It’s time for Top Ten Tuesday, a weekly feature hosted by the blog, The Broke and the Bookish – http://brokeandbookish.blogspot.co.uk/
Each week they ask people to write a top ten list of something on a literary theme. This week, it’s one of the most intriguing ones I’ve come across so far – Word and Phrases that make you pick up a book.
1. Oxford – Yes, I happen to have written a series of books set in Oxford, but this isn’t even a fix. Long before and long after I wrote Oxford Blood, I’ve been attracted to books set at England’s premier university (I don’t want to hear it, Cambridge fans). Partly, it’s that combination of recognition and nostalgia. Knowing exactly what a road a character is walking down looks like or what beers they serve in a pub a character visits really helps you identify with them, and a book that captures the Oxford experience well brings back wonderful memories of some of the best years of my life.
Above and beyond my personal preferences however, I think Oxford is objectively a great place to set a book, or indeed, a TV series. Firstly, it’s an utterly beautiful town, and everyone loves a picturesque setting. But most importantly, it’s a place where hundreds of people who are some combination of rich, clever, young, ambitious, good-looking and eccentric come together and live in close proximity under large amounts of stress, creating the perfect recipe for drama.
Examples: Brideshead Revisited (basically invented the “isn’t Oxford lovely” genre, even though only a small proportion of the book features posh boys at university whilst the rest is really fairly depressing). Career Girls (Only the first few chapters of this are actually set at Oxford, but those few chapters give the best representation of Oxford Union politics and student journalist I’ve ever come across)
2)Sheffield/Yorkshire – Before there was Oxford, there was Sheffield. And on the whole, novels about the two couldn’t be more different. One evokes images of floppy haired youths frolicking on manicured lawns, the other, surely men downing a pint before going down t’pit or t’factory. If I see a book about Sheffield, I pick it up with a sinking heart, because I know that it’s probably going to be grim, but for the same reasons around recognition as above, I’ll usually read it anyway.
There actually aren’t that many books about Sheffield specifically (if anyone has any recommendations, let me know) but when I expand out into Yorkshire more generally, it suddenly becomes quite a wide genre. I guess all the novelists live in Leeds. And once you’re further out, whilst there’s usually still a touch of grinding poverty, you also get fantastic moorland scenery.
Examples: The Northern Clemency (set in Sheffield and a rare example of looking at middle class northerners); A Woman of Substance (servant girl from the Yorkshire Moors founds her own company and becomes billionairess. I inherently approve); Wuthering Heights (the classic tale of being a bit northern).
3) St Mawes/Cornwall – I have far less claim on this area than on the other two, but my family always used to holiday in St Mawes, and that area in particular, and the whole of Cornwall more generally, has always managed to exert a hold over my imagination. Cornwall is beautiful, in a wild, windswept way, and to me, it always has this sense of otherness about it. I like it’s odd mythology and it’s saints that aren’t recognised by any established churches. I think it’s pretty much the best place in the UK to set an adventure story.
Examples: Over Sea, Under Stone; The King’s General
Time periods and historical people
4) The Medici/Renaissance Florence – there’s something about the Medici family (the Renaissance rulers of Florence) that has always caught my interest. Lorenzo the Magnificent always seems to me to be one of the few examples in history of something approaching a benevolent dictator. A novel set in Renaissance Florence (especially one featuring the Medici family) is always going to feature beautiful buildings, political scheming, brutality, philosophy and stunning art. What’s not to like?
5) Historical Women – I’m the sort of person who sees history in terms of characters, and there’s no archetype I like better than the women who defies the narrow box she’s been put into by society to gain power. Stories featuring genuinely strong modern women are quite interesting too, but it’s the historical ones that really get me. I wrote my thesis on an eighteenth/early-nineteenth century political player called Jane Osbaldeston, and one day I’d love to write a fictionalised, sexed up account of her life.
6) Vampires – there’s not a lot to say that I haven’t said at length on this blog previously (see this link for at an-length discussion of my thoughts on the genre). Nowadays, there are far too many vampire books that don’t really do it for me at all, but there’s still something about the genre that intrigues my enough to at least check out anything vampire related, even if I then hastily cast it aside.
7)Mythology – As a kid, I was obsessed with mythology, mainly Greek, but any ancient myths were fair game. In my teens, I dabbled with paganism, and although I abandoned that long ago, I still find the concept fascinating. My areas of interest change all the time. At the moment, it’s mainly the Celtic side of things that really gets to me. If it’s well researched, mythology, either as the main focus or as a side plot, can totally make a book for me, but few things annoy me as much as authors throwing mythological names into the mix seemingly based on a few minutes on Wikipedia.
Examples: The Dark is Rising (Celtic loveliness), The Forbidden Game/The Secret Circle (One of the things that made me first admire LJ Smith’s books over and above all the other YA paranormal writers was her brilliant grasp of, respectively, Norse and Greek mythology in these books)
8. Class – There’s something about class in all it’s complexity that I find oddly compelling. Sometimes, a simple story of rich, titled folk is enough, but what I usually crave is a tale of worlds colliding, of someone struggling to fit in or pretending to be something they are not. This can be fun in a historical context, but I actually prefer this sort of thing in a contemporary, or at least twentieth century, setting, where I can really appreciate the nuances.
Examples- Snobs/Past Imperfect Prep (The writer of Downton Abbey is the absolute master of this genre. Snobs is the perfect read for anyone who likes those “girls meets earl” type novels – a relatively realistic take on marrying into the aristocracy, and Past Imperfect tells the story of five debutantes in the 1960s and how they are faring in the modern world.
9. Unconventional narratives – a bit of a pretentious one this, but anything that’s told from multiple perspectives or jumps back and forth in times or is told through newspaper articles etc etc tends to make me want to give it a go. It’s usually then about a fifty/fifty chance between me loving it or hating it, but I always admire the author for giving it a go.
Examples: The Blind Assassin, Cloud Atlas, What a Carve Up
10. Time – I couldn’t think of a better way to express this one. I sort of mean any book in which time plays a major part, whether it’s telling the tale of a town over hundreds of years, following the entire life of one person, featuring time travel or just lots of flashbacks. For some reason, these sorts of ideas make me feel fascinated and intrigued in roughly equal measure.
Examples: Sarum (tells the story of the area around Stonehenge over 10 000 years, featuring a cast of thousands); The Time Travellers Wife (obviously); The Spoils of Time (runs from the 1900s to the 1960s, and it just kills me to watch the main character grow old)