For me, story always begins with setting. It’s rarely a person, it’s rarely a ‘what if’, it’s usually a strong sense of place. It can be a place I’ve read about, it can be a place I’ve imagined, but, best of all, it can be a place I’ve visited. And it’s not usually in the present day. No, I don’t time travel, although that would be so useful, but instead, buildings and settings hold onto their history, their stories, and if you’re quiet and careful, you can hear them.
As a child I remember going to the Tower of London for the first time and really being able to imagine what life was like in the White Tower. The walls seemed to be alive with the memories of the people who’d lived there. I went back there recently and still got that feeling.
I’m lucky to live in London – lucky for the stories I write – in that there are so many buildings, streets, alleys that are just as they were when they were built. And if that’s not enough, we have fantastic museums that recreate whole worlds for you. TheMuseum of London has the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, as well as a whole gallery of Victorian shops. You can see a cell from Newgate Gaol too. Their Docklands museum has a wonderful model of the original London Bridge, as well as Sailor Town, a reconstruction of Victorian Wapping. You’re instantly transported to the heart of your story, and if you wait there long enough, your characters will come to you.
The Museum of London has a wonderful app based on Dickens' London - a series of interactive graphic novels. The first episode is free and is well worth a look.
My current novel was inspired by a visit to a Victorian mortuary in Rotherhithe. The building is now used by the local community so there is very little of the mortuary to be seen. I was quite taken, though, with the steel beam in the post mortem room from which they would hang bodies from the river to drip dry! But as I listened to the guide telling us how the building had been used, I could re-create that original mortuary, and its people, as I walked from room to room.
So, my world comes first and then, as it gets richer and richer, the characters start to come. Sometimes they just drift by, sometimes they flood in, but if I let my setting become real, they will definitely come and live in it.