Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Going places

Picture by Paul Stevenson, @goldylookfleece
I’m doing my best to apply the lessons I learnt while writing No Stranger to Death to creating its sequel. This includes recognition of my shortcomings and finding ways around them, rather than railing against an inability to carry out tasks I’m certain other people could accomplish standing on their heads (which is itself a skill I never mastered).

Take descriptions, especially of buildings and places. I am, apparently, one of a rare breed: under-writers. My first draft of anything is pretty sparse and editing usually means adding words rather than taking them away. I lost marks for this in my most recent OU course, with my tutor telling me that although I ‘write well’, my sentences and paragraphs are far too short for the academic world. 

While a propensity for brevity isn’t necessarily a bad thing if your main aim is to tell a first-rate story, it does stand in the way of conjuring up the magic ingredient which writers these days are encouraged to strive for: a sense of place.

I didn’t choose to set my books in the Scottish Borders simply because it’s ‘what I know’, but more because it’s what my main character doesn’t know. As an incomer to rural Scotland from an English city, Zoe isn’t just challenged by unfamiliar people and disturbing events but by these alien surroundings. She comes across sights, sounds and smells she’s never experienced before, and yet – alright, I admit it, like me – she finds unexpected pleasure in many of them and gradually starts to feel at home. This is all part of her ‘journey’, her personal development.

So, how to convey what the Borders is like? I’ll leave it to VisitScotland to inform the world about our castles, abbeys, stately homes and museums, and Zoe is unlikely to take up golf any time soon. This is where a notebook, latterly a smartphone, comes in handy. Sometimes driving, more often walking the dogs, I record the small things I encounter. The blue flash of a kingfisher, the sound of a chainsaw in the distance (would a true ‘townie’ know what it was?), the smell of woodsmoke. Stuff that makes me smile, like watching a border collie (what else?) herd sheep up a narrow road, and that makes me sad, like a young deer dead on the verge.

Rather than try to invent buildings, I use elements of existing ones. The picture below is  of a large house I’ve visited a few times in the past. Its frontage, galleried hall and huge coloured-glass skylight are combined in Book 1 with the kitchen and a dressing-room from another house I worked at for a time. 
An ideal setting for unpleasant goings-on?
For more general views of the area, I know I can turn to Twitter friends who are keen photographers. Paul Stevenson, who goes by the Twitter name of @goldylookfleece, kindly emailed me the gorgeous picture at the top of this post (and agreed to it appearing here) when I asked him if he had any landscapes with poppies.

When I need to write a detailed description of a particular setting, I go in search of one or maybe several which can be combined. Book 2 opens with the discovery of a body which has been pulled out of the River Tweed after being thrown off a nearby bridge. I was pretty certain the Union Chain Bridge, which links England and Scotland a few miles from Berwick-upon-Tweed, would be suitable.

The Tweed: England on one side, Scotland on the other

The Union Chain Bridge
I found lots of photographs online of this bridge, as it’s famous for being the oldest suspension bridge still carrying road traffic. However, my recent visit told me so much more than a Wikipedia entry and Flickr images could. For example, the Union Chain Bridge:
  • undulates when a car goes over it, which feels like you’re standing on a boat
  • creaks and groans, and if there’s a breeze the vertical struts rattle
  • is partly covered in green paint that’s flaking off in large patches
Not pretty but ideal for my purpose
These observations have enabled me to describe not just the bridge itself but Zoe’s experience of it. And – an unexpected bonus – that flaking paint has become a clue for the police when deducing how the body ended up in the Tweed

Perhaps when I’m published I won’t have time to research locations away from my desk. But until then I shall continue to seek them out, take photographs and note other details such as sounds and smells, to enrich my writing.

Do you feel the need to base your locations on real places, or is it just me?


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