Guest Post: Half The World Away: Unfamiliar Territory by Cath Staincliffe

Thursday 4 June 2015

Cath Staincliffe's latest novel is Half the World Away which I have reviewed here, finding it to be a rather addictive story. What really stood out to me, even before reading the book, was the Chengdu setting. Whilst reading the story it was clear that Cath had carried out some impeccable research, and so I asked whether she would be able to write a guest post for me about it. And she did! So, hopefully you enjoy reading it and if you haven't already picked up Half the World Away then make sure you do!

Half the World Away: Unfamiliar Territory
By Cath Staincliffe

My oldest son, Daniel, lives in China. Somewhere I’d never been, and when I was developing ideas for my new book – a story of a graduate going missing abroad and her parents’ search for her – it made sense to set the book there. All my other books (21 of them) have been set in Manchester so this was a big leap for me. An unknown world where cultural and language differences would be real obstacles in the quest for information. A switch from domestic noir to tourist noir.

Travelling out there to research the book, I experienced at first hand the bewilderment and dislocation of my characters. And this added to the nightmarish quality of the story. Chengdu is a city of 14 million people – and I’d never heard of it. 20% of the world’s computers are made there. The city is in the grip of huge development, with ambitious building and infrastructure projects, consumerism like we have in the west and manufacturing on a massive scale. Chengdu, located in the Sichuan basin, is known as the city where the sun never shines. Mild and humid, it suffers from air pollution which is trapped by the constant cloud.

Staying with Daniel, on the eleventh floor of a 35 storey block, we had insight into everyday life in an area where tourists were rare. We were stared at and people practised their English on us, some even asked us to pose for photos with them.

I took with me an English-Chinese dictionary app, a scrapbook and glue, and notebooks which I began using from the moment we boarded the plane. I documented everything I could, photographed everything. I used the audio recording facility on my mobile to capture the sounds in a park, on the bus, at the shopping mall. We wandered the city looking for locations for some of the scenes that were growing in my mind. Everything was rich material, grist to the mill. Incidents that happened to me also happen to the characters in the story – though thankfully not the other way around. And all the time I was thinking about how the search for a missing person would play out, what setbacks or dead ends there might be, what else might go wrong while they walked these same streets or visited that park. A good ninety percent of what I collected went into the novel (the smells and sights on the streets, the constant noise that filled the air, the spicy Sichuan food, the glitzy shopping malls and the prefabricated housing for migrant labourers). This all formed the backdrop to the narrative and gives it, I hope, the authenticity that’s so important to me as a writer and a reader.

Once I was home and writing the bulk of the story there was further research to do, which included email correspondence with Peter May who has written a series of detective novels set in China. Peter in turn put me in touch with Professor He Jiahong, a Chinese lawyer, campaigner and fellow crime writer. The test now will be to see how those people who know China well, including my son, will respond to my attempt to capture a flavour of that unique country. And for those who don’t know China, I hope the unfamiliar setting will add an extra layer of interest to a story of a couple’s desperate hunt for their missing daughter.

About Cath Staincliffe

Cath Staincliffe is an award winning novelist, radio playwright and creator of ITV's hit series Blue Murder. Cath's books have been shortlisted for the CWA Best First Novel award and for the Dagger in the Library. She was joint winner of the CWA Short Story Dagger in 2012. Letters To My Daughter's Killer was selected for the Specsavers Crime Thriller Book Club on ITV3 in 2014. Cath also writes the Scott & Bailey books based on the popular ITV series. She lives with her family in Manchester.

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