During the recent Brisbane Writers Festival, I attended a workshop called Turning Where into Who: Character as Place. I found the session quite insightful and I thought you might be interested to hear what I learnt…
According to the workshop facilitator, Australian author Ashley Hay, a vividly realised location makes a dramatic difference to the power of your writing. Some stories are so steeped in their location, if feels as if they couldn’t be set anywhere else, and the location becomes a character in its own right. That is the kind of fiction I want to write. I want my locations to feel so real that my readers forget where they are and begin to see, hear and smell everything my characters do.
Contemporary authors who do this well (in my opinion) include Bryce Courtenay (with Africa and outback Australia), and Belinda Jeffrey (with the Northern Territory). The mood of their locations filters into every scene and you feel as if you’re right there in the location with the characters. When I was reading Jeffrey’s coming-of-age novel Brown Skin Blue – about a boy who works on a crocodile-jumping cruise boat on the Adelaide River – I actually dreamt of rivers and crocodiles, such was the power of the book’s setting.
But obviously, it’s a lot easier to identify authors who do this well than it is to bring your own settings alive. One piece of advice from Ashley that I found particularly useful was this: remember that you’re not trying to document a place, you’re trying to capture it. So you needn’t feel obliged to catalogue everything your characters see or hear in order to convey place, just the telling details. And if you’re using a real location, you needn’t feel compelled to adhere strictly to reality. You should feel free to imagine real places. If a fictional touch brings a real place to life, then allow yourself to go with that.
And of course, there was the piece of advice that is age-old but oh-so-true: rely on your senses. Don’t just consider how a place looks, but also how it sounds and even how it smells and feels. According to Ashley, touch is one of the most under-utilised senses in fiction, and it can be amazing for capturing place.
As I edit my novel-in-progress Tangled, I want to scrutinise how well I’ve captured my settings (Brisbane and rural Queensland) and hopefully make these locations as important to the book as my characters.
I’m interested in your views on setting – does it make a big difference to your reading experience? Would you choose whether or not to read a book based on where it was set? Do you prefer real or imaginary settings? How do you rate your own skills at capturing place? What books/authors do you think do a fantastic job in this area? Please share. 🙂