Looking back at my writing over the years, I have noticed that the settings of most of my stories are based on a variety of sources: imagination, memory, research or a combination of those. However, I have seldom set a story where I’m living at the time. For example, I’ve written some stories set in Japan, but I wrote none of them when I was actually there.
I do think that this has some subtle but interesting effects on the stories because setting does tie into everything else in the narrative, often not in a glaringly obvious way, but it does seep into many different aspects of the characters and their lives.
However, what I’ve also realised is that the setting, or rather the means by which I have learnt about the setting, does have a significant impact on the way I view places and consequently how I write about them.
Settings which are largely based on my memories seem to be dramatically coloured by the experiences I had there and my associated feelings. Some locations from my childhood represent positive experiences, others unpleasant ones. Beaches are nearly always sunny places in my stories; the sea is beautiful and represents hope, excitement and the promise of amazing places lying beyond the distant horizon.
Rivers, however, get a hard time in my stories. I think this largely comes from growing up near the Hutt River. While I enjoyed mucking around in it as a child, I largely remember it as an ugly, changeable place. I remember being eaten alive by sandflies there. My image of the river is one of uninviting, dirty, greenish water and the treacherous slime on the rocks underneath. I remember hearing that people had drowned in the river and the horrible experience of nearly getting pulled down by an undercurrent during a school ‘river ramble’ swim. I had many enjoyable experiences around there as well but still my mind strongly associates rivers with a foreboding menace and danger. Without having been aware of it at the time, I can now look back over the stories that I’ve written that feature drowning, and all three of them have people drowning in a river, never in the sea.
Obviously, this is a rather blatant example, but I think that settings that are based on remembered places are largely influenced by our associated memories and attitudes. I find that the same is true of fictional settings in my stories. However imaginary the setting, it often features fragments of real places, distorted or embellished to fit the tale.
I find that researching a setting has a slightly different effect on my writing. I haven’t written a great deal of historical fiction, but when I do, I tend to find that odd specifics of the setting impact hugely on my writing. I enjoy reading material on the era but I tend to have a sloppy approach to researching the period. Rather than have a clear story worked out and then trying to find out the relevant details, I just read whatever information about the period I can get my hands on. The result of this approach is that I tend to come across various details about the period that I personally find interesting which my mind locks hold of and then obsessively attempts to work into the narrative.
I feel like I ought to be meticulously researching the obvious aspects of life at the time so that I can be historically accurate about the characters’ clothes and so forth, but instead I get side-tracked into reading about the costs, smells, quality of light and unpleasantness of different types of candles. I get fascinated with the notion that such a small necessity of life could have an enormous impact on your everyday existence. It’s another distinction between lives of the wealthy and poor – poorer quality candles meant smoky, stinky rooms every evening, it was harder to read or do any activities. Even a seemingly small difference in the income between two middle class families could represent a huge difference in the quantity and quality of candles they would be able to afford for the household. All of a sudden Mrs Elton’s remark to Jane Fairfax that a prospective employer had wax candles has more weight. She isn’t just emphasising their wealth out of snobbishness, she’s advising Jane that as a governess she will have a considerably more pleasant life if she works for a wealthy family.
To me it is a compelling image to illustrate the disparity in living conditions that can occur from a sum of money that a wealthy person would consider insignificant. A candle not only provides literal light required for many activities in the evening, it represents a spark of Promethean fire. It’s a symbol for illumination and elucidation. Wealth determining whether or not you have access to decent lighting in the evening is a small but significant aspect of daily life. The candle becomes a metonym for educational opportunities. Mass literacy may have started to spread, but it did not represent equal potential to learn when time to read, access to books and even the light to read by were not available to all who could read.
It is difficult to work a lengthy discussion of candles into most stories. I find what tends to happen is that research doesn’t so much inform the setting of the stories - it ends up shaping or inspiring the entire story I want to write.
When I write a story in a place I used to live or in a place I’m inventing, it’s shaped by my own experiences. Obviously, an immense and enjoyable part of the writing process is venturing out beyond your own experiences, but the setting is an element for me that has built up from fragments of knowledge and images, all arranged to fit the story. Other times, in the case of historical fiction, the story has emerged out of interesting information I have come across and found fascinating enough to base a story around.
What I haven’t done is write story set in a place where I’m living at time. A setting that I would not imagine or research but go out and directly observe every day.
That’s the new challenge I’ve set for myself. I’m starting a novel set in Kapiti. I shall wander my own neighbourhood with the eager eyes of a researching writer. It will be an interesting exercise. Hopefully it will result in an interesting novel as well as developing my own skills. It’s an exciting but daunting prospect (which is what I think every novel should feel like at the beginning).
I fear that I am not an observant creature by nature or rather I have selective observation skills. I tend to notice even the subtlest changes in some things but seem to be unaware of other things even if they are jumping up and down in a bright red leotard, waving their arms in the arm and screaming, ‘Yoo-hoo! I’m over here!’
Any tips for how to become more observant or advice on how to ‘research’ your own surroundings without looking like a creepy prowler stalking the neighbourhood would be greatly appreciated.