‘Bristol seduced me’: Gilly Macmillan on setting
My life as a writer began when I was living in Bristol and I knew before I put a single word on the page that I wanted the city to be an integral part of my books. Since then, I’ve written six novels, all of them crime novels or psychological thrillers, and five out of the six have been set in Bristol, including my new release, To Tell You the Truth.
Before I began to write, one of the things I’d always loved about crime novels is how some of the finest writers bring cities to life in their books, almost as if they are characters in their own right. I’m thinking of Walter Mosley’s LA, Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh, James Lee Burke’s New Orleans, and there are so many more. I wanted to try to do the same for Bristol.
As I wrote my debut novel, What She Knew, I set out to try to knit my city into both the plot and my characters’ lives just the way my writing heroes did. For research, I spoke to two retired detectives who had spent their careers in and around Bristol and discovered how well they knew the city and its people, and how much they cared about them. My fictional detective, Detective Inspector Jim Clemo, who I created for that debut and who reappears in a later novel, has a similar relationship with Bristol. My other detective books are also strongly rooted in the life and geography of the city, past and present.
My new novel, To Tell You the Truth, is a bit different. My protagonist, Lucy Harper, is a Bristol-based crime novelist herself and has created a famous character, Detective Inspector Eliza Grey, who lives and works in Bristol. It was a little mind-bending to write. A twist on my life and my previous work. And Bristol is at the heart of Lucy’s story, as it is at the heart of the stories she writes. I’ve doubled down on my favourite location.
Why? Because Bristol seduced me.
I can step out of my front door and take a walk that meanders along beautiful Georgian crescents or past brutalist 1960s infill where the city was bombed during WW2. I can visit exceptionally fine medieval churches, stroll down twisty, wafer-thin alleyways that ask you to trust them and at the end be rewarded by unexpected views of colourfully painted houses tumbling down one of the city’s many hillsides or confused by a dead end. Bristol’s centuries of architecture have witnessed many lifetimes of stories. Its history, good, bad, and sometimes horrific thrums beneath and around you with every step you take.
And modern life does, too. Bristol has an invigorating social and cultural energy and vibrancy that stems from its diverse population. It’s a living, breathing, vibrant, exciting, chilled out, problematic city with a culture, both laid back and buzzy, all its own.
I live in the heart of all this, in the centre of the city. When I open a window or wander from my desk into our back garden, I can hear the city’s shouts and sirens, its rush hour rumble or party sounds. The city lives in the air I breathe, just as it does for my characters. I could have considered basing my novels somewhere else, and researched it thoroughly, but it would never have the same impact in my writing as a place I love, am proud of, which fascinates me and that I occupy every single day.
And there’s more on offer here. I can also walk in leafy parks, along the beautiful harbourside, or across the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge that spans the Avon Gorge, a spectacular gash through the landscape. Once on the other side, I find myself in ancient woodland bounded by open countryside.
And it’s here that the main action in To Tell You the Truth starts. Lucy Harper finds herself living on the edge of her beloved city, torn from the city streets which grounded her, plagued by love and hate for the character she created who is now a household name, untethered emotionally and unravelling psychologically as she faces a devastating mystery from her past and a dangerous present.