It’s All About the Setting… by Susan Elliot Wright
2013/06/10  |  By:   |  Features  |  

As a reader, I enjoy novels with a strong sense of place because I want to be able to visualise the setting, to see the characters and events against a backdrop, whether it’s a grey, concrete city full of high-rise buildings, a wild, windswept stretch of moorland, or the golden sands of a sundrenched beach. I like the setting to provide some sense of atmosphere, too, so I can really get into the ‘mood’ of the story, and if the setting can reflect some of the themes, better still!

My novel The Things We Never Said has three different settings: south-east London, where I grew up; Sheffield, where I’ve lived for the past eight years; and Hastings, a coastal resort I’ve visited many times. The decision to use these settings was partly a pragmatic one – they were places I knew, so I’d be able to describe them effectively and they’d be easy to research. But writing about places with which I was personally familiar also allowed me to reflect on how they may have affected the way my characters acted and reacted, and also how my characters might be affected by being away from the places they felt close to.

I knew when I started the novel that I wanted to write about the sea. One of the major themes in The Things We Never Said is nature v. nurture, and I felt that the sheer, unceasing force of the tides would help reflect the power of nature. For me, the sea also represents mystery; I’m fascinated by the idea that we only see the surface, and that as we watch the perpetual movement of the waves, there is a vast, unseen world beneath, a secret place that remains hidden from all except a few curious divers – secrets are a big part of the novel, too!

The weather is, I feel, very much part of setting. Like the sea, it’s useful in evoking the power of nature as well as helping to create a particular mood. What’s more, it’s great fun to write about! But it was only as I began to write that I realised just how important the weather was going to be. As I wrote about the freak hurricane that devastated Sheffield in 1962 and the incredibly harsh winter caused the sea to freeze in 1963, it became clear that these two extreme weather events had a huge part to play in the development of the plot, creating twists and turns I hadn’t anticipated.

This has made me realise that setting in a novel should never be neglected. It can be as important as the characters themselves, and can even be a character – in fact, when I think about The Things We Never Said, I see four images at the same time: Maggie, Jonathan, the hurricane, and the vicious winter.

Setting is important to the plot in the novel I’m currently working on, too. Part of the story is again set on the South coast, only this time I’m writing about stifling, searing, suffocating heat. Which makes a change!