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.
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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.
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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.
Alex
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