I’ve recently been reading The Cazelet Chronicle by Elizabeth Jane Howard. It’s a slow, beautifully written story set just before and during the Second World War. Quite apart from it being a good read, (but without a great deal of pace – first published in 1991, would it have been accepted as it is now, or edited down, or rejected outright?) it is the dreamy, compelling sense of time and place that draws me back again and again. I wasn’t alive during that era (far too young of course) but have heard so much about it from my parents and grandparents, have seen so many photographs and films, that when I read this book I feel as though I am there. A great triumph for a writer, to achieve that.
Which brings me to another experience where I was transported back in time and place. I was preparing to do the evening washing up and was skipping TV channels to find something vaguely interesting, when I came across a programme on Josiah Wedgewood. Just one glimpse of those little blue and white ceramics and I was back in my Nana’s home, in the Sixties, when such ornaments were her pride and joy.
I could see them there, set out on her sideboard, a collection to be added to on birthdays or at Christmas. To her, and therefore to me, they were the height of desirability, impossibly glamorous. They were dusted and displayed, but never used. A glimpse of those precious ornaments on the television screen brought back all sorts of other memories. Having tea when ‘tea’ was a meal in late afternoon accompanied always by an enormous pot of very strong tea and endless plates of sliced bread, already buttered. Overheated sitting rooms where both grandparents smoked and thought nothing of it. Writing about it, I can smell the smoke in the air, see the nicotine stains on the flowery wallpaper.
These small things help us as writers to be transported to a certain time and place. If we can create that for the reader, then we have given them a gift, added something to the story so that it stays with them long after the details of plot have faded away. It’s something I try to do in my own writing, but of course don’t always achieve. That was why I was particularly pleased to receive the comment on a recent manuscript aimed at the Young Adult market, saying that I have created something warm and ‘a very pleasant world to be in’. As a reader that’s what I’m looking for, the creation of a whole world, and as a writer it’s what I aim to achieve.
I’d be interested to know what helps other people create that certain sense of time and place? And I also can’t help wondering, looking at those pictures, what happened to my Nana’s lovely ornaments.