Sarah Mallory on creating your fictional new world

A Whole New World?

Creating a whole new world is one of the things I love about starting a new book.

the mappa mundi, a whole new world

The Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral

I love that moment when a story is forming in my head. The whole world is my oyster.

And yes, I admit food and wine are often involved in the initial creation process….

The past few weeks while I have been working on my new book have been particularly fascinating. It always involves lots of daydreaming as I think of plots and characters, but one of the most enjoyable parts of starting a new story is the setting.

When and where will my characters live in this new world?

map on cupboard wall


This latest book is set in 1750 London, so immediately, I dive into my cupboard. And yes, Dear Reader, I do have one, complete with a lock and a light, and it is plenty big enough to dive into.

It’s where I find my maps.


Ah, maps for my new world

Real paper maps that I can smooth out with my hands. Actually feel them between my fingers. A bit like the difference between and ebook and a physical bookmaps of old London.

These were collected decades ago from the Map section of the British Library.

They are getting rather dog-eared now, but I love to sit down with a magnifying glass and pore over the maps to check out where, in my new world, my characters will live and where they will visit.


I could make it all up

But why should I? I want my characters to walk real streets, if possible. Of course, some things are imaginary, but in this case I was able to fit my fictional characters in among the real historical characters who are to appear in the story. And London has so many wonderful places, streets and districts that conjure up all sorts of stories in my fevered brain.

key to unlock door to light

And that is to say nothing of the real history of these places, which is often even stranger than fiction!

Street names tell a story : old world, new world

Hanging Sword Alley. Stewart, c 1890

Hanging Sword Alley. Stewart, c 1890

After a quick trawl through contemporary maps, directories and references, just look at the names that have turned up – DIstaff Lane, Stone Cutters Street, Hosier Lane, Magpie Yard, Gunpowder Alley (where Richard Lovelace lived… and died in poverty), not to mention Liquorpond Street and Knaves Acres. Who couldn’t make up a story with that lot?

Then there is Hanging Sword Alley.

It apparently got its name around 1564 from the large house there, known by the sign of the hanging sword. It seems this area was popular with fencing masters, so that makes sense.

I wonder if can fit in a fencing lesson for my hero, while he is in London….?

I don’t want to give too much away here, but…

… there are real events in 1750 that feature in my story, and my characters need to be close to the action.

For instance, some scenes take place in Essex Street, Strand, so I have one of my characters renting a house in the adjacent Arundel Street.

map of Strand area, London, 1769This section of map shows the Strand area in 1769 before the Embankment was created. There were “stairs” where the ferrymen would wait to collect their customers and take them across the river.

These streets date from the 17th century and are built on land formerly occupied by the great palaces of the Tudor era, with access to the Thames… Very useful for a bit of skulduggery

cartoon of villain

And now for a bit of real historical gossip…

Essex Street archAt the end of Essex Street there is an arch (“Watergate”) and a flight of stone steps leading now to the Embankment, but it is said that originally these steps formed the water-gate to Old Essex House (owned by Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, the Earl of Essex). This will be a great way for my characters to come and go in secret, using the great watery highway of the Thames.

Of course, this is not a new idea. I found this delicious little snippet in British History online

“The late Lord Cholmondeley, who died in 1770, and who was not unknown as an antiquary, used to say that one day, when visiting a house in this street, he found, scratched to all appearance with a diamond, on a weather-stained piece of glass in a top room, the following letters, “I. C. U. S. X. & E. R,” which he interpreted, “I see you, Essex, and Elizabeth Regina.” If he was right in his interpretation, it would seem probable that some inquisitive occupant of this room, overlooking Essex House, had seen the Queen when visiting the Earl, and, like Captain Cuttle, had on the spot “made a note” of it.”

   Queen Elizabeth I  Earl of Essex

There is also mention of George’s Coffee House, which used to stand at the entrance to Devereaux Court (below). According to Google maps, this is just 2 minutes walk away from  Arundel Street, perfect for a rendezvous between my characters!

Devereaux Court, London

All useful information about my new world…

…to squirrel away while I write my story. The maps are more useful than photos, too. One can imagine the streets more as they used to be, rather than the mix of styles and buildings that are there two and a half centuries later.

But now, sadly, most of the exciting bit is done. I have my characters and my setting.  All that is left is to sit and my computer and actually write the darn book!

Wish me luck!

And finally, a question for you…

Street sign reading NO NAME STREET in ancient Cinque Port of Sandwich in Kent, England

Street sign in Sandwich, Kent, England

Anyone who has ever driven through rural Britain will know that helpful roadsigns can be rare. One can drive for miles through the labyrinthine lanes without seeing a signpost. Before the days of satnav it was easy to lose one’s bearings.

However, many years ago, I was exploring around the West Country and came across Sheepstealing Lane. An actual metal sign. (Sadly I did not have a camera with me.) Now, there must be a story connected to that lane……

Fingerpost to Nomansland an Godshill

What’s your favourite street name? I am sure there must be hundreds, if not thousands that conjure up stories in your imagination!

Sarah Mallory, author


14 thoughts on “Sarah Mallory on creating your fictional new world

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Oh, I do love those fascinating old street names! Exploring old maps is a joy. My map bible is The Royal English Atlas from the late 18th century which maps the whole country by county. Like you, finding the setting for the story is one of the most enjoyable parts of getting into a new book.

    1. Sarah Post author

      It’s a world of possibilities, isn’t it? Then one gets to the nitty-gritty of having to choose your setting and actually write the darn book! Thanks for dropping by, Liz. Keep well xxx

  2. lesley2cats

    I love all the London place and street names. But we have a couple here in Whitstable, too. Two of my favourites are Squeezegut Alley and Cuckoo Down Lane.

  3. Louise Allen

    I’m a ‘real’ map addict too – cannot recommend the London Topographical Society’s historical A-Z series highly enough. Not cheap, but endlessly useful.
    Best street name? Just around the corner from us, Old Woman’s Lane. No idea who she was, cars often stop to take pix

    1. Sarah Post author

      Thanks Louise, maps have a fascination all of their own. And I love Old Woman’s Lane…endless stories to be conjured there!

  4. Liz Fielding

    Such an interesting blog, Sarah – it almost makes me want to write an historical romance! Really enjoyed the history and the place names.

    1. Sarah Post author

      So glad you enjoyed it, Liz. The early planning bit is such fun, isn’t it? And I would love to read a historical written by you!

  5. Sophie

    Oh yes, I remember falling for Hanging Sword Alley a while ago. Pure Rafael Sabatini.

    I actually tracked it down – off Fleet Street somewhere? The last time I went back it was just a concrete passage way in the middle of a clutch of office buildings.But office buildings come and go, don’t they? Maybe one day the real sinister McCoy will return.

    Fab post, Sarah. Like Liz, it makes my fingers itch to write a swashbuckler.

    1. Sarah Post author

      Thank you, Sophie! Sometimes names are all that are left – proof of the power of words, if we ever needed it! And I’d love to read a swashbuckler written by you, Sophie. Do add it to the list of “stories to be written” (if your list is like mine, it just gets longer!)

  6. Elizabeth Hawksley

    Loved this, Sarah! It’s such an exciting time, the beginning of a new novel, isn’t it? Like you, I always pour over the London Topographical Society’s reproductions of old maps of London – like the A-Z Regency London. The detail is fascinating – like where horses were stabled and so on.

    I hope it goes well.

    1. Sarah Post author

      Thank you, Elizabeth, so glad you liked it! I really wanted to share something of the magic of this part of the writing process. By the time I am half way through a book I often forget some of the joy of writing it – at least for a while 🙂

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