Monday, 24 June 2013
Do I know this place? by Mary Smith
Without a setting to provide the background and framework of our story, the characters would be living in some kind of a vacuum. No matter how well developed they are, there would be little to engage the interest of the reader as nothing very much can happen in a vacuum. If there is no place there is no story.
Even in a short story where a limited word count means only a few deft brush strokes may be used to describe the place, we still, as readers, want to know where the action is happening. Providing a strong sense of place adds depth to our writing.
Robert Louis Stevenson said we are creatures of our environment – which means we must make sure our characters are creatures of their environment. Jekyll and Hyde’s Edinburgh is a good example, or think about how important the desert island is to the plot and the characters’ behaviour in Golding’s Lord of the Flies, or what Tara means to Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind.
I suppose, in many ways, the setting is another character to be created with as much care as the other people in the story. Place, whether it is a city, small town, a world in a far away galaxy or a prison cell, has to be as believable as our hero and heroine. If it is a real place, the task is easier – as long as you get the detail right because for sure if it is a real place someone will be ready to point out anything you get wrong.
The reverse happened to me when I visited a book group to discuss my novel No More Mulberries. It is set in Afghanistan but the places, other than the major cities, are fictional. I was taken aback when a member of the group arrived, armed with her world atlas, asking me to pinpoint on the map of Afghanistan the village of Sang-i-Sia. She was quite miffed when I explained it didn’t actually exist!
While writing this and mulling over decisions about settings, I have realised one of the problems I’m facing right now is the setting (s) in the biography I’m struggling to write. I have a wonderful archive of material including letters but I don’t really know what the interior of her house was like, or the inside of the laundry she operated. I need to remember the R L Stevenson comment and start sketching in details of my subject’s surroundings.
I’m curious about how writers decide where their story is going to take place? Is it based on a real place you know well? Or, do you use a picture from a magazine – a lovely house, perhaps, and set your characters loose in it?