Question(s) about the UK (London)

I’m writing an urban fantasy where maybe 1/5 of it occurs in or near London. I’m a white chick living in the Bible Belt of the USA whose only trip out of the country was to Peru. Any Londoners wanna volunteer to let me pick their brains?

For example, I need to know about sharp pointy things. My narrator’s on the street and has to hack her hair off. I had her find a pocketknife with a cracked handle in someone’s trash, but, er, a bit of research revealed that pocketknives aren’t exactly legal in Britain. What could she use that’s legal?

If anybody’s familiar with Brockwell Park, what kind of trees do they have there? (I need for my narrator to climb one.) :mrgreen:

Other questions are along the lines of “Is there a wealthy part of town that’s walled but (may have) has expensive well-tended foliage inside (and it’s okay if it’s technically a suburb)? What’s it called?” or involve fountains, tourism, or traffic.

KB: My apologies if you think this post an inappropriate use of your forum. Please let me know if so.



I’ve only lived in London a couple of years, so I can’t give you any super-cool answers, I’m afraid.

Pocket-knives - while you can be arrested for carrying a blade over a certain length - this isn’t exactly enforced if you are (a) white and (b) over a certain age. They are widely available to buy. If in suburban London you might want to consider seccateurs or garden shears (or more simply, some scissors lying around).

Brockwell Park trees - don’t know, but there are planes, sycamores, horse chestnuts just about everywhere (although London plane I believe is the most familiar street tree, especially if they’ve been pollarded - so they look like weird green ice-cream cones in summer, or now).

Walled squares with well-tended gardens in wealthy areas - not really residential but you could get away with the one of the Inns of Court (think of old university quads and you’ll get the picture) or there are plenty of actual parks and or gardens - beyond the big suburban and Royal Parks you have Victoria gardens and things like that. There’s also one of those ‘living walls’ in New Street Square. (I think it’s called that, it’s off New Fetter Lane) which has a webcam and stuff if you want to google it. Quite an odd little modern office space.

But if wealth was required, then anywhere in Kensington / Chelsea would generally be recognised as such. You quite often get little bits of land with trees behind high fences that separate specific streets from the tourist one running parallel (google Madonna or Margaret Thathcher’s home in London).

Just because pocket-knives are illegal, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t around. :slight_smile: (Sorry, that should be - :frowning: .) Knife crime is one of the biggest problems in London at the moment. It’s unlikely to be found in anyone’s trash (although “trash” is mainly an American word - more likely to be “rubbish” or “bins” over here), but you could always have her grab it after some hoodie has discarded it for some reason. I don’t think anyone would call it a “pocket knife”, either - more like just knife.

As for trees in Brockwell Park, check out their website:

They even have a short “biodiversity” document which tells you many of the plants and trees they have there: … 090209.pdf

I can’t think of a part of London that’s walled, but for a fountain, tourism and traffic you want Trafalgar Square. :slight_smile:

All the best,

P.S. I see monkquixote got in before me. South Kensington is particularly well to-do.

If you truly need to write about someplace you’ve never been, one way of familiarizing yourself with the area is via Google Earth. Particularly in urban areas, the street view is quite useful for getting a flavor.

The problem of exploring a place with Google StreeView, is that you see the images, but do not ‘feel’ the place. We live a place, and as writers can reproduce it, with all our body – not only our eyes. I discovered this phenomenon only recently, when exploring a place where I had to choose a home. Nice little, clean houses, but what was not evident in the pictures was the bad smelling of hydrocarbures, the dirty streets, the continuous noise of aircrafts and trains, the lack of smell of flowers*. These are elements that really give the real setting to a place – more than simply the color of a house’s facade.

Carradee: I’ve seen incredibly low prices for flights from Europe to the USA, so I guess the opposite is also true. Lodon is a place to see, because it is not only a series of places, but a enormously rich collection of living exemplars end stories (they have excellent beers for a reason…). I extend this invite to myself, since Midwest is one of the places that I dream to visit (even since before I read Prairie by William Least Heat-Moon).


  • Today I landed back to Italy for a short “vacation” (paying tax, actually…). The first thing that I noticed while on the way to home, was the wet, slightly sweet, smell of nearly-mature wheat. This was not on Google…

There are walled communities in London, but more typical and more iconic are squares (more rectangles, less squares) of old Georgian terraced houses, several storeys high. Typically within the rectangle of houses runs a street with exits to other streets usually in the corners, and within the rectangle formed by the street and in the centre of the square is a garden, often surrounded by an old-fashioned, black-painted metal fence. The garden will be mainly laid to lawn but will also have shrubs, rose bushes, and trees, such as those monkquixote mentions, but even including large oaks, and meandering paths. The garden may be public or may be private; if private, the residents of the square will each have a key to the gate.

Such a square with such a garden crops up in many movies, but perhaps most recently in a couple of sequences in Notting Hill, most notably the final shot of the film where Hugh Grant is reading Captain Corelli to Julia Roberts. I know that square and that garden: I used to eat my lunch in it.

Knife: dependent on the generation, class and criminal intent of the knife-holder. Older: maybe a Swiss army penknife? Younger: any kind of fixed or switch blade. As KB and mq say, possession is illegal; the authorities can be zealous. I do know of a white, middle-class, older male who was picked up and kept in a cell overnight by police because they found a penknife in the glove-box of his car. Others: occasionally you see razor-blades just lying on the pavement — post coke-cutting?



Thanks everyone; this helps! I’ve poked at Google Earth, but it’s like translating things with a dictionary: you don’t get the connotation of the word or the differences in how it’s used. (For example: Germans only say their version of “Good evening/night” as a farewell.) And I’m unfortunately not in a position to be able to travel. :frowning: Though I’d love to.

My narrator’s 15 (pretending to be 16) and spends a bit of time homeless in London, without a passport. (Her father’s Greek; her mother’s a US army brat.) She’s a magical heavyweight who’s something of a freak—which is why she’s homeless, pregnant, and on the run from her baby’s father.

But despite making some laws and such different due to the magic and magical creatures in the story, I want to root things in reality rather than take the “Oh, it doesn’t matter; I made it all up, anyway” [size=50]cop-out[/size]—erm, option. :mrgreen: Thanks for helping me with that!

The Guardian has an article today called “Insider’s Guide to the Best British Food,” which, once you get past the oxymoronic title, tells you lots about such goodies as oatcakes, pork pies, hot pots, smokies, haggis, and…num num num, jellied eels. So your character might root around in THAT reality a bit.

PS: the many online British newspapers are a great way to pick up local color. … l?page=all

London has various peculiarities that may be of use.

  • Big Issue vendors - homeless or ex-homeless people who sell a weekly magazine called the Big Issue, which they buy for 40p or something, and sell for £1.70. They tend to pitch outside tube stations in the central underground (metro) zone 1, or outside middle-class supermarkets like Waitrose or Marks and Spencers Simply Food in the suburbs.
  • There are several homeless charities - Shelter, Crisis are the biggest - tonnes of information through Homeless Link (
  • Street begging is pretty rare, hustling is a bit more common. But what beggars there are tend to set up camp by cash machines or (bizarrely) McDonalds.
  • We have a specific type of police offer- a PCSO (Police Community Support Officer) who would probably be the first to encounter her. They’re sort of Police Lite.
  • England has a high teenage pregnancy rate, so it wouldn’t be a shock to see one. But they would be immediately discriminated against. The stereotype is of a young girl in a shell suit (shiny tracksuit), with big hoopy earrings and a ‘Croydon facelift’ which is where the hair is pulled tight back from the face into a ponytail.
  • There is a sizeable Greek community, but you are more likely to encounter a Greek Cypriot (with all the politics that entails). There are now many (MANY) more Poles as immigrants.
  • Alternative types would go to Camden, multi-cultural towards the East End - there is a real mix of very rich and very poor still in the East End in the Docklands area, south of the river is generally poorer and portrayed as much more violent (Peckham in particular). Clapham has many Kiwis, Aussies and Saffers.
  • It’s very easy to get lost, but the tourist bits are pretty close together above land - it’s the tube system that makes everything look vast. There isn’t a really cab culture here, except for the affluent.
  • There are currently dozens of elephants scattered around London as ‘art’. Last year there were pianos. The year before there were statues (casts of Antony Gormley).
  • After midnight, the West End has legions of unlicensed mini-cabs picking up drunk people and returning them South of the River or wherever. The media goes through cycles of demonising them, as there have been cases of drivers exploiting the situation (rape, robbery etc).
  • Nightbuses have an N in front of the route. As I’m now in my late thirties, I’d avoid them like the plague.
  • You used to be able to ride the tube all day in a circle, on the Circle line. The Circle line is no longer a circle, which is a shame.
  • Pen knives would be sold in a tobacconists, here.

London is dirty. It’s expensive. If New Yorkers are rude, then Londoners are simply indifferent, preserving their little bubble of personal space. It’s not that they’re unfriendly, they just have more important things to do than be bothered with you. The homeless are routinely ignored. You are on CCTV pretty much everywhere in central London. The streets can’t cope with traffic and the centre is full of tourists. Really old buildings sit next to really new buildings. The Thames smells unpleasant and the tidal effect is surprising when you go a bit upriver. The business districts are a ghost town out of office hours (even though people do live there). It’s expensive. Public transport for a 15 year old would be free, but she’d need to have an oyster card (pre-paid credit swipe-card system).

One particularly scary experience is trying to travel against a tide of commuters. Liverpool Street in the morning, for example. There’s a wave of men and women in suits surging towards you, trying to be the first on the street, on the bus. Must be first. Oh, and every time you travel on the tube you’re covered in filth - it’s amazing how much dirt is down there (in summer it’s also unbearably hot and people are always fainting and causing delays. It’s also the only time outside of a pub you’ll see naked aggression - commuting is stressful, as in any city).

Other vast generalisations: most food-service personnel (waiters, baristas) are immigrants (Eastern Europeans in coffee-shops, ex-colonials in pubs). Most bus/tube/minicab (not black cab) drivers are black or other ethnic minority. Americans are generally derided, or those that are over here, immensely apologetic (Obama is changing this perception, but it’s rare to find an out and out Yankophile in the way that you would in the Eighties).

Ok. Last bit of this ramble. Kew Gardens in West London has a BioDiversity bank, and just about any plant you can think of - if the story is plant related, then this could be a mecca of sorts. It’s absurdly expensive to get in and full of people picnicking. Or Victoria Park has history, or Hampstead Heath has the reputation for well, all sorts.

And there’s a garden in Trevor Square, round the corner from Harrods, if you want somewhere affluent. (Knightsbridge is a surreal other world, full of rich Russians and bored men in suits standing outside luxury shops, with shades and an earwig on to pass the time, as despite all media claims to the contrary, most of London is relatively safe).

And last, but not least, there are various eco-groups that would probably be ideal for your heroine to try and link up with. One group has just been evicted from Kew Bridge Eco Village (google it) and have moved here: . They’re typified as ‘crusties’ here, but they reclaim land and grow their own food etc. By their nature they would usually accept someone into the ‘tribe’.

Which is why my italicized eyebrows were lifted about needing to write about a place never visited. “Write what you know” is right up there with “omit needless words.”

Or you can make it up.

Sacrilege I know, but I’ve frequently been amazed how often when writing first and researching second, the research merely confirms the imaginative effort.

I seem to remember reading an interview with Ian McEwan who did a lot of research into neurosurgery before writing his novel Saturday. But one type of operation he did not observe despite being offered the opportunity. He imagined it. This omission doesn’t appear to have harmed either the book or his reputation.

Do readers notice, as long as the broad outlines are correct? Or if they notice, do they care, as long as the story is strong? Not sure they do.

Plus of course, research that is too detailed can become a form of procrastination.

I’ve been out of London, mostly, for the last 10 years, and 40 years ago I lived beside Brockwell Park, as it happens … but I’m no longer a good guide … I tend to find myself feeling a complete alien when I’m back in London. Also, I’m not a Londoner, though we have lived in Chiswick for nearly 30 years … minus the last 10 for me except for a month or two in summer, of course.

But that said, if Turkish is important, then the Seven Sisters Road and Finsbury Park was always a centre of the (Cypriot mostly) Turkish Community .


PS I would think it a risky thing to set part of a work of fiction in a city you have never visited … but of course, you are only going to lose the readers who live in or know that city. And I have to say, if she’s half Turkish, half American of whatever sort, what is there that makes it necessary for her to be in London at all? Just asking.

Edit: Thought I ought to come cleaner on writing episodes in a city you don’t know … For example, one of the things that irritated the life out of me in the film of “The Man with the Golden Gun”, much of which was filmed in Bangkok – we were living there at the time – was the way whoever was being filmed would turn a corner and be literally miles away on the other side of town from where they’d been a moment before. Most of the millions who watched it wouldn’t have known, but it set my teeth on edge, and the same happens for me with places in books which don’t fit realities I know.

Yes! They do! If they happen to have specific knowledge in the area, a research blooper is as infallible a turnoff as your lover asking you for the time in the middle of, er…

In a recent ‘ersatz’ Bond novel, the author wrote about a plane coming in to land and the flaps being deployed from the leading edge of the wing. :unamused: That effectively killed the book for me (a mercy killing as it turned out, because it was a lousy story after all).

In fact, I just narrowly avoided making a similar faute in my almost finished Viking era novel, where I’d referred to thwarts, ‘rowing benches’, on the ships. I discovered my mistake when I browsed through the contents of a model kit of a Viking ship and I thought that they’d forgotten to include the thwarts.

Upon perusing the kit instructions, I learnt that Viking oarsmen sat on their sea chests when rowing; there were no thwarts at all. And yet I had researched the era more or less full time for over a year…

You can imagine how someone knowledgeable about seafaring norsemen would have reacted, no matter how engrossing the storyline. You’re just not allowed to make slipups like that; you tear up the contract between the author and the reader.


Believe me, publishers have files stuffed full of snippy letters from sharp-eyed readers–everything from “Winchester didn’t make an octagon-barreled lever-action until three years after this story was supposed to take place,” and “I like that scene where the star-crossed lovers were trailing their hands in the water over the side of the clipper ship, but I need to know whether the ship was carrying too much sail and about to capsize, or whether their arms were 30 feet long,” to “Mr. McMurtry tells a great story, but I wish somebody would tell him you don’t build a fire inside a Dutch oven when you go to bake biscuits.”

Mr. McMurtry’s unfamiliarity with 19th-century cooking practices didn’t stop Lonesome Dove from winning a Pulitzer. For every book ever published, there’s a peeved reader out there somewhere reaching for a pen.

But the first, and most important reader you have to get by is an editor. And editors who’ve been at it long enough–it usually takes about two years–aren’t looking for things to like about a manuscript but things to dislike: any reason to tip yet another not-quite-there attempt into the generic-rejections pile and get on with the next in a never-diminishing supply.

A glaring factual error won’t completely damn a manuscript; but it would sure make an editor wonder what else is wrong, or been done lazily.

Those would be the slats, if memory serves…

You know your aircraft, sir!

I think the author even used the term “he saw the flaps slide out of the leading edge…”

Anyway, sloppy mistakes like that tend to shatter the illusion for me, so I try to avoid them. But I agree that research can be a wonderful excuse for procrastination.


Veering off-topic slightly… Spitfire31, are you sure that the kit instructions were actually correct? Some Viking sources seem to turn out to be based on rather dubious, romantic ideas rather than being rooted in fact or probability. Personally, based on my limited experience in modern-day boats, the idea of sailing the North Sea, Irish Sea and Atlantic Ocean while perched on a movable box seems a little unlikely. It would be hard to get traction for rowing. Oarsmen would be rolling all over the place. And how would you know that your own sea chest was the right size/height for the rowlocks of the boat you joined, given that there was no single pattern for Viking ships?

I don’t know what sort of Viking ship you are referring to, and I am absolutely not an expert in maritime archaeology, but I confess an amateur interest due to my own writing research (and other related preoccupations). Several ship styles have been excavated from fjords and boat burials, or studied from written sources. According to reconstructions I have seen in Sweden and Denmark, and read about subsequently, some Viking ships appear to have had thwarts (I can’t remember the details exactly, but one of the Skuldelev ships reconstructed at Roskilde is styled as an open ship with thwarts). And as far as I can remember, there are references in written sources to “rowing benches”.

On the other hand, I have certainly seen diagrams of the knörr as a decked boat without rowing benches – but as ocean-going trading vessels, these were predominantly sailing ships, apparently using oars only at fore and aft for manoeuvrability when landing.

I have also read the sea-chest theory with regard to a boat burial (Gokstad, I think, in Norway), but I can’t understand how the idea would work in practice. Besides, the ships used in boat burials may have been modified, so may not necessarily be exactly representative; I once attended a course about the Anglo-Saxon boat burial site at Sutton Hoo, near where I live in England, and was told that the decks and rowing benches are thought to have been removed to allow the burial chamber to be built.

Of course, your model kit may well be thoroughly researched and exactly perfect for the type of boat you have in mind, but I just thought I’d mention an alternative viewpoint in case of doubt. No point in derailing a year’s worth of research if it isn’t absolutely necessary! :slight_smile:

I defer to your superior experience, but I would like to point out that among the readers of Lonesome Dove — and I confess to not being one of them — there were probably not that many who knew or really cared about 19th century cooking practices; did any of the Pullitzer committee know or care about the nature of a dutch oven?

On the other hand there are several million potential readers of Carradee’s book in London — for her sake I hope they will be actual, not potential! — who live in and around London, and many millions more around the world, who know well and for whatever reason love London. Mind you, Brockwell Park …

How, of all places in London, Carradee, did you light on Brockwell Park?


I think the point I was trying to make was that although research has its place, and in terms of location, of course it’s better though not essential to visit (see, for example, Stef Penney), it’s easy to do too much, or, even having done a sufficient amount, it’s also easy to put too much of it into your book.

I’d hope that any novelist or scriptwriter worth his or her salt would have a notion of the freeboard of a clipper (if writing about sea-faring) or that it’s slats, not flaps, that emerge from the front of a wing during descent (if writing a thriller). But I’m not sure it requires research to the level of being able to fend off every snippy armchair-chippy letter-writer.

Yes, incorrect geography can set my teeth on edge too — but it happens even in movies set in London, written by London residents. I mentioned Notting Hill upthread; the car journey building to the climax in Act 3 makes no geographical sense. I get fed up with the number of movies and TV dramas that claim Vancouver is Los Angeles, and I expect if I see The Ghost Writer I’ll feel short-changed that the north German coast is not Cape Cod, with its own unique ambience. But I’m probably not a typical reader or viewer; I expect most people aren’t bothered by anomalies like these.

At the other extreme one of the aspects which undermined Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy for me is his tendency to provide unnecessary and sometimes bizarre detail, including at one point a line-by-line IKEA shopping list and at another the specs of his protagonists’ Macs. Real, but in a strange way unconvincing.

What it seems to me is required is verisimilitude to the extent that the average member of the intended readership has confidence in the handling of the material and isn’t distracted from the story. In other words, enough for suspension of disbelief, but not too much. It is, after all, fiction.


Well, it is now.