SETTING THE SCENE: THE IMPORTANCE OF CREATING A SENSE OF PLACE IN FICTION
I’m sitting here at my desk (breakfast bar) in my office (kitchen) thinking about how the set of a novel is no different to the stage in a play: everything must reflect the story in a way the reader can visualise. A book must have a good sense of place for me to be able to envision myself there. I echo this in my own writing. My work-in-progress is no different. And like all my published works my characters surroundings, whether based solely inside a house or in several different locales (in a restaurant, on a beach, and a funfair), are thoroughly researched before a single word is written about them. You don’t have to visit the place in person either, though it does help to get a feel for your environment (I've used the little person on Google Maps to survey plenty of areas I've not been able to reach).
The novel I’m writing about now involves the inhabitants of a farm. The property itself is irrelevant. It could be a castle or a bungalow. It’s the acres of land surrounding it that play a starring role, and one particular building included within it – the ice house – where a crime has been committed. The reason the residents occupy the farm, when they arrived, and who they brought with them are as essential as the landscape itself. Yet without the reader knowing the history and isolation of the place, there wouldn’t be much of a story. It is the village, it’s past, and its inhabitants that bring each component (characters, plot, themes) together to create a contemporary story.
It’s amazing what you find out about where you live when you’re not actively seeking to. For example I was using Google Maps to find a park a neighbour had mentioned taking her children to when I discovered that the park was situated within a village across the A-road opposite my house I never knew existed. During the twenty-minute walk to the park I came across the entrance of four acres of country gardens, accessible to the public. On my way back I cut through a public footpath that led to the bottom of a long winding road bearing a sign for a sixteenth century church. Upon further investigation (a Wikipedia search) back home, I learned that the late owner of the mansion that had once sat on the estate where the country gardens were, was buried in the church. The parish councillor was well-known during the first world war, for providing food and shelter to the poor and homeless. His wife, too, was very vocal about the political needs of women and appealed to the local government, taking part in campaigns for more rights and support for women, prior to her death. By twentieth century standards the couple were perceived as behaving in a very modern fashion. Today she's hailed a heroine of women's rights and is considered the epitome of a feminist, yet during her lifetime the lady's philanthropy went mostly unnoticed. The property was sold shortly after the lords wife’s death as he could no longer fund the repairs the property required. In a sad, circular way the very things he’d ensured others didn’t do without he could not access himself.
The area also had its fair share of darkness. A previous resident of the estate was murdered in a barn not far from the ice house, the foundations of which still exist today. These nuggets of information about the land and those who once resided there formed the basis for my work-in-progress.
While the story I’ve written doesn’t bear any resemblance to the real crime that took place there, I’ve used the structure of the land to create the scenes where certain events in my novel occur. As a reader I rarely take the time to think about how the places I read about impact my reading experience, but as an author it’s integral to developing a realistic world where my characters can play their roles.
In my follow-up article I will be examining how the scenes in one of my novels influenced and are affected by the place in which it is set.