Years ago, I was lucky enough to interview David Almond for the SCBWI’s Words & Pictures online magazine, and asked him about the philosophical themes in his books. His answer gave me a great insight into the importance of the concrete realities of place.
He said, “The danger of talking about transcendence or spirituality is that they can’t exist without reality. The important thing about my work is the realism in it … The language that I use is very ordinary. It isn’t abstract. It’s very solid, I think. There are lots of nouns and verbs. You can’t write abstractions. You have to write reality. You have to write stories about dust and dirt.”
Dust and dirt: the stuff of place.
His words were a great relief to me as place is pretty much where I have to start a story. In the intervening years I’ve built up a body of notes as to why this might be so, the gist of which I’ll share with you here.
- Realism (even in fantasy) makes characters believable;
- Realistic characters exist in time and space;
- Place therefore grounds characters.
- Also, every scene needs a setting. Physical, sensory descriptions ease us into thinking about the most important story questions: why is my character here (motivation) and what is s/he going to do next (intent)?
Whatever the genre, place is never accidental. It is the unique setting that shapes how our characters experience the events of this story, and where they create its outcomes.
Place also establishes genre. If we’re on a space ship, we’re likely to be in SciFi territory, a battlefield denotes action, a wizard’s castle fantasy etc.
But place as a writing tool is more than a rounded description of the physical setting: the sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes etc. It includes the fluidity of things, their states of flux in time and space, foreshadowing or echoing the changes and conflicts of the story.
If our word choices create a particular tone and mood, then we’re talking about ‘voice’ as well, which instantly moulds reader expectations. No one who’s read Thomas Hardy’s opening description of Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native could possibly expect a romantic comedy to follow.
When I began writing, I allowed place to dictate my stories. Travelling the world as a journalist, then on a gap year, I let places inspire me, and followed ideas wherever they led. I’d love to have the luxury of time (and money!) to travel in this way again, and write ‘found’ stories. Instead, I’ve consciously adopted a character-centred approach to place.
By this I mean that I try my hardest to forget that I’m telling a story. Once I’ve researched a place, I live it through my main character. It exists exclusively as their subjective experience of it. I see it only through their eyes and feel it through their skin. This approach helps no end when deciding what details a character would notice about this place at this particular point in time. They certainly won’t notice or describe anything familiar, for example.
It also forces me to decide early on how a character’s perceptions are coloured by their state of mind. Are they in some kind of emotion turmoil or struggling with inner conflicts, repressed or acknowledged? Are they grieving or in shock, guilt-ridden or in denial, facing a complex life decision or experiencing a sense of foreboding. How does their physical wellbeing or lack of it impact on the way they interact with this setting at this point in the story? A cocky young policeman won’t see a dark alleyway in the same way as the wily old criminal he’s chasing, or in the same way as a wealthy bond trader with cocaine in his pocket, or the terrified trafficked girl with a gang master hot on her heels – and the battery signal on her phone flashing empty.
Whatever the viewpoint character’s state of mind, if they react to a significant setting with apt and original language, the depth and realism of their stories will inevitably be enriched.
A year or so after that interview with David Almond, I discussed using place at the openings of stories with a local adult writing group I occasionally teach, using these contrasting examples:
Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies
Wiltshire, September 1535
His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air.”
Annie Enright’s The Gathering
“You cannot libel the dead, I think, you can only console them. So I offer Liam this picture: my two daughters running on the sandy rim of a stony beach, under a slow, turbulent sky, the shoulders of their coats shrugging behind them. Then I erase it.”
Lee Child’s The Affair
“The Pentagon is the world’s largest office building, six and a half million square feet, thirty thousand people, more than seventeen miles of corridors, but it was built with just three street doors, each one of them opening into a guarded pedestrian lobby. I chose the south east option, the main concourse entrance, the one nearest the metro and the bus station, because I wanted plenty of civilian workers around, preferably a whole long unending stream of them, for insurance purposes, mostly against getting shot on sight. Arrests go bad all the time, some accidentally, sometimes on purpose, so I wanted witnesses.”
Joanna Trollope’s A Village Affair
“On the day contracts were exchanged on the house, Alice Jordan put all three children in the car and went to visit it. Natasha made her usual seven-year-old fuss about her seat-belt, and James was crying because he had lost the toy man who rode his toy stunt motorbike, but the baby lay peaceably in his carrycot and was pleased to be joggling gently along while a fascinating pattern of bare branches flickered through the slanting back window of the car onto his round upturned face.”
Mantel’s is at once vividly English yet also deeply anti-religious, with the airiness and movement shot through with that visceral ‘blood-filled gaze’ of the falcons, who are also Cromwell’s dead children. With intense economy, Mantel creates an overwhelming mental landscape that is, at the same time, utterly in the moment and also symbolic and poignant. We are inside a mind transcending loss by a conscious act of will: he is freeing the souls of his dead women-folk, not just from human existence but from God. No purgatory for them; no judgement or guilt, just lightness and air and the hunt. And by freeing them, he frees himself. Perhaps.
Movement is also inherent in Enright’s running, turbulent sky. The ground is roughly textured (sandy, stony) but her narrator’s mental landscape is detached: this place is a picture offered to a dead man. ‘Then I erase it.’
Lee Child’s narrator, Jack Reacher, has purpose behind his words. He explains as well as observes. Here the movement – the “unending stream of witnesses” – is part of the plan; nothing will be left to chance. This is an analytical description of place by a dangerous man with a tactical point-of-view.
How different from Trollope’s mother, boxed in with her noisy children, with only the baby enviably free to experience the flickering images outside. The make and model of the car don’t matter to her, whereas Child’s Jack Reacher would have noted them both.
In each case the author has, by marrying the simple, observable realities of place – David Almond’s dust and dirt – with their character’s subjective perceptions and purposes, drawn the reader into that mysterious state where imagined stories are both believable and meaningful. For me, each opening ‘place’ is extraordinarily rich, beautifully setting the tone for the novel that follows.