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The Sirens of Suspense




Chris Ewan is the award-winning author of THE GOOD THIEF’S GUIDE TO… mysteries, about globetrotting crime writer and burglar-for-hire, Charlie Howard. The first four titles in the Good Thief series have seen Charlie visit Amsterdam, Paris, Vegas and Venice, and Chris is currently at work on THE GOOD THIEF’S GUIDE TO BERLIN. Publishers Weekly awarded THE GOOD THIEF’S GUIDE TO VENICE a starred review, calling it “Hilarious yet suspenseful”, and the Times said, “Ewan gives Charlie lines Hammett would have approved of and creates a witty action caper that can only be described in best Italian terms as a proper bunga-bunga.” Chris lives on the Isle of Man with his wife Jo and Labrador, Maisie.

Find Chris on Twitter.

Making Research Fun item1

First, a confession: not all research can be fun. Some of it can be hard work. Some of it can be seriously time consuming (like, for example, reading a 600 page manual on locks and locksmithing…). But I do have a guaranteed way to turn one vital aspect of research into a joyful experience – take a trip.

There’s no question that setting is important in mystery fiction. Conjuring a vivid backdrop for the action in your novel is a key way of engaging the reader. But why settle for working from memory or guidebooks? If you get the chance, step away from your desk and go visit the places your characters are destined to inhabit.

As I type this, it’s just over two years since I went on my second research trip to La Serenissima, during the writing of THE GOOD THIEF’S GUIDE TO VENICE. Not a bad gig, right? Let me tell you, it was wonderful. Prior to starting work on the book, I’d visited Venice perhaps five times, always during the peak tourist seasons of Easter and high summer. I’d liked the place. I thought it was beautiful. But it became a different city entirely during late-November.item10

The action in THE GOOD THIEF’S GUIDE TO VENICE takes place in January, so it was important for me to visit in winter, when the streets were quiet. My November trip gave me a much deeper understanding of the real magic of the city, and the way it was likely to look, feel, sound and smell to my lead character, Charlie Howard.

I found Venice to be cold, damp and foggy. The crooked alleyways and winding canals were largely deserted. The gondolas were tied up and covered with blue tarpaulin sheets. The grand piazzas were filled with duckboards as well as cafť tables, just in case the acqua alta (high waters) should happen to cause a flood.

item9I was able to get up at dawn and stand in the middle of Piazza San Marco all by myself, to see how it might appear to Charlie in a particular scene towards the end of the book. I managed to sneak along the abandoned passage of Calle Fiubera late at night, and experience it the same way Charlie might when he set about breaking into a creepy book- binding business. And I was more than happy to slip on a lounge jacket and watch the locals play roulette in the CasinÚ di Venezia, just as Charlie and his close friend Victoria would find themselves doing in a scene towards the novel’s end.

I’ve made it a habit when I’m writing one of the GOOD THIEF’S GUIDES to visit the city I’m writing about three times. The first visit helps me to develop a feel for the place, to generate ideas and to scout for locations. Trip two usually happens when I’m nearing the conclusion of a first draft, and it allows me to revisit key spots and focus on major venues that feature in the closing sections of the book. The final trip is for those tiny details that help me to polish my descriptions and add the kind of touches that create an authentic sense of place.item11

All the trips are important for different reasons. Every one of them is fun. But if I’m honest, it’s usually the firsttrip I enjoy most. It’s then that I find myself surprised in some way, perhaps by stumbling over something completely new to me. This happened in Venice when I headed down an ordinary-looking passageway into a small courtyard and found myself staring up at the Scala Contarini del BÚvolo, an extraordinary cylindrical tower with an exposed spiral staircase. I’d never seen anything quite like it before, and I knew right away that I wanted to incorporate it into my novel. Before long, the scala became the setting for probably my favourite scene in the whole book, where Charlie pursues and confronts the glamorous femme-fatale cat burglar who’s been taunting and blackmailing him.

And if you’re sitting there thinking this is all well and good, but your own novel happens to be set somewhere you’re already very familiar with, perhaps even in your hometown, then I’d still argue that the same principles can be applied. Next year, my first standalone thriller, Safe House, will be published (by St Martin’s Press in the USA). It’s set entirely in the place I item12currently call home, the Isle of Man. But when I first began planning the book, I went out for days at a time, driving and walking around an island I’m very familiar with (hey, it’s only small…), and I did my best to look at it with the eyes of a stranger. And do you know what I found, when my wife and I were walking our dog in a plantation towards the south of the island? A derelict, spooky cottage in the middle of the woods. That cottage became the Safe House of the title, and a whole book began to take shape.

(Oh, and one last thing – for anyone in the mood for a cost-free slice of Venice right now, check out the stunning images on this brilliant blog)




WHERE’S THE FARTHEST YOU’VE GONE FOR RESEARCH? Where would you like to visit? Tell us, leave a comment, or ask Chris a question by commenting below or visit us and share your thoughts on our Facebook page and be entered to win THE GOOD THIEF'S GUIDE TO VENICE!

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