Place can sometimes be as important as character in novels. Morse in Oxford immediately springs to mind, as does Miss Marple in St Mary Meade and Kinsey Millhone in Santa Teresa. These places, whether real or imagined, provide a vivid and colourful backdrop to the story and root characters in their fictional world.
East Sussex, where I work and live, has the majestic South Downs, rolling countryside, the Ashdown Forest, historic castles, and many charming villages and towns. (See Visit Sussex) Any of these would have been a perfect setting for Kent Fisher and his mysteries, but they would have restricted me. I could have much more fun and leeway if I created a fictional town, home and workplace.
Getting the names right proved to be the first challenge. East Sussex has many place names that date back to Anglo Saxon times. The most common Saxon place names end in ‘ton’ or ‘ham’, such as Wilmington, Jevington, Alfriston, Westham, or Hailsham. ‘Don’ is sometimes substituted for ‘ton’ as in Willingdon. It made sense to follow this example, and create a Saxon sounding town.
Polegate, a small town which lies north of Eastbourne, may well have got its name from a ‘toll gate’ that once existed there. It’s also just north of Willingdon village, which nestles at the foot of the Downs. By combining the two into Tollingdon, I had my town with a Saxon derived name that meant ‘the town of tolls.’ I also had a location on a map, if I needed it.
Next, I needed to place Tollingdon within a district. Environmental Health Officers work for local authorities, so I created Downland District Council, which had a town hall and offices in Tollingdon High Street.
Downland, as the name suggests, covers the South Downs and stretches as far as Uckfield and Heathfield to the north. Downland also became the constituency for William Kenneth Fisher, MP, whose family resided in Downland Manor.
All I needed to do now was pick the streets and buildings that represented my idea of a Sussex town. With so many lovely and beautiful places to choose from, this will be an enjoyable task as Tollingdon grows and develops with each story.
At the moment, Battle High Street provides the inspiration as it contains a good mixture of quintessential Sussex architecture, along with the antique shops, tea rooms and traditional pubs.
These will give Tollingdon a cosy, affluent character which rests uneasily with the conflict and murder that goes on around it.