I have a problem. Actually I have many problems, but let’s keep the focus small, shall we? This particular problem is that I lack imagination. I struggle to write about places that I’ve never been.
I want to write a novel set in Brittany. I love its history, its myths and legends (which I don’t know enough about) and its position on the fringes. There’s just one problem: I’ve never been there.
I’m willing to bet that most novels are set either in a place that the writer knows well or a fantasy representation thereof. I hold as Exhibit A the writings of JRR Tolkien: what is the Shire but the idealised Black Country of his childhood? What is Mordor but the industrial ruin he saw it becoming? Donna Leon writes about Venice in a way that only a lover can.
Thus The Ballad of Lady Grace was set in an (unnamed) Norwich, where I was living at the time. Chivalry was set in Bradford, where I grew up. Oneiromancer was ostensibly set in London, but really it’s every inner city I’ve ever known, seen on television or read about. Only Night Shift was set in a place I’d never been – Antarctica – and even there the ‘location’ was the cold, not the landscape. I’ve been cold many times.
Maybe fantasy or sci-fi are easier because we can take our favourite elements, our favourite geographies, and build a world from the pieces. But I want to write about a real place, or at least a place based on a real land. I want it to taste right.
You might be saying ‘well, can’t Google give you location? Can’t Street View give you everything you need?’ And the internet is a wonderful, transformative tool. But location is a lot more than just geography and architecture. It’s about the way the air tastes. It’s the way the mist lingers in the valleys, and the way the sun finally burns it away. It’s the humidity, and the birdsong, and the berries in the hedgerow. It’s whether dogshit is picked up or left to rot in the long grass. It’s the buzz of insects, the looks of the villagers; it’s holloways or causeways. It’s claustrophobia or agoraphobia or hydrophobia or sunstroke.
It’s also how it changes in different conditions, in different seasons, in different streets.
This is why I’m considering moving my Brittanic adventures to Devon, where I can smell the tall hedges and the narrow lanes and feel the waves crashing against undercut stacks. Except that I’m sick of the southern-British bias in writing. I’m a northerner at heart; why not write about the Pennine hills?
Because Plot. Because I’ve been shaping story around the politics of (real and imagined) Brittany. Crowbarring it into Devon might work, but a Yorkshire secessionist league – whilst obviously something for us all to dream of – is currently stretching suspension of disbelief a little far.
There is another possibility, and that’s that I’m subconsciously using all this uncertainty to allow me to delay the actual writing of the damn novel. Really what I need to do is get the hell on with it; make my decision and stick with it.
But location is more than a backdrop. It’s a character, an ever-present – an ever-presence, even. A change in location can mark a change in mood, in intensity. Location matters. Give it the respect it deserves and the whole novel will be the better for it.