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Creating an Atmosphere

by Sharon Bolton

“So much of difference between a triumph and a flop is determined by choice of venue.”

– Anatoly Belilovsky, The Immersion Book of Steampunk

Some places, according to Robert Louis Stephenson, simply demand that a story be told of them. In many of these places, I’d go so far as to say, the story is already there. You can almost see it crouched low in the shadow of the abandoned dredger, hear it whispered in the rush of the tide as it races over the mud flats, smell it on the smoke blowing around the mill buildings. The story might be forming itself, or be complete and ready to burst from its shell. All we, the authors, have to do, is chip away at its surface and set it free.

People often ask me which comes first: plot or character. So often, it’s neither. It’s place. I get such a buzz from spotting the darkness creeping through the undergrowth of the idyllic rural setting. Or wiping the condensation from a figurative window to reveal the strange, unearthly beauty in a forgotten urban wasteland. I fall in love with places and I know that somehow, someday, I will write their stories.

Place is such an essential part of a novel for me. When place is done well, it can transport me from the armchair at home to the burning white, wind seared Canadian wilderness, to the choking-dry, blazing sand sweeping through an abandoned Moroccan town. In an instant, I can smell the oily brine of an urban estuary, taste the polo-mint freshness of Alpine air, run my hands through the silken drapes of a Tashkent palace. Because place is so much more than location. Location is geography. Place is landscape, people, history, culture, local economy, traffic, smells and noise. Place is intrinsically linked to atmosphere and without atmosphere, what story would be complete?

London’s River Thames has had many stories told of it, one of the most famous being Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, which was a major influence behind my new book, Like This, For Ever. The Thames has fascinated me since the 1980s when I worked for the organisation charged with managing it (The National Rivers Authority, later The Environment Agency).

The Thames is timeless. We can envisage neither its beginnings nor its end. Despite numerous attempts to tame it, it remains its own master. It is steeped in mystery. We have no idea quite what lies beneath its turbulent surface. It is dangerous and immensely powerful. It is, at least once a week in its tidal reaches, quite deadly. The Metropolitan Police’s Marine Unit expects to retrieve a dead body every week from the tidal Thames.

The Thames, its backwaters and tributaries play a role in four of the five Lacey Flint stories and in Like This, For Ever, it becomes also the story of 11-year-old Barney Roberts, who is fascinated and repelled by the water in equal measure.

‘Barney had a sudden vision of himself sinking down, through the silt and oil, feeling the pull of friendly hands, only to realize it was weed clinging and it wasn’t friendly at all, that it was taking him further down to the wrecked boats, the mud and rock at the bottom. To spend the last seconds of his life in an underwater city, peopled by corpses that have never managed to float free.’

But for everything the Thames has to offer as a story backdrop, it is hardly fresh and I wanted something more for Barney and his friends than the most famous river in the world. I wanted a watercourse, an aquatic location, that few people have heard of, that had never seen the inside of a story book before, and I found it in the other water-based setting of Like This, For Ever – Deptford Creek.

The creek – the tidal, final half mile of the River Ravensbourne before it reaches the Thames between Deptford and Greenwich – is a vast urban tunnel of steel and concrete. Once an important part of commercial life along the Thames, the creek is now largely forgotten, even by those who own properties alongside it. It is derelict, a borderland owned by no one, attracting no one’s attention.

But it’s also a wild space, on which nature is never going to give up. If the concrete crumbles a square centimeter, if the steel begins to rust, if the timber shows any signs of rotting then plants spring from the weakness and flourish. You have to admire spirit like that.

Above all, the creek is unique. Even in London there isn’t another watercourse like it and, while I stand to be corrected, I don’t believe this wonderful, watery wasteland has ever featured in fiction before.

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