The other day a friend asked me how I come up with the physical settings for my books and scenes — the locations, the houses, and so on. And as it happened I’d just been working some of that out for my newest book, which has barely begun. For me, settings are very important, even if they’re only imaginary. So I thought I’d share my process here.
In this case, I wanted to find the country house in which the heroine lived as a child. There will only be one scene set there (I think, though that might change) and that’s in the prologue (which is what I’m writing now.) But by the time I’ve finished it, there might not be many setting details left in the scene. So why research it?
The setting feeds into the heroine’s backstory, the places she loved and hated as a child—it’s part of who she is. So many of my own childhood memories are inextricably linked to the places where we lived; the tree in which I sat, meaning to read, but instead dreaming among the leaves; The pine-trees under which a friend and I built forts of piled-up fragrant dry pine-needles; the rock-pools I explored in summer, peering into tiny perfect complicated worlds; the attic window I gazed out of in Scotland, looking out over the rooftops.
I wanted to find those kinds of places for my heroine — not necessarily because I’d use them in the book, but because it would help me know more about her and what makes her tick. And particular settings rather than generic ones throw up particular and individual aspects of a character’s personality. And sometimes the spark events that help shape her as a person.
I usually start by deciding on a county, and then narrow in on the map. Often in a series, I like to site my people’s country houses not too far from each other so they can get together for Christmas etc. without too much trouble. But in this case, she won’t ever be going back to that house (probably), so her childhood home could be anywhere.
I chose Hampshire because as I was poring over a 19th century map of the counties of England (borders change over time so a historical map is necessary) I looked at Hampshire and the phrase from My Fair Lady popped into my brain — “In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire hurricanes hardly ever happen.” So I chose Hampshire. <g>
Then I did an image search for stately homes in Hampshire. And I scrolled through the various pics until one jumped out at me, and my subconscious said — that’s it. Then I explored that place and if several features jumped out at me I’d grab them for my imaginary heroine’s imaginary childhood home.
It doesn’t even have to be one house — this is not history I’m writing, but fiction set in historical times, so I’m free to assemble features from several houses.
When I was collecting images for The Perfect Kiss, for instance, this photo jumped out at me of an old stone staircase with hollows worn by generations of feet climbing it. It also had a lovely gothic feel, which suited the story, so it became a part of the story– a few lines only, but it added to the atmosphere in my mind, which was its main purpose.
The stairs also had meaning for me, because in one of the many places I lived as a child, I attended a very old school that had stone steps with dips worn in them by generations of children. They fascinated me. I was very aware of stepping into the hollows made by the feet of generations of children before me. So I used that ancient staircase in my story, but the house they were in was quite a different one — though also quite gothic.
This process, believe it or not, helps me to understand more about my character. For instance the minute I saw the image above, of a walled garden, I thought — this is where she hides out, reads her books, dreams her dreams. I hadn’t planned it — the image sparked the thought. And those feelings she has about the garden will feed in later to the part of the book that’s set in London.
There’s a turret — I love turrets. So then I wonder, maybe the house has a turret room in which she has her bedroom. Or maybe the turret is haunted. Or maybe she wants to go there but it’s in disrepair and she’s forbidden to go there, and so the question arises, will she go there? And what will be the consequence of that? And until I saw the turret on the house, none of that even occurred to me.
Even so, the images you see in this post will not be the same as the place in my story. In my story the house is a little bit shabby and run-down, the garden wilder and more tangled, the turret might be taller and quite crooked. My heroine, you see, is a little bit lonely and neglected, and she escapes into the garden and the hidden corners of the house in a way she couldn’t if everything was efficient and well run. It’s all to do with creating the atmosphere I want — I’m a big believer in “landscape as metaphor.”
So that’s a little bit about how I explore settings for my books. If you found this interesting and you’d like to read more about this process, here’s a blog I wrote a few years ago on the Word Wenches.
Anne, I found this blog absolutely fascinating. I loved the way one question led to another and another, all of them sparked just by looking at a particular house or some aspect of it. I’m working on my mother’s story, though I’m writing it as fiction so I can have dialogue and also fill in gaps where I have insufficient detail. Thankfully my grandfather was a keen photographer and I have hundreds of shots of their family home, Mum and her siblings as children, her parents, and so on and so on. I find myself down the rabbit hole quite… Read more »
I’m glad you found it interesting, Shelagh. A long time ago, when I was just starting as a serious “I want to get published” writer, I wrote a story based on a story my dad had told me when I was a kid, augmented by the feeling I got from looking at an old photo of Nana hanging out washing in the middle of nowhere. I treated my story as fiction, and filled a lot of gaps with my imagination. To my amazement, when I shared it with my dad and his two sisters, they all thought it was “the… Read more »
I enjoyed this column, Anne. I also believe in the concept offsetting as a character. You did that beautifully in The Perfect Kiss, which I just re-read last week. I remember the stone steps with dips, and the charming gargoyle, as well. Now I’m off to re-read Married in Scarlet.
Thanks so much, Binnie. Yes, I found a photo of my gargoyle on the web and it was so vivid that he immediately became almost a character in the novel.
Anne, I too love images to help fire my imagination. What do you mean by ‘landscape as metaphor’?
And I love that you reinforce that you are telling fiction set in historical times and that everything doesn’t have to exist as described as long as it’s consistent with the time period (or that’s my interpretation of what you say!)
Vicki, ‘landscape as metaphor’ is really about using landscape (or setting) as a way of enhancing the theme or mood of a scene or story, or using it as a contrast with what’s going on with the character.
And yes, your interpretation of my view of fiction in historical times is spot on. :)