Place As A Character
Think of place as a character in a story: as powerful as any protagonist and with its own ability to shape the narrative.
It doesn’t have to be exotic, or even very complex, but it should conjure a feeling of reality. A glance at my bookshelves remind me that some (probably all) of my very favourite novels have a well-developed sense of place. A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, transposes the King Lear narrative to twentieth century Iowa. The book is shaped around that particular farming landscape; the rhythms of life and the daily toil of the place soak every page.
The Characteristics of Place
Disgrace by JM Coetzee is another book set in farming landscapes; this one in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The layered story of race and gender violence plays out against the harsh countryside and climate.
Place doesn’t need to be grand or large in scale. The tenderly described domestic interiors of Tessa Hadley’s The Past or The End of the Day provide the perfect backdrop to exquisitely observed relationships in family dramas.
Place can echo the sinister beat of novels. For example, the claustrophobic room in Emma Donoghue’s novel of the same name. In Ian McEwan’s Saturday, the tall house of the neurosurgeon protagonist changes from a place of warm domesticity, to a well-furnished prison with the entry of criminal interlopers.
Subtitles Help Readers Engage
I used this kind of perspective shift from welcoming domestic interior, to something far more sinister in my latest novel, Little Friends, mirroring the arc of the plot and of some of the characters themselves. One of the three families of the story lives in a fabulous mansion in Dulwich village in London, modelled on Bell House, which I was lucky enough to visit. The vast kitchen in Little Friends overflows with sunshine, children, delicious food in various stages of preparation, drawings and all the brightly coloured detritus of an overtly happy family life.
Penetrate the house deeper as one of the characters finds herself doing, and a different place emerges. There are musty unused rooms: a rocking horse that creaks in a dark playroom, and upstairs in the empty attics, a strange clutter of objects which all add to a sense of foreboding at odds with the kitchen and the appearance of disorganised generosity that the mother of that family defines herself by. The house hides its secrets even as the characters do.
In my first book, Daughter, Jenny the grieving protagonist retreats to a little village by the sea, called Burton Bradstock. My father had bought a little cottage there very cheaply in the fifties when the Pitt-Rivers estate was sold. We used it as a holiday home, and I knew that cottage almost as a family member: the fossils built into the walls, the way the church bells sound in the garden, the local beach and tall layered cliffs. I could walk around it in my mind, describing it on the page as I did so.
In The Drowning Lesson I went back to Africa after a teenage gap year in Zimbabwe. I wanted to set a book in rural Botswana and I had the perfect excuse of a friend’s wedding in upcountry Botswana. I visited the school which my friend had attended as a child. This was far from The Delta (the Botswana tourists normally saw) but is still a place of harsh beauty: endless thorn trees and rutted roads, stunning sunsets and birds, and extraordinary kindness from people who welcomed me into their homes. All of this informed my novel and was the aspect most commented on by readers.
Place In My Writing
When I walked past George Orwell’s house on Jura in the Outer Hebrides two years ago, I knew I had found my protagonist’s holiday home in How Far We Fall. And similarly, a tower house in The Mani the Peloponnese in Greece became the place where those three families went on holiday in Little Friends where, unbeknownst to the adults, the children began to play out their dark games.
Turning my notes into novels was easy. It was though I was passing through the rooms of the houses again, or along paths and beaches where we had walked.