A Sense of Place by Rachel Hore
Have you, like me, ever started reading a novel and felt immediately that you are right there, in the place and period of the story? Part of a writer’s skill is to create great characters who pull you into the story, but a strong setting is also vital, to make you stay there. It helps you engage with the novel and soon you’re turning the pages, longing to know what’s going to happen to the people in it.
I write dual narratives in which a special place tends to link past and present, and it’s important to me therefore to create a setting so strong that it has an almost magical quality. In Last Letter Home the most important place, in the present and the wartime past, is the walled garden of Westbury Hall, an old Elizabethan manor house. The garden changes so much over the years. Once it was burgeoning with fruit and vegetables, herbs and flowers, grown for the people of the house. During the Second World War the herbs and flowers had to give way to food production. By the present day it’s been laid to grass, the paths that crisscross its lawns outlining the old planting beds, but it still has that special feel to it. Briony Wood, the historian who visits the manor in her quest for answers to a past mystery is drawn to the garden at once. It has a resonance about it, a deep connection to the story she subsequently unearths.
What comes first for a writer, the setting or the characters? There’s no straight answer to that – all writers are different. I’ve often been fascinated by the history of a landscape first, by the thought of what might have happened there, of old roads that might have crossed it, by the traces people of long ago might have left behind in the earth – a broken teacup, a bronze axehead, a fossilized footprint. Or to imagine how an old house might have looked and who lived there. It’s after this that the characters start to emerge out of the setting. The stranger seeking sanctuary who comes to work in the walled garden, the grief-stricken young woman who befriends him, the people who live in the big house and who manage its grounds.
The key to writing vividly about place is to dramatize it. Too much description can leave a scene dead on the page. When place is experienced through the characters’ eyes, though, reflecting their thoughts and emotions, it comes to life. A creative writing exercise I often give my students is to write about the same setting as experienced by different characters, but without mentioning the thing that’s troubling them. A man whose wife has just left him might see a bedroom they shared in a different way to a child who’s just woken from a bad dream in hers, or a student who’s been left in university accommodation for the first time. It produces some surprisingly effective writing.
The question of historical setting could take up a whole new blog post – that will have to wait for another time!
Love Rachel x