Friday, 22 April 2011

Settings for my Novels

Many years ago, some scenes for a major British film were shot in my home town.  We watched some of the filming one evening.  When the film was shown the following year, of course we went to see it.  In one scene, a bus pulls up outside the Town Hall.  You could sense the reaction all over the cinema, with people muttering ‘Buses don’t stop there.’  In that split second, the illusion was lost as people with a personal knowledge of the location were distracted by an inaccuracy.

A minor detail, I know, but it has stayed with me, over 40 years later.  I’ve read similar inaccuracies in books – someone looks out from the White House and sees Pennsylvania Avenue beyond the Washington Monument (wrong, the Monument is south of the White House, and PA Ave is north), someone gets a train from Victoria Station in London to travel to Edinburgh (nope, you’d have a long time to wait at Victoria for a train to anywhere in the north of Britain!), someone pulls their car to a standstill in Quay Street, Galway (it’s in a traffic-free zone) .

In my opinion, writers must always take into account of the fact that one or more of their readers will know the place(s) in their book(s) unless, of course, they are completely fictitious.  All the research in the world will probably not give you the information to avoid making an error which causes the reader to say ‘Buses don’t stop there’ (or similar).

This is why, so far, I have set my novels in places with which I’m familiar.  His Leading Lady’ is set mainly in London, which I know fairly well.  Fragrance of Violets’ is set mainly in the Lake District, an area I know intimately.  My current WIP is set in Egypt.  A year ago, that setting wouldn’t have occurred to me, but having spent two weeks in Egypt last autumn, I think (hope!) I absorbed enough to write reasonably authentically about Luxor and the Valley of the Kings.  I’m having to do more research than, for instance, a novel set in the Lake District, but at least I have a basic knowledge on which to build.

When I was writing a fan fiction story, I set part of it in Galway in Ireland.  I’d never been there and, to my knowledge, none of the people on the loop where I was going to post it had been there either.  However, still wanted to make sure my setting was accurate, so I went over to Galway for a few days.  I walked fromthe Cathedral to Eyre Square and then down Quay Street to the Claddagh harbour.  Maybe I could have done that on a street map or even with Google earth but it wouldn’t have been the same.  I was able to absorb not only the sights, but also the sounds and smells, as well as the whole atmosphere of the place.

In short, I find it much easier to describe a place if I've experienced it for myself.  Not simply to avoid basic inaccuracies, but also to help my readers to experience it too.  I admire those writers who can use settings with which they’re not personally familiar, but I need to comfortable with my setting.  In my N post, I gave some of the reasons for my reluctance to write a historical novel.  Maybe this is another one – I can’t experience for myself life in the 19th century New York - or any other era for that matter, therefore I would find it difficult to descibe it for other people. 


  1. Very interesting post. The kind of research you're talking about, not hardcore histrical data, but just the right feel for a place, is very much about walking around and feeling the earth under your feet.

    I take your point about not being able to experience the past, but I think there's a lot to be said for spending time in a location.

    Moody Writing

  2. We had a camera crew in my area once, it was pretty awesome. We walk by the house they shot in all the time.:D
    Wonderful post!

  3. Hi Paula. I whole-heartedly agree with this post.I get annoyed and distracted when there is an inaccuracy like you describe. It's done all the time in film, but in books, uh uh. Thanks so much for your visit and comment on my blog today.You have a new follower.

  4. Mood, experiencing a place makes it real for me therefore hopefully I can make it more real for my readers.

    Emily, thanks for visitng again. We once spent a fun day in a small town in Ireland trying to find all the locations which had been shown in a film that was shot there.

    Karen, in movies they get away with jumping from one location to another even within the same scene - saw one once where the characters had a 3 or 4 minute conversation as they walked - but the background changed from one place to another which I knew was about 5 miles away. That was some pretty fast walking LOL

  5. I agree with this too. I live in an area that is often found in stories. If it isn't described accurately, it's just wrong.

    I’m A-Z Blogging on Langley Writes about Writing and Langley’s Rich and Random Life

  6. Had to run to your blog to find out where you live, Langley!

  7. Another great post - I agree about the need for authentic settings, and how illusion is so fragle, it can be trashed by a single thoughtless mistake. Once again, you show how committed you are to pleasing your readers by getting it right, and I think the sense of time is just as important as that of place. BTW, I've spent quite a lot of time in Luxor, and I loved it there. I'm intrigued by the novel you've set there, and I think it will appeal to a lot of people with fond memories of that part of the world.

  8. Oh dear, Karla, you'll probably find inaccuracies galore then, because I was only in Luxor as a tourist, and for a very short time too. But I've done my best with my research about it since I got home!

  9. What an interesting posting. I'm happier writing about areas I'm familiar with.