Monday, 24 June 2013

Do I know this place? by Mary Smith

After reading Jenny’s excellent post last week about how we create our characters I started thinking about the settings into which we put them.

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?


  1. You are so right, Mary - setting is vital. Scarlett's passion about Tara practically defines Gone With The Wind. And what about those Agatha Christie novels set on boats or trains or railway carriages? A close, confined setting where people rub up against each other and there's nowhere for the murderer to run to was ideal from her point of view.

    Ian Rankin has made Edinburgh practically his own, others have purloined Glasgow as a setting. It has all led to the coining of the term 'tartan noir' - and I suppose the rest of the world now thinks it's very dangerous place to visit!

    I have created a fictional small town in East Lothian. I did this to avoid any potential problems with shops, cafes, schools or people coming back and accusing me of heaven knows what. However, I'm not convinced I've done the right thing, because of course it won't have that immediacy of recognition that people love when they read.

    What do others think?

    1. I think you are right to go with your fictionalised town, Jenny. I actually find it quite distracting when the setting is a real place with real street names mentioned. I always find myself doing a mental check to see if the writer has it correct.

  2. I think it's because I'm a geographer but I find that the sense of place is probably the most important thing in a novel after the characters - even more so than a plot. (Now there's atopic for discussion!)

    I agree with Jenny - I tend to make key places fictional, although with real points of reference - but I still feel I have to know the area well in order to portray it.

    1. Definitely a good topic for a blog post, Jennifer. I'm sure it would prompt quite a lot of discussion and many different opinions.

  3. I think a fictional town in a real place (like East Lothian) is ideal Jenny, and tends to be the way I go, too. As to street names, I find it particularly annoying when reading books set in London and the writer constantly refers to'she walked down this street, turned at the corner of that and that street..' as if everyone knows what the writer is talking about. The writer doesn't even bother to describe the streets because we are all expected to know them. Not good writing imo!

    Other books that have a wonderful sense of place I can read again and again - D E Stephenson springs to mind, also Lesley Cookman's Libby Sarjent series.

    1. Sounds like everyone thinks you are on the right lines, Jenny, with your fictional town in a real place.
      Gill, there is another D E Stephenson book out and another one due - it should have come out but the printer went into administration so there's a delay. These are more of the books 'foudn in the attic' Gray Ladies has published them.

  4. Interesting what you say about short stories....I always 'see' the setting - often a cafe or a restaurant for the time factor - before I see the problem, the person, and the plot...:)
    Have FB'd and Tweeted about this blogpost, girls.

  5. Thanks, Linda.
    Interesting what you say about the time factor because of course the setting and the time are bound together aren't they?