Saturday, December 26, 2009

Location, Location

By Erastes (Guest Author)

Thank you, Lisabet for giving me a space to blog today. I hope you all had a good day yesterday, whatever you celebrate or believe and my best wishes for 2010!

I'd like to talk about locations today, and why, to me, they are every bit as important in my books as the characters. Ruth Sims once said, about my first novel, "Standish":

One of the characters in Standish does nothing--doesn't move, doesn't speak, doesn't think. And yet this character controls emotions and actions and passions just by existing. It is a house called Standish. Like the Rochester mansion in "Jane Eyre" or the cliffs in "Wuthering Heights" Standish is a place so important to the story that it almost takes on life.
I'm very happy that Ruth saw this in the book, because really, the book was just as much about the house as it was a love story between two men.

Standish as depicted on the cover of the book is an actual place -- a ruin as you can see, by the tree growing on the roof! It burned down in the 1930's -- but still an imposing and beautiful house. Witley Court in Worcestershire is no more than a shell, but the fa├žade was so gorgeous that I fell in love with it and wanted it to be "Standish."

Unless I can find a place that I can really associate with, I find it difficult to write. The novel I've just finished, Mere Mortals, a Victorian Gothic set on the Norfolk Broads, is actually set in a fictional location--an island that does not exist called "Bittern's Reach"--but the Broad that the island is located in does exist, and that's Horsey Mere. I was originally going to set the story on Dartmoor, but I felt that Dartmoor had been done to death with mystery stories and if I wanted a mysterious and isolated location, one where it was going to be difficult for my poor protagonists to leave, I couldn't do better than using the landscape of the Norfolk Broads, which is on my doorstep--and much easier to research!

The house on the island, while important, doesn't hold the same iconic status as Standish - it's based on this house--Oxburgh Hall. But I needed something imposing with priests holes, and something inaccessible. Oxburgh Hall is entirely moated, so it was easy to bung it on an island and make it impossible for my protagonists to escape from.


I know that many writing pundits say that one shouldn't start a book with description, or weather, but I disagree. It's often the location, or the weather that creates a built-in conflict in my books. In Standish it was the fact of the house's existence that created the core conflict, Rafe owned it, and Ambrose coveted it because his family used to own it and felt wronged. In Frost Fair, it's the weather--the mini-ice age of 1814--that pits itself against the protagonists. Without the weather I don't think the book would have worked as well, it made things vastly uncomfortable for Gideon, as he struggled to keep his business afloat, and yet it also created a great business opportunity when the Frost Fair started on the frozen Thames and hundreds of stalls were opened up on the ice.

I just can't see the story having as much conflict if it had been a summer's tale.

Finally, there's no easier conflict than setting your story in a war. I'd always wanted to do a book about the English Civil War, as there are woefully few novels set in this period, and only one other gay novel that I know of, As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McAnn. I chose the setting for the beginning of Transgressions to be the village where the first major battle of the war was held. The village: Kineton. The battle. Edgehill.

What I found fascinating was that contemporary reports of the day tell of the local people coming from miles around to watch the battle, and this is at the same time unbelievable, and yet totally understandable. These were people who had not known of a conflict on English soil for hundreds of years. The battle took a good while to stage--the armies had to be marched into position, passing through towns and villages before choosing a location to fight--and so like a circus passing through town--it created a lot of interest. Everyone would have known about it and human nature being what it is it was natural there would be curiosity. Families made a day trip of it, packing picnics and spending the day on the view points around the valley. I doubt very much they knew what they were about to see. I can only imagine how horrific the sight of men and horses being blown apart by cannon could be, and I tried to instil this into the chapter where David and Jonathan sneak off after church on 23rd October 1642 and watch the bloody scene.

I visited both Edgehill and Kineton while researching for Transgressions and found both places almost untouched by time. There's an ugly and unprepossessing monument at the battle site but other than that, when you look down onto the river plain, it's hard to believe that anything happened here.

And that's what I love about historical fiction, is that you can touch these places and bring their hidden pasts, back to life. So many things have been lost and forgotten. When I visited Mistley to research the Witchfinder section of Transgressions, I visited The Thorn, the pub where the infamous Matthew Hopkins, self proclaimed Witchfinder General, had his base of operations and was desperately disappointed.

Any mention of Mistley's infamous resident has been expunged from The Thorn, and now it's just another gastro-pub/restaurant. Diners who sit down to their char-grilled rosemary brochette of chicken liver & smoked streaky bacon on homemade sourdough toast have no idea of the murky history of the area.

Which is a shame, I think!

What am I working on now? Another book where location is part of the story. It's a novella set in Lombardy, northern Italy, in the latter years of the peace between the two world wars. Set high up in the idyllic Italian hills is a remote and glamorous hotel--filled with ex-pat English, the retired colonels, the ladies with their companions. And it's here where my protagonist, Guy, finds himself after drifting across Europe, still mourning the loss of his lover in England several years before. And it's here, in the rarified air and the beautiful peace, that he meets a scientist and his "assistant" - the beautiful Louis - and all three lives are changed forever.

So that's me--hope you enjoyed a mini-tour through my mind and why I have to feel "grounded" with a sense of place, just as much as I must know who my protagonists are.

What's your favourite location for a novel? Does place matter to you?


Jennifer Mathis said...

the pic are just beautiful. thanks for the tour

Erastes said...

You are welcome and thanks, Jennifer - I'm glad you liked 'em! Happy Holidays!

Judy said...

I really enjoyed your post. I enjoy knowing where the setting of the novel is. While I am reading I imagine what the author has said in the book. I think it would be very interesting looking for the pictures to set up your setting!!

Estella said...

Nice post!

Erastes said...

thank you so much Judy and estella!

Stacey Smith said...

location and Weather is important and smells and sounds should be add to.that way the people that read the book fill like their there two whit the character's.

She said...

Setting is important. I want to know about the place where a story is set. It sets the tone of a story. Where a novel is set helps me picture the place or the time period of the novel. It also helps me to picture what the characters are wearing, what they eat, how they act. Let's face it a story set in 1861 London, England is going to have a different tone, clothing, food, manners than a story set in 1861 Lawrence, Kansas. Different things are happening in both places and the manners and mores are different. It is a disservice to the readers not to spend time describing the time period and the place of the story. Plus I want to picture what the author is seeing as he/she writes. Authors paint a picture with words of a time or place I may know nothing about or cannot see on the internet. I say describe the setting so I can see what you see.

Sherry said...

I love the pictures and I thought your post was very interesting.

Erastes said...

Thanks Stacey: I totally agree. I've told that I write quite cinematically, and it's not deliberate--it's just that I like to explain things with more than just sight or feelings. If a character takes hold of a freezing iron railing (for example), I like to describe how that feels, it just helps me get more into the moment, as it were.

Thanks for commenting!

Erastes said...

Thank you, She - yes - that's a good point, and one of the reasons I have put off writing Fleury's further adventures in America because 1820's America was a hugely different and varied place compared with England! *dreads*

Happy new year to you!

Erastes said...

Thank you, Sherry!

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