A Sense of Place

Deirdre’s post last week got me thinking about places and I realised that for me it works the other way round. I don’t choose a setting for a story. The setting comes first and the story comes out of it.
Beltane which I’ve just finished (and is off being NWS reviewed as we speak) is set in Glastonbury. The original spark of an idea came from a rather odd bed and breakfast near Glastonbury Tor that I stayed in with a friend almost ten years ago. It was very alternative. People had conversations about angels over the breakfast table. Daily group meditation was pretty much compulsory. The woman who ran it was a very strong character and to be honest, my friend and I found her a little bit scary. Years later I started wondering what if someone who ran a New Age retreat didn’t have good intentions towards their guests. And from that I had my antagonist, Maeve.
Because of that there was never any question as to where I should set the book and the practical considerations of writing a book set 250 miles from home didn’t really cross my mind at the beginning. About a year in I realised that even with the help of Google Streetview I had too many unanswered questions so I planned a holiday/research trip. It was fantastic to spend a week in the place that I spent so much time writing about and huge number of new ideas came out of being there.
One of the amazing things about Glastonbury is that you never know who you’ll meet. At the Chalice Well I started a conversation about the weather and within minutes the guy I was talking to told me he was a druid and that after buying his house he’d grown a tall hedge around it because he practised druidic rituals in the garden. My imagination was obviously working over-time as to what exactly these rituals involved but the conversation sparked another idea and I knew this was all going to have to go in the book.
Once I’d decided I wanted to write a series with the same characters, I had to figure out where I would set the next one. I felt like I’d done Glastonbury. I needed somewhere else with a connection to history and myth. There are plenty of lovely locations I could have chosen but three years ago I went to Orkney and fell head over heels for the place.
As it takes me a long time to write a book (three years for Beltane) I want to write about somewhere I’m really interested in. So Orkney it is.
Orkney Aug 2010 009 (2)
However, there’s a problem and it’s not just geographical. For this book I want one of my characters to have been born and brought up on the islands, another to have grandparents from Orkney. They’re both embedded in the community with a history and a knowledge of it that I, a person who’s visited once and who lives 500 miles away, don’t have.
This week I wrote a first draft of chapter 1. There’s already a dozen things that I don’t know and some of them I don’t even know how to find out. I like doing research but getting to grips with this will involve a lot more than the internet can provide.
Over recent months I’ve been reading the Shetland books by Ann Cleeves and at the beginning of Raven Black, the first in the series, she says that it was overambitious to try to write a book set in Shetland while living in Yorkshire. She’s a highly experienced novelist. If she struggled then what on earth do I, a total newcomer, think I’m doing?
I’m going to Orkney for a week at the beginning of September. After that I’ll make a decision as to whether this is absolute insanity or if I can maybe, somehow, make it work.
So I’m wondering if any of you have experienced something similar. And if you have, can you give me any advice? I’d love to hear about the places that inspire your stories and the ways you bring them to life.

9 thoughts on “A Sense of Place

  1. A lovely post, Alex. I can quite see why Glastonbury and the people you met there inspired you to use it as your setting and I can’t wait to read the book when it comes out, as it will do. (definitely want to know what goes on behind that hedge!) Orkney sounds like a soulful place to set a story. I hope it comes up to expectations when you go there; I’m sure it will. Don’t let what the novelist said put you off!
    No, I haven’t had a similar experience, although I have been to places where I’ve felt distinctly uncomfortable and couldn’t wait to get away. One such place was Clovelly in North Devon. Picturesque harbour, vertical cobbled streets, donkeys, pretty cottages, but I felt a wierd vibe all the time I was there that made me think ‘I don’t like this.’
    Perhaps I should go back there and see where it takes me…

    Deirdre x

    • Hi Deirdre
      Thanks for being so supportive and encouraging as usual. I’m very excited about my trip to Orkney and it just can’t come soon enough now! I’m fascinated by your experience of Clovelly. I’ve only been once when I was about six and my only memory of it is the donkeys. I wonder what made you feel such a strong sense of it not being right. I do think we have an instinctive connection to some places so maybe we can have an instinctive antipathy as well.

  2. Oh, Alex, this really rang a bell with me. As you well know I originally intended to set my novel in Glastonbury, too, but two research trips I had planned for this summer fell through and I just didn’t feel confident enough to write on without those. Although I had been to Glastonbury a couple of times before I didn’t feel I knew the place well enough and, though I could easily visit the place virtually via Google maps it just doesn’t give me the “vibe” of the town. There were things I wanted to experience for myself and I just couldn’t risk getting it wrong. In the end I switched to a fictitious village based on a place I know well and feel comfortable with, many, many miles from Glastonbury. I am happy with the way the novel is going and sure that I made the right decision. I can’t wait to read Beltane. It sounds just my sort of thing. I find it very odd because I have a Beltane scene in my novel and a character I have pencilled in for another book in the series is called Finn so it’s quite a coincidence! The Orkney idea sounds brilliant. I think you should go for it as you have already been there and you are definitely going again and can use your time away to find out what you need to know. Make as many notes as you can while you are there…sights, sounds, smells, tastes, the atmosphere there. You managed Glastonbury, I’m sure you can manage the Orkneys. It would be so worth it!!
    Deirdre, I know just what you mean. I went to a village in East Yorkshire once and was only there five minutes. I literally couldn’t wait to get away. My heart was pounding and I felt very, very uncomfortable there. Funnily enough, this was many years ago and I went back there last year and loved it. Strange…:)

    • Hi Sharon,
      When I wrote the post I did think about what you’d said about Glastonbury and thought you’d understand where I was coming from. There is a pressure in writing about a real place and it’s disappointing for a reader who knows a setting if the writer gets it wrong. I remember completely losing faith in a Ruth Rendall book because she’d made a mistake with the streets of York.
      I know you were sad to move your novel to its new setting but your fictional village sounds fantastic. There are some amazing coincidences in our books. We’ll have to compare notes again sometime soon!
      Thanks for the words of encouragement about Orkney. I shall take your advice and take my notebook with me everywhere.

  3. Thanks for sharing this experience, Alex. One of my grand, future WIPs is set in 1400s Bruges, Belgium. I became interested with this location and time period when studying early Netherlandish painting. The research became an obsession. Before I knew it, I felt as though I’d not only visited the city, but I’d lived there in 1432.
    When I finally went to visit, I felt so at home it was eerie. I miss it today as though it’s my birthplace. My point is, it is entirely possible to learn enough about a place from research to write about it. Go beyond maps and what it’s like today. Delve into the history of your setting, even if your story is present-day. Study the art, literature, and social customs of its past. Probing the “roots” of a place can teach you almost as much as visiting in person.

    • Your future WIP sounds fantastic. What an interesting and vibrant time to write about! Thanks for the words of advice. I already find the history of Orkney fascinating and that’s one the reasons why I wanted to write about it even though the book will be set in the present day. Thanks for giving me a reason to dedicate more time to that part of the research!

  4. Great blog Alex – particularly since you stepped into the breach last minute when I didn’t have time to finish mine before my camping weekend! Love the accompanying pictures too. I now want to go to Orkney as it looks stunning.

    Don’t feel threatened that an experienced writer struggled. Go, take notes, take photos, take more notes, speak to locals and really explore the place. And if you don’t feel you have enough … book another holiday!!! I’d continue with the MS in terms of telling the basic story but, every time you get a moment where you want to describe a place or an atmosphere, put a highlight in and an instruction to yourself to go back and fill in. Don’t let distance stop you writing about somewhere you have such a strong pull towards.

    As you know, I have written about a fictional town although it’s loosely based on Scarborough where I live. However, keeping up with the theme of places that give that feeling, I visited Tintagel in Cornwall around the time of the full solar eclipse in 2000. I got an incredibly magical feeling from the place before i knew it had connections with King Arthur. I’ve never had that feeling from anywhere else. But on the spooky side, I visited a fort on the Isle of Wight but I can’t remember the name of the place. I nipped to the toilets and got this really horrible cold, sinister feeling as I wandered the corridor alone. I’ve never felt so scared or depressed in daylight. My boyfriend felt it too and we left quite quickly afterwards. Both places would probably make fascinating settings for a book.


  5. Tintagel, yes! I felt the same. The ruins on the clifftop, that dark turquoise sea, the rocks and caves gave me a very special feeling, in a good way this time, and I wasn’t thinking about King Arthur or any of that. Funny lot aren’t we!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s