In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Jessica Bell, a thirty-something Australian-native contemporary fiction author, poet and singer/songwriter/ guitarist. Jessica is the Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal and the director of the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek island of Ithaca. She makes a living as a writer/editor for English Language Teaching Publishers worldwide, such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, MacMillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning.
Which came first, story or location?
Neither. My characters always start off a story. But if I had to choose, I would say location comes before story as I think the location of the story would have a lot of impact on how it’s told.
What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I try to incorporate as many of the senses as possible. Utilizing the six senses (see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and instinct) can really bring your writing to life. To do this successfully, you need to “show, not tell.” Otherwise, these senses will not really be senses. The reader won’t actually experience them, they will only “read about” them. And the whole point of reading a great book is to feel like you aren’t actually reading. Right? Right. Using the six senses in an effective way will accomplish this.
The key to using sense in your writing, however, is to limit your use of the words, see, feel, hear, smell and taste. That’s not to say you shouldn’t ever use these words, but just be aware you don’t overuse them.
The most ideal way to incorporate senses is to employ language in which sense is already a part of. For example, instead of saying the kitchen smelled sweet with melted chocolate, show the reader what’s cooking, and consequently that taste and scent will be present in the narrative without you having to point it out.
Using the six senses well is also not only about having your characters sense things, it’s about making your readers sense things—even elements that your characters aren’t feeling, i.e., if the reader knows more than your character(s) do, or if you’re showing something that you might react to differently than the characters in the book.
If you’d like more of my advice on writing craft, take a gander at Writing in a Nutshell.
Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?
Sure! This excerpt is from String Bridge:
The island’s windy mountainous roads are framed with olive groves and air so crisp you could snap it like celery. The houses are stained with whitewash and embedded with old-style wooden shutters, tailored by the locals to keep the summer swelter out. They are painted blue, red, or green, but occasionally you may come across the odd pink or orange shutters, which are more often than not inhabited by the eccentric barmy type who are colour-blind, or the young and loaded foreigner who believes an island revolution should be in order.
Goats meander about the streets, butting each other’s heads senselessly as they try to escape oncoming cars and motorcycles. The roosters, chickens, and geese fire up the locals at the first sign of sunrise. Birds chirp, cicadas “jijiga” in the olive trees, and dogs bark as the bread truck, a red beat-up Ute, delivers fresh hot loaves to each residence, and slips the required amount of bread into handmade cloth bags hanging from wire fencing.
Summer on this island engraves your skin with a longing to spend sunrise to sunset lying on a small, empty, white-pebbled beach in a secluded cove at the end of a private dirt track. At midday, it gets so hot you need to wade through the heat waves rising from the uneven tarred road like kindred spirits before you can wade in the Ionian Sea to cool off—a flat, motionless oil bath which glows with an infinite turquoise glint. It may seem you are stepping into velvet, however, you emerge covered in a thin salty crust you can brush off like sand when it dries.
How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
For the above example, I knew the setting extremely well as I have spent at least a quarter of my life on this Greek island. However, I don’t think you necessarily need to know a place to write about it well. For example, if you want to write about a Greek beach, just think of another beach you’ve been to, imagine it smaller, imagine pebbles instead of sand, how would that setting change affect your senses? Just use knowledge gleaned from other places you’ve been to and be smart about incorporating the differences. You’d be surprised what you can find on the Internet to help you.
Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
Definitely Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, and Marilynne Robinson.
Sign up to Jessica’s newsletter and receive Book #1 of the Writing in a Nutshell Series, Show & Tell in a Nutshell, or Muted: A Short Story in Verse, for free.
Connect with Jessica online:
Website | Retreat & workshop | Blog | Vine Leaves Literary Journal | Facebook | Twitter
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Next month’s Location, Locution: Scottish-born/Canadian-raised Catriona Troth, whose books Gift of the Raven and Ghost Town encompass 1970s Canada through the eyes of a young boy, and Britain’s 1980s race riots respectively. .
JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.
STAY TUNED for our next post!
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- LOCATION, LOCUTION: JJ Marsh looks back on a year with TDN
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Charlotte Otter – South African expat and crime writer living in Germany
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: James Ferron Anderson, weaver, glassblower, soldier – and award-winning novelist
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Andrea Cheng, award-winning children’s author
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Amanda Hodgkinson, author of “22 Britannia Road” and “Spilt Milk”
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Chris Pavone, author of “The Expats”, on why story and location are inseparable
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Jeet Thayil on bringing location to life in a semi-dream state
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Janet Skeslien Charles, bringing Odessa to life through writing
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Paulo Coelho, on the monuments that immortalize cities
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Liza Perrat on writing a location to life
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Award-winning author Steven Conte, bringing location to life through writing
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Booker Prize-nominated author AD Miller, on bringing a location to life through writing
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Expat author JJ Marsh on bringing a location to life through writing
I’ve been meaning to pick up a copy of String Bridge… and now I have! I love the Greek Islands and have journals filled with stories of our sailing adventures there. Maybe some day I’ll turn them into a novel. You always have great writing advice. I’ve had a copy of Writing in a Nutshell for a while now and often refer to it in my workshops and retreats. Hope all’s well with you!
Always enjoy reading how other writers write and of course being an expat makes it all the more significant .