Adrian Magson is the author of 21 crime and spy thrillers, a YA ghost novel and Write On! - a writers’ help book. His latest books are The Bid (Midnight Ink – Jan 2017), second in a new thriller series, and Dark Asset (Severn House – February 2017), the fourth in the Marc Portman spy series. A reviewer for Shots Magazine, he writes the ‘Beginners’ and ‘New Author’ pages for Writing Magazine (UK)
Give me land, lots of land
One of the problems facing a novelist can, in certain situations, be one of space. I don’t mean the outer kind, where the first thing you might bump into is an asteroid or a random piece of space junk from an abandoned satellite – or even, I guess, a functioning satellite. I mean the earth-bound space required to suit the topic of a storyline.
Let me explain. I write crime and spy thrillers. Not much of a problem there, as spies, criminals and cops are everywhere, so the space they inhabit is generally, but not always confined (excuse the pun), to cities, towns or villages, and other centres of population.
I set many of my stories in the UK, but have ventured to the US, Russia, Ukraine, mainland Europe and, with the Inspector Lucas Rocco series, northern France. In most cases, space was not a problem, although there were large open tracts of land featured in some of the spy novels (specifically Ukraine and Russia). But the storylines there were different, so space itself wasn’t an issue.
For my latest novel, however, a mystery called The Bid, I had a requirement that took me away from my characters’ usual theatre of operations. It was strictly physical: I needed a sense of open territory, even isolation, because the story involves a man being kept prisoner in a small room, and scenes where UAVs (small drones or quadcopters) are being used in the planning and rehearsal for a terrorist strike on a military base in what I imagined would be the area known as the Midwest. The term itself – Midwest – brought to my mind the idea of SPACE. Lots of it. Enormous amounts, in fact, especially in the mind of a British writer where the next house or farm is usually within line of sight, roads cover the land like a spider’s web and the next village or town is fairly close by. Flying drones in such an area brings a few problems not encountered, say, in vastly open countryside such as… well, you’ve got it, the Midwest. Here in the UK, people will spot what you’re doing, and if you’re practising dropping things from a drone, or spraying stuff, you will get noticed.
So, the Midwest. Compared to the Forest of Dean, the area where I live, it gave me this instant feeling, this sense, of the great wide openness, where, although the buffalo might not roam so much as they used to, you’re not likely to bump into anyone every five minutes. And if you’re of a criminal or terrorist turn of mind, such isolation is something you’d value highly, so you can carry out your activities without being overlooked.
Now, I have a feeling this is going to cause an argument, but I settled on Oklahoma as the main area where the story fetches up. I have never been to Oklahoma, but taking an outsider’s view via Google Earth and my bound Illustrated Atlas of the World, I figured it has space a-plenty.
But is it actually in the Midwest? Not that it matters, because the term ‘Midwest’ doesn’t actually appear in my book. It was just an idea in the mind of a British writer building a storyline. In any case, I still have no idea, even after consulting various Americans who, on one hand claim it is ‘southern’, and on the other, claim it to be firmly and irrevocably ‘Midwestern’.
I have to say, though, Oklahoma fitted perfectly. The more I researched it, the better and more interesting it became – but only compared to anywhere in the UK. I know I could have settled on Nebraska, Kansas, either of the Dakotas, Texas, Iowa or many other states for sheer openness, and they would each have been suitable in their own way. But I had to make a decision, and in the end, Oklahoma got it; first because while researching the book I happened on lots of abandoned airfields there (and the history behind some of these is fascinating; you should take a look at Paul Freeman’s website ‘Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields’ - http://www.airfields-freeman.com/ for some examples). They suited the story for practising the attack, as did Altus Air Force base as the location for the explosive denouement.
This sense of not being hemmed in was also refreshing, because for a lot of the book I didn’t have to consider descriptions of city streets or freeways, office buildings, shopping malls, crowded sidewalks, traffic or any of the usual settings I have to write about. It was just land. Lots of it stretching away into the distance.
In fact it was a little like going on a vacation. Courtesy of Google Earth and my atlas. And my imagination, of course.
I think my next book might take me to Paris. Sorry, but I don’t want to get samey. It’s nice to ring the changes.
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