My crime novels featuring Detective Constable Dominic Strider are set in Chester and, to a much lesser extent, Ellesmere Port.
I lived in Chester for 15 years – working as a general reporter on the Chester Chronicle for seven of those years, and the rest of time as Chief Reporter for the Ellesmere Port Pioneer. To say I am exceedingly familiar with both those towns is quite the understatement. 🙂
However, many moons ago when I was 15 and first had the idea for what would become my first DC Strider novel – No More Lonely Nights – I was living in the Midlands, where I grew up.
I’d visited Chester just once. I’d been staying with my auntie Shirley (again in the Midlands), and we used to drive out on day trips. One of those trips was to the medieval former Roman garrison, the city of Chester.
Waking underneath the Eastgate Clock, the world’s second most photographed timepiece after Big Ben – I shuddered. I had an innate, raw sensation in my body, an intuition that I belonged in this city. That I was home. And eventually that came to pass, as I moved there at the age of 23 (staying until I was 37 when I moved to London).
However, flash back to when I was 15 and visiting Chester for the first time. It struck me there and then that this gorgeous, historic city would be the perfect setting for DC Strider’s adventures. But I was a mere visitor for the day. What did I know of the city’s history, culture, social fabric, its people, its heart and soul? Nothing.
I bought a map and a local history book, and used both to intricately plot the opening chapters – Strider by the river, the suspected suicide at the Rowlands Heights flats in Newtown, by the station. Other locations sprang from the map and/or book. The Rows were the most obvious ones. These are two-storey shops on top of shops, with a wooden walkway in between.
Characters lived in the suburbs, initially chosen at random by me. It was only once I lived there for real, that I could decide once and for all the perfect locations for people to live and work. Amazingly I’d got it pretty much spot-on at the beginning. The MP lived in middle-class Upton, his secret street walking daughter lived on the council estate in Blacon. Strider lived in a posh house by the river, in The Groves.
It was far easier writing the follow-up book, Long & Winding Road, many years later. I sat in my study, in my house in the village of Handbridge near the City Walls and the River Dee, and wrote it from my own personal knowledge and experience. It was divine. I knew the local hospital, the river, the secret alleyways and streets, the parks, and the Town Hall where much of the action takes place. I’d been there, trodden those same pavements, played on the grass, explored the hidden nooks and crannies the city has to offer, worked in the hospital (I was the paper’s health correspondent) and covered numerous election nights and other events at the Town Hall.
Incidentally, Chester Town Hall was where I shot the first (of many planned) DC Strider short films! In January 2007 I spent two days filming the short ‘Strider Gets Iced’ there, and one further day filming in the now disused Gateway Theatre round the corner. In fact, I was one of the last people to ever work at that theatre before it was closed.
Now, I have a third DC Strider novel in the bag (and am seeking literary representation for it) – Strider Begins: Road to Nowhere. It starts off in the Cheshire countryside before flashing back to his early exploits, and basically takes place in two very well-known locations that are dear to me: Handbridge and the city streets themselves. It culminates in a deadly treasure hunt criss-crossing the city centre, and features a Roman centurion!
Which all leads me to Strider novel No4, Till the Fat Lady Sings, which I have just started writing recently. The opening chapter is all about Chester Races, a hitherto ignored location in my books. Strider is on patrol, watching out for pickpockets, but ruminating not just on the history of the ancient racecourse – one of the oldest in the entire world! – but also of having the privilege to see the races from a private box above the finishing line and having access to the paddocks in the centre of the course. Both are described from memory and experience, as I spent many happy summer days at the races, as a guest of Shell UK in their executive box, and exploring the racecourse and seeing the paddocks, the stables and more.
It’s this personal experience – of seeing your locations with your own eyes, of walking where your characters now walk, breathing the same air, hearing the sounds and seeing the sights that they will experience and describe – that really enriches my work beyond all measure. It gives my novels complete and utter authenticity.
Many Chester residents will know and love these locations too, and I hope for those who’ve never ventured to the city of Chester, the books inspire them to make that trip. It’s one of the ‘jewels in the crown’ of the North of England, and I hope my florid descriptions do it justice. So come along to Chester now, you’ll love it. It’s my kinda town! 🙂