Under the city of Brussels lie 350km of sewers, a pitch dark, smelly network of tunnels of varying shapes and sizes, inhabited by creepy-crawlies and rats, and menaced by poisonous gases and flash floods. I know, because I have been down there. I can tell you a few things about the Brussels sewers that you might not have expected – for example, that there are street signs on the tunnel walls so you can tell what part of Brussels you are under, and that when you are are in parts of the sewer system you can hear a sound like distant thunder that is a Metro train passing in a tunnel close by.
My latest novel, Urban Legends, is set in and around Brussels, and like the previous two books, Silent Saturday and Demons of Ghent, it’s a thriller with an urbex (urban exploration) theme. Silent Saturday saw heroine Veerle De Keyser and her friend Kris exploring empty expat villas when the owners were away. Demons of Ghent moved up onto the rooftops, to the spires and turrets of a mediaeval city. It was a logical progression that Urban Legends should go underground, to one of the most dangerous and hostile urbex locations of all.
One of the classic pieces of writing advice is “write what you know.” All my books feature serial murderers and bizarre deaths, but it’s safe to say that I haven’t killed anyone(!). Still, all the locations are real ones and I aim to get the details right because I really want to bring them to life for the reader. That means visiting them. Even the noxious smelly ones. Even the ones where I actually feel scared, such as the 91 metre high Belfort tower in Ghent (it’s hard to express quite how much I hate heights).
It’s possible to make a perfectly legitimate (though niffy) visit to the Brussels sewers via the Musée des égouts (sewer museum) in Anderlecht, which is what I did. However, one of the other research trips I did for Urban Legends was definitely unofficial. I couldn’t write a book about urbex without doing some, so I went out with some seasoned explorers and visited a huge factory that was due for demolition. That was very interesting and provided me with lots of authentic material for the book, but it was also quite unnerving in some ways. They’d already started knocking down the buildings so there was a lot of rubble everywhere and a real feeling of destruction, as though the place had been bombed. Inside the buildings there were areas that were undamaged and they looked as though the workers had simply walked out on the last day and left everything where it was, even down to coffee cups on the workbenches and saucy pin-ups tacked to the walls! But all over everything was a very fine layer of dust. That was a bit creepy.
We also saw other people going in and out of the factory, but we didn’t really speak to them. After all, you’re not really supposed to be there. So now and again you would see someone moving about in a dark corner, but you wouldn’t interact with them in any way, and that was quite unsettling. It was inspirational too, though. Some of the things I saw suggested some very sinister ideas for the book!
That’s the beauty of researching book locations: you can just soak up the atmosphere and things suggest themselves. I sometimes compare a location to a stage set. You look at the scenery and you can imagine the drama that is going to unfold. You also have a wealth of ready made detail just waiting for you to describe it. If you’re looking for inspiration, I thoroughly recommend scouting out book locations. Only, if you’ve got a sensitive nose, maybe pick somewhere other than the sewers…
Helen Grant writes YA contemporary thrillers. She has lived in Germany and Belgium, and her novels to date have been set in those countries. She now lives in Scotland with her husband, two children and two cats. Urban Legends is Helen Grant’s sixth novel and the third in her Forbidden Spaces trilogy. It is published by Corgi (26th March 2015). You can follow Helen on Twitter here.
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