Today, I have the absolute pleasure of hosting Michela O’Brien on my blog. Talking about Creating a Sense of Placement in novels, she offers some sound advice. But first, I have to say, Michela is one of my favourite new authors – published with Crooked Cat, she has two books on offer Playing on Cotton Clouds and A Summer of Love (the latter set in our mutally beloved Cornwall). Described as contemporary romances, I would say they’re so much more, delving into relationships of all kinds and often over several generations. I’ve also had the pleasure of beta-reading some of Michela’s future works and suffice to say, readers are in for a treat. If you haven’t discovered her yet, links to books etc are below – treat yourself – after all, Christmas is coming!
Michela – take it away…
A page-turning plot and well drafted developed characters are obvious elements to a successful book, but there is another which can contribute to the magic of a novel, and that’s the setting.
A well constructed setting can become a character in itself, breathing life into the book and playing an important supporting role to the protagonists, and it’s essential to make it come off the page.
A world can be imagined and totally created, familiar or exotic, but whatever we choose we need to make it convincing enough not only for the characters, but so that the readers can inhabit it too.
In my books, Playing on Cotton Clouds and A Summer of Love, I have used all three types of location: places I made up, places I know well and places I have only imagined to visit.
Where I made up places, I used fragments of familiar locations to create an unidentified imaginary town or village. In Playing on Cotton Clouds, the anonymous ordinary provincial town (in this case located somewhere in the Midlands) becomes the constraint for the young characters’ dreams, as they plan their lives ahead looking for an escape. Making the town an amalgam of familiar places, gives these feelings universality in which readers can identify with their own experiences. On the other hand, the made up Cornish village in A Summer of Love is designed as a magical background to the love story and to serve as a contrast to the alienation of life in London, in a reversal of roles, where it’s the small town that becomes the escape in which the characters can fulfil their dreams. In both cases, the real locations behind the imaginary settings helped creating a true sense of placement that readers can still recognise.
When using real settings, familiarity or research is the key to avoid the tweet from the picky reader telling you that you put a famous landmark in the wrong square or that the lovely building you have just described is not there any more – though you can always invoke narrative licence when placing a fabulous old candy shop in a street that doesn’t have any.
Both my novels describe real places at specific times (the 80s and 90s all the way to today) and often I was able to draw from my personal memories of places I visited along the years, being London, Tuscany or Cornwall.
But other times, I set the action in cities I would love to visit, but haven’t had the chance to see (yet!). Authors in the past have managed to build on what they had learned from books or a photo with their own imagination, at times with striking results. These days, with the internet, writers have the world at their finger tips and can easily explore exotic places without leaving their keyboard, even travel back in time to find out what a place looked like in a different era.
For contemporary descriptions, one tool I find especially useful is Street View – ©Google.
I described a whole scene taking place in Central Park, New York – a city I’ve never been to – after I had taken a stroll in and around the park on Street View. In a similar way, I “walked” around Amsterdam before I described it in Playing on Cotton Clouds. Of course settings are not simply made up by images. Synesthetic descriptions of smells, sounds and atmosphere are equally important and if you can’t draw from personal experience, you can certainly fill in the gaps with indirect knowledge and, yes, your imagination.
Whether imagined, purposefully designed, drawn from memory or researched, settings should be made to be more than just a stage on which the characters perform; spend some time to create and describe the location you’re going to use and make it a living part of the story to give it more depth and extra dimension, and fully immerse the reader in the book.
And here’s the links to the books, Michela’s Facebook page and blog.