Place should be a character in your book.
I heard that quote once, and like all quotes that I hear, I have no idea who said it. But I can relate to it; place is one of the first things that I think about when I am writing; and it is sometimes a response to a particular location that will set the whole narrative ball rolling.
For me, where I live and visit has always been a big part of my life, and I always seem to be (quite embarrassingly), overawed by new cities or mountain ranges or fields or… well, anything that’s new really. But I feel this is a good way to be about new places and sights, because it means that you see something amazing in what everybody else sees as every day – which can only help in writing.
When I was a fair bit younger, I was doing some agency work in a factory and I nipped outside for a cigarette, (in the good old days when I used to smoke and not worry about my own mortality, etc), to be met by the most amazing sunset; the sun’s lazy golden and orange light was being thrown across the undersides of the ragged clouds that hung motionless in the sky. I dragged everyone off the factory floor and outside to look at this sunset, pointing the wonder of nature out to them; ‘look,’ I said arm gesturing skyward.
‘Yeah, what,’ came the response. That was when I knew that those people didn’t see the world as I did, that they would never take a sharp intake of breath at some scene nature had thrown their way.
I don’t work in that factory anymore, and I have since moved to the heart of cumbria to surround myself by mountains, so that I could be who I wanted to be, so I could write and think and be a free man: The reality is different. I now have three jobs, barely any time to complete the ever growing library of scribbled ideas that fill my note books, an upcoming wedding (hence the three jobs), and a spiralling beer-drinking habit that is too easy to continue.
But the mountains are still there. The scenery is still there. I’m still here.
And it was that passion that brought me here, that ability to be stirred by nature and the world around me. This is reflected in my stories too in the fact that places are so integral to the plots; in the novel I’m working on now the main character feels that the city he is in is slowly destroying him and he almost anthropomorphises it in his descriptions of it, as if it has a conscience:
“Outside, the city was slowly beginning to come to life. I could hear the hiss of traffic as it passed by on the road at the front of the building, and I could sense the movement of its occupants around me. It seemed to be alive. I thought of all the people, all the workers, all the shops and restaurants, all the cars and buses – all of it: It was as if the city was a great creature, a creature that always needed feeding, and I felt that it was starting to feed on me, draining me; it took my money, my energy, and now I felt like it was beginning to take away my soul.’
I’ve also often found, when looking back over my work, that a critical turning point for a character has occurred at some important or dramatic location, and I tend to give a lot of thought to their descriptions, careful to conjure up the right atmosphere. And perhaps, then, I could argue that it is my love for the landscapes that I surround myself with that has saved me from travelling too far down some roads that it would have been all too easy to travel down. Perhaps I find myself writing about these places over and over to try to reassure myself that some of the reactions and feelings that I’ve had to places – life-altering reactions at that – have had good foundations and basis. Perhaps, like my characters, some of these places have saved me.
I know that all of this sounds a little bit hippy, man. But perhaps it is; this shit’s important.
That’s all for now, I think.
- How to ground readers in a scene using killer details (onewildword.com)