Looks quite jungle-like. To the right, a steep incline, lots of conifers, again so dense I can’t see the skyline. Bursts of tall flowers in the hedgerows, purple-pink, possibly foxglove. Now, very thick forestry on the right, the presence of residences only indicated by driveway openings, unable to see houses. Road surface improved but loose chippings, so speed low. Really in the thick of the countryside now, feels very remote, can’t see any houses, only woodlands and mountains beyond. Darkening more, even though it’s day my automatic lights have just come on. Small bank alongside the road, perhaps an old stone wall but totally covered with moss. Beyond that, valley dropping away, covered in forest, can’t see through it. Can’t see any mountains now, just lots of conifers. My ears are popping, so ascending slowly, faint smell of earth and soil coming through window. Feels very far away from Dublin. Pass a little white cross on the roadside. Driving over weak bridge, climbing again, ears popping.”
In the summer of last year, I found myself with an unexpected free weekend so I grabbed the chance to take a much-needed research break to the rural Wicklow mountains where I hoped to land, with more certainty, the setting of my crime novel, If Looks Could Kill.
When trying to get this setting on the page, it was important to me to live the environment to some degree. I drove and walked the roads, hills and mountains over and again, immersing myself in place and atmosphere as much as I could over the course of my stay. If I was on foot, I took photographs and when driving, I did voice recordings. The recording would give me an experience from my protagonist’s viewpoint. As Frankie drives down similar roads towards the Nugent family home, she too sees a run of rolling images and my recordings helped inspire her impression of the local area as she approaches the crime scene of her next investigation.
The location I stayed in doesn’t come directly into the book but I’ve written a close fictionalised version. I guess, I made that choice because, in the novel, the town and surrounding countryside become personified to some degree. The area acts as witness, antagonist and contributor to both crime and justice so I wanted the freedom that creating a fictional town would provide. To that end, it allowed me to play with the name a little. Using the common prefix ‘Bally’ meaning ‘place of’ and ‘alann’ derived from ‘beauty’ to make the town name, Ballyalann, meaning, for the purposes of this novel, ‘place of beauty’. I felt this fit in with the themes of the book as well as the title, If Looks Could Kill.
When writing about settings that have vast areas of beauty, it can be a challenge to get the sweeping nature of the landscape on the page without it feeling like a cardboard cut-out. You don’t want to end up with the reader visualising a kind of 70s movie backdrop of static mountains, while your character navigates through the story. So, while you want to illustrate the vastness and immensity of the landscape, it’s important to capture what details make it individual to your protagonist; to pick out the aspects of your setting that your character would notice or comment on.
I remember one walk I took, where I had my camera and was taking photographs of rock structure, ditches, gorse, heathers, anything that ensured that when I left, I wouldn’t find myself short of material. I hadn’t realised a couple, a man and woman, were following close behind on the trail. As I stopped to photograph a particular rock-shelf that hid a shallow ditch, the man paused to ask whether I was a geologist on a research trip. I laughed but decided not to tell him I was assessing the area for slightly darker reasons, even if it was for fiction.
Frankie, as a detective, knows she might be looking for a murder victim’s body in these remote parts. As she approaches her crime scene, she’s not only appreciating the countryside, she’s judging how much light they’ll get from the sky as the day runs down, what is the nature of that light as the sun disappears? What type of soil, acidic or alkaline, is present on both mountainside and valley, how would it affect decomposition? How passable are the roads in the most remote sections of the mountains, could a suspect get a vehicle close enough to the wilderness to make a body vanish? What houses, outbuildings or farmlands might contain witnesses, whether unaware or keeping silent, of this crime? This is how she observes her setting and so I needed to be able to see it this way too, as setting can not only show us place but can also reveal much about our characters at a given point in their life.
(c) Olivia Kiernan
About If Looks Could Kill:
DCS Frankie Sheehan is experiencing a crisis of confidence – having become wary of the instincts that have led her face-to-face with a twisted killer and brought those she loves into direct jeopardy.
She is summoned to the rural Wicklow mountains, where local mother of two, Debbie Nugent, has been reported missing. A bloody crime scene is discovered at Debbie’s home, yet no body. Not only is foul play suspected, but Debbie’s daughter, Margot, has been living with the scene for three days.
Aware her team cannot convict Margot on appearances alone, Sheehan launches a full investigation into Debbie Nugent’s life. And, before long, the discrepancies within Debbie’s disappearance suggest that some families are built on dangerous deceptions, with ultimately murderous consequences.
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