Writing about place

Until recently, location has never interested me much. I was vaguely aware when reading Wuthering Heights as a teenager that the story wouldn’t be quite as effective if it were set, say, in Milton Keynes, but beyond that I rarely bothered to analyse the link between place and character, place and events.

I suppose I could see, at university, that there was something peculiarly Roman about Shakespeare’s Romans. The more closely I read the Roman plays, and particularly Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, the more I felt that the characters’ mindset is a product of Rome itself, which has turned them into cold, self-destructive weirdos willing to sacrifice their humanity for abstract notions of honour. Obviously Shakespeare nailed the connection between place and character. But that’s Shakespeare for you, and I left it at that.

This is what my youth looked like. Mostly fields. The unattractive boy is my friend Mike.

This is what my youth looked like. Mostly fields. The grubby boy is my friend Mike.

So setting is not particularly important in my first novel. Really, the events could be unfolding anywhere. Perhaps this isn’t surprising. I wrote the book between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-three in my childhood bedroom. Aside from university (in a city I already knew well), I had never lived anywhere other than my parents’ house in a small Oxfordshire village. I loved the place where I grew up, but I took it for granted, and didn’t understand until I moved away that I’d internalised those fields and lumpy sheep as part of my identity.

I wrote my second novel in London, where I had moved to teach. For someone who’d spent more time with livestock than with humans, London was a shock. (It’s still a shock, three years on.) The confusion and homesickness, the feeling of having been suddenly transplanted into an alien environment, made its way into the novel I was working on. Finally, I understood the significance of place, and how it gets into our blood and into our bones.

This also means I’ve begun to realise how crucial setting is to many novels I’ve loved in the past. I’ve been teaching Silas Marner to my Y11 class this year and now appreciate for the first time how well George Eliot writes about the importance of place, as poor Silas is forced to leave the only town he’s ever known and to start again in a strange place, amongst strange people. For the exile, Eliot writes, ‘the past becomes dreamy because its symbols have vanished, and the present too is dreamy because it is linked with no memories.’

I’ve also been influenced by Sarah Butler, whose debut novel came out around the same time as mine, and with whom I share a publisher. Sarah is extremely good on place. Her novel Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love could not be set anywhere other than London. The interplay between place and people is woven into the fabric of her writing, and I’ve found her fascination with place infectious.

I set my second novel (The Followers) on the Yorkshire moors. It is not so much that the story wouldn’t have worked elsewhere (and actually I did most of my research on Dartmoor, which I’ll come back to another time); it’s more that the characters in this book are far more shaped by where they’re from than the characters in The View on the Way Down. So if I had used a different setting, I think I could still have told the same or a similar story, but the characters themselves would not have been quite the same.

I appreciate I might be spouting truisms that have long been obvious to everyone except for me, but I find this interesting all the same. I want to go back to the countryside eventually, because in my head that’s ‘home’. At the same time, I’m not done yet. London is twisting itself round my trunk like ivy, so God knows what ‘home’ will mean in a few more years.

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About Rebecca Wait

27-year-old writer based in London. Author of 'The View on the Way Down'.
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