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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Canadian author Dianne Ascroft lives, eats, breathes—and writes—Ireland, past and present


Tracey Warr is here with Dianne Ascroft, a Canadian writer who left the hustle-bustle of Toronto for Northern Ireland, a place she found so compelling that she ultimately settled in the countryside and has specialized in writing books set in that part of the world.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers. I hope your summer is off to a productive start. To give you that extra inspiration, I hope you’ll enjoy my interview with this month’s writer, Dianne Ascroft.

Dianne grew up an urban Canadian, in Toronto. But those roots would hardly be apparent if you met her now. In the 1990s she moved across the water to Northern Ireland, where she still finds herself a quarter-of-a-century later.

Dianne started out in Belfast, where she moved for work. Then, after living in Troon, a town on the west coast of Scotland, for a spell, she returned to Northern Ireland and settled into rural life in County Fermanagh, with her husband and their assortment of strong-willed animals.

Dianne says that this gradual downsizing of her surroundings reflects her pursuit of a writing career. Since moving to Britain, she worked in various offices and shops; but her head was always in books and she harbored a passion for writing. She is an avid reader and started writing her spare time more than a decade ago. Now that she is living in the countryside, she can concentrate on writing fulltime.

“When I’m not writing,” she says on her author site, “I enjoy walks in the country, evenings in front of our open fireplace and folk and traditional music.” She also plays the Scottish bagpipes though has given this hobby up since moving to the farm, which she says is “just as well as it’s rather disconcerting to turn around when you are practicing in a field and find that you have a herd of cows for an audience.”

Dianne mostly writes fiction, both historical and contemporary, often with an Irish connection. “I love where I live and I am fascinated by it,” she says. Her current project is The Yankee Years, a collection of short reads and novels set in World War II Northern Ireland. “After the Allied troops arrived in this outlying part of Great Britain, life here would never be the same again,” Dianne says. “The series strives to bring those heady, fleeting years to life again, in thrilling and romantic tales of the era.”

Her other fictional writings include:

  • An Unbidden Visitor, a ghost tale inspired by the famous Northern Irish legend of the Coonian ghost. (Dianne lives a couple of miles from the house that sparked the legend.)
  • Dancing Shadows, Tramping Hooves, a collection of six short stories about farm life in Northern Ireland.
  • Hitler and Mars Bars, an historical novel about a German boy growing up alone in postwar Ireland.

Dianne occasionally writes non-fiction for Canadian and Irish newspapers. In 2013 she released two e-book collections of her articles: Fermanagh Gems and Irish Sanctuaries.

* * *

Welcome, Dianne, to Location, Locution. Which comes first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?

The two are very closely related in my writing so it’s rather hard to say. I tell stories that are sparked by interesting items that have caught my attention. Since I write historical fiction mainly, sometimes that’s something I read in an old newspaper or a history text, or maybe something I’ve noticed in the landscape around me. But, no matter what the original inspiration was, my stories will always be inherently part of the place where they are set. They can’t be separated from their location. The Yankee Years, my Second World War series, is set in County Fermanagh where I’ve lived for more than a decade now. The war was a pivotal point in Northern Ireland’s history; and the influx of Allied troops had a major impact on the economy and culture of County Fermanagh. Army camps and Air Force flying-boat bases sprang up, and the population of the county grew until approximately a quarter of the entire population consisted of military personnel. Fermanagh must have been so different from the quiet rural area that I know today, and imagining this recent past really intrigued me. The events during the war and their impact on the county grabbed my imagination—and that’s how the series was born.

How is it possible to conjure up the past now that the Yankees have gone home, so to speak?

Despite the impact the war had on Fermanagh, there was an interesting dichotomy in the county. The old way of life was disrupted and challenged by the incomers from unfamiliar cultures; but, at the same time, fundamental aspects of rural life didn’t change so I can easily imagine what farm life was like at that time as small farms are still very much the same today. The continuity of this way of life through the generations is another feature of the province that fascinates me and it is a great bonus for an historical fiction writer. It makes imagining the past much easier to do.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

I have to admit that I like lots of detail. I want to paint a picture of the place so that readers feel like they are there. But, I try not to be too wordy, and I follow the guideline that, if readers are likely to be familiar with a place or historical detail, then I don’t need to describe it in great depth. But, if I’m describing a place or item that won’t be familiar to most readers, then I try to show exactly what it was like. By evoking sounds and smells, as well as visual details, I hope to bring it to life in readers’ minds. I think it’s important to draw readers’ attention to details that they may not be familiar with and to use all the senses so they can fully experience it.

But is there any particular feature that creates a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

I’d say that all three are important but, for the stories I tell, the landscape and culture are central. The way of life in this rather remote, rural part of Northern Ireland has evolved from the work of the people inhabiting it: making a living from the land or water, farming or fishing. People lived their lives close to the natural world and, therefore, the landscape and culture were intertwined. The people who lived here a couple of generations ago, in the days before mechanised farming, were proud and capable yet they also needed the co-operation and support of their community. My plots are often built around elements of this simple, hardy way of life.

In the case of Northern Ireland, you also have the clash of religions. Do you weave this thread into your stories as well?

When I first arrived, I hesitated to tackle writing about Northern Ireland because of the history of sectarian conflict between Protestants and Catholics that has divided the country into two communities for centuries. This history makes Ireland very different from the society I grew up in, but I think it has to be woven into any writing about this part of the world as it is a unique characteristic of the country. It can be difficult to capture the nuances of life in this complex society where the tensions between the communities stretch back generations and still influence many aspects of modern day life. But, since I wanted to write stories about the Second World War era in Ulster Province, I decided I would have to tackle the issue. I think that viewing the society as an outsider gives me unique insights into it which I can use to convincingly convey the place and the people to my readers.

Can you give a brief example of your latest work that illustrates place?

Here is the beginning of Scene 2 in Keeping Her Pledge, the third story in The Yankee Years Books 1-3:

“Standing at the upstairs hall window in the early evening, her wet hair resting on the towel she had thrown across her shoulders, Pearl looked across the single field that separated the farmhouse from Lough Erne. She watched as a large lumbering Sunderland seaplane sliced through the water, gathering speed until it launched itself into the air. As it lifted off, a torrent of water sprayed out from it and she heard the roar of its engines.

Chuck had said that he wasn’t supposed to tell her but he was on an anti-submarine patrol today. He would have left the base at RAF Castle Archdale, on the opposite side of the lough, soon after first light this morning. There were patrols around the clock, and planes were taking off and landing day and night. She often heard the roars of their engines as she lay in bed, before she fell asleep and as she awoke. Sometimes she would stand at her bedroom window and gaze out at the row of navigation lights that guided the planes in to land, strung out like lanterns on a rope across the field and into the lough.

“I thought you’d be getting ready.” Davy walked up behind her.

“In a wee minute. Isn’t it a lovely night? I was just watching the planes.”

“Looking for your sweetheart, are you?”

“Don’t be daft. And he’s not my sweetheart.” Pearl smiled to herself. Although she had only recently met Chuck, neither of them was seeing anyone else. They were as good as walking out together. No doubt, she would soon be able to tell the world that he was her sweetheart.

“Well, if you’re standing here daydreaming, I’ll wash and shave. Race you to the mirror.”

Davy walked down the hall to the bedroom he shared with their two younger brothers, Charlie and Ian. Pearl hugged herself and sighed as she turned back to the window. The flying boats looked so graceful gliding through the sky, not at all cumbersome as they were in the water. Chuck had told her about the view up there. He said everything on the ground below looked tiny. It was like looking at a miniature picture with new images constantly spinning past inside the frame. She would love to see her house and Lough Erne from the sky. It was such a perfect evening. Chuck just had to return in time to meet her at the dance. She squeezed her eyes shut and wished.

Half an hour later Pearl stood in front of the large walnut mirror in the downstairs hallway. As she ran the brush through her hair, teasing and shaking the tangles out of it, she heard the drone of an aircraft approaching. With RAF Castle Archdale so close, she had become accustomed to the hum of the steady stream of aircraft flying overhead.

She twisted the brush sharply and tugged at a knot as Davy sidled up beside her. Without pausing, she stepped sideways to share the mirror. From this angle, she saw the landscape outside reflected in the glass: peaceful rolling hills divided by rough stone walls and thick hedges. A dark shadow moving rapidly in the top corner of the glass drew her attention. She turned away from the mirror to look through the small window in the front door. The flying boat she had heard was approaching the lough much closer to the ground than they usually flew at this distance from the water.

Davy followed her gaze. When he spotted the aircraft he ran to the door. “That plane won’t make the lough,” he shouted as he jerked the door open and rushed outside.

Pearl followed him. As she stepped outside the door, she heard a high-pitched whine before the seaplane’s engines cut out. The aircraft plunged steeply towards the ground and crashed in the field beside the water. Flames shot up from the wreckage and crackled like a huge bonfire. Davy, her father and two neighbours who had called in for a chat, Tommy Boyd and Dick Morton, were already running toward the aircraft.

Pearl hurried across their farmyard and crossed the road but stopped at the gate to the field. The smoke billowing from the plane nearly choked her. Her stomach clenched as she gawked at the debris strewn across the charred grass and she had to grip the top rail of the gate to keep her knees from buckling. Something gleamed dully under the hedge beside where the aircraft lay. She squinted through the smoke at the seaplane’s massive engine lying there intact and focused on its unsullied bulk, unwilling to look at the carnage surrounding it.”

Thank you for sharing that passage. How well do you feel you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

Because my stories are set in a region that features in few books, fiction or non-fiction, and one which many readers will not be familiar with but I want them to understand, I feel compelled to create for them an almost three-dimensional mental image of it. My first novel, Hitler and Mars Bars, takes place in several locations in the Republic of Ireland as well as the Ruhr region of Germany. During my research for the book, I visited each of the locations in Ireland to see exactly where the story would unfold. I noted minute details about each place so that I could use the relevant ones in the novel. I wasn’t able to travel to Germany but I did study detailed maps and historic photographs of the area where that portion of the story is set so I could imagine it fully as I wrote. The Yankee Years, the series I’m currently working on, is set in various locations in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. As for my first novel, I visited each location I had chosen for these stories in order to get a feel for the place. I wanted to be able to see the place in my mind as I wrote. I then also referred to historical photographs of the area to see what it was like during the Second World War when my stories are set. Before I started writing, I compiled detailed information about the physical and man-made landmarks in the region, the distances between various places, the sights, sounds and smells in the region and I drew on all of this information to create real places for the reader to step into.

Last but not least, which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

There are two in particular that immediately spring to my mind, and I have to admit that I admire these writers for many aspects of their writing styles, not only their use of location. What I like best is that they both use lots of detail—to describe characters, settings and the action unfolding in the story. Diana Gabaldon and Manda (M.C.) Scott are the writers I’m referring to. Although I admire both of them, Manda Scott has the edge. There is just something wonderful about her novels. Her ability to breathe life into characters, unveil complex stories and create vivid settings, as well as her skilful use of language, is absolutely wonderful and keeps me enthralled. I love stories like hers, that come alive in my mind.

Dianne’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Dianne, for your answers. It’s been a pleasure.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Dianne? Please leave them in the comments below.

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Dianne Ascroft and her creative output, I suggest you visit her author site & blog, where you can sign up for her newsletter. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Dianne! I for one certainly wouldn’t expect to meet a Canadian playing the bagpipes in the Irish countryside. Dianne, you are fantastically displaced! As far as your creative output goes, I’m particularly impressed by your “Yankee Years” series. Like many other Americans, I had no idea that the first U.S. soldiers to enter the Second World War landed in Northern Ireland. Good on you for writing fictional histories about that period, which might otherwise be lost to posterity or else overshadowed by all the stories of sectarian violence in that part of the world, AKA The Troubles. —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published three early medieval novels with Impress Books: Conquest: Daughter of the Last King (2016), The Viking Hostage (2014), and Almodis the Peaceweaver (2011), as well as a future fiction novella, Meanda (2016), set on a watery exoplanet, as well as non-fiction books and essays on contemporary art. She teaches on creative writing courses in France with A Chapter Away.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Photo credits:
Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo and photos of Irish countryside, supplied; other photos via Pixabay.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: The sensuousness of the French Mediterranean infuses the works of actress-turned-author Carol Drinkwater


Tracey Warr is here with the Anglo-Irish actress and writer Carol Drinkwater, who has chosen to live in the country that right now is the focus of world attention due to its impending election: France. Her works powerfully depict the Provençal countryside and other parts of the Mediterranean where olive trees flourish.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers. My guest is the writer, actress, filmmaker and farmer Carol Drinkwater.

But before we meet her and she transports us, with her words, into the part of the world that provides the setting for so many of her books, I should mention that Carol grew up between English and Irish cultures. Born in London to an Irish mother and British father, she spent her childhood between a farm run by her grandparents in the village of Coolrain, County Laois, and her family’s home in southern England.

In her early twenties, she moved to Rome—and still returns to that city three times a year.

And she was an aspiring actress working in Germany when the call came from her agent that would change her life: a chance to play the vet’s wife, Helen Herriot, in the hit BBC TV series All Creatures Great and Small, based on British veterinary surgeon James Herriot‘s semi-autobiographical novels.

The series was so popular, Carol Drinkwater became a household name in Britain. At that point, she thought she would end up in Hollywood. As she told the FT recently: “I did not expect my path would lead towards the Mediterranean and olives.”

But then another life-changing event occurred: she met French documentary filmmaker Michel Noll. After leaving All Creatures Great and Small, she headed to Australia to act in Golden Pennies, a TV series about the struggles of a mining family during the 19th-century Australian gold rush, for which Michel was executive producer. (The series would become the basis for Carol’s first book, The Haunted School, about an English governess who runs a school in a remote Australian gold mining town—which in turn became its own TV series.)

The couple moved to the French Riviera and purchased a very rundown olive farm overlooking the Bay of Cannes. As she told the FT:

I had only known him for four months, and there we were, buying a rundown property in France together. I wanted to embark on a new life and I was letting go of the other one, but I did not know where it was going to take me.

It has, of course, taken her into the life of a successful displaced writer. Since moving to France Carol has written 22 books, including

In 2015 Penguin Books UK announced a deal signed with Drinkwater to write two epic novels. The first, The Forgotten Summer, was published in March 2016 and is out now in paperback. Set in a French vineyard, the book is, as one critic declared, “packed with the sunshine, scents and savors of the South of France.”

The three works that Carol Drinkwater discusses in her Location, Locution interview

The second novel, The Lost Girl, is due for publication on June 29 (it’s available for pre-order on Amazon UK; international edition expected in September).

In addition to writing, Carol is organic farmer (her farm produces about 500 litres of high quality organic olive oil a year) and a filmmaker. Most recently, she created a series of five documentary films inspired by her Mediterranean travel books. Watch the trailer here:

* * *

Welcome, Carol, to Location, Locution. Which comes first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?

In the instance of The Forgotten Summer, location came first. I was travelling in Algeria for The Olive Tree. During my month-long visit I became aware, as I moved about that vast country, that all about me were magnificent overgrown vineyards. These, I learned, were abandoned by the French colonials at the end of the Algerian War of Independence (1962), when one million French were obliged to flee the country. Most of those refugees settled in the south of France because it offered a similar climate and lifestyle. That is where my story began: a woman, her son and sister-in-law escape Algeria. They purchase a vast vineyard in the south of France bringing with them secrets and large amounts of money. I was then on home ground. My main area of research after that was the local wine industry. I spent a great deal of time visiting vineyards all along the French Mediterranean coast, learning the work and tasting the wines. Great fun.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

I need to live it. By that I mean that I will breathe in and note down every detail I can lay my hands on. Perfumes, temperatures, colours, geographical details, history of the region, food. I am meticulous. I will read everything I can. Cookbooks, history books, travel journals, sometimes diaries. I visit markets; I talk to anyone and everyone; try to wheedle my way into the homes of locals. I travel to all points mentioned in the books, of course. I also try to learn a little of the language. I am French-speaking so that helps me with all my books set in France.

But is there any particular feature that creates a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

The balance I give all these points very much depends on the book I am writing. Obviously if it is a travel book such as The Olive Route or The Olive Tree then the geographical location, history, probably culture and dominant religion and politics, matter greatly. For The Forgotten Summer, which is set on a vineyard in the South of France, the food and wines are essential to the storyline. Weather patterns also matter greatly to me.

Can you give a brief example of your latest work that illustrates place?

Here is a short extract from The Forgotten Summer describing land clearance in rural southern France:

The oniony scent of felled vegetation: weeds, wild flowers and grasses levelled. It was an exhilarating perfume. The buzz and thrum of machines firing in every direction. There was an unexpected splendour, a grace, in the sight and motion of the men hard at work. Figures squatting in the shade of the pins parasols for refreshment breaks, labouring in the fields amid the sun-blasted yellow of Van Gogh, the delicate tones of Paul Cézanne, and even, in the pre-dawn light, if she were out of bed to ride with the crew, a hint of Millet’s The Angelus.

Distant pines reaching for the sky, bleached-out vegetation, sea and mountains with only heat and crickets to remind Jane that there was life born of this ancient rock-solid stillness. Rural panoramas were being stripped and reconfigured by the muscular labourers with their chainsaws and cutting machines, their strong hands as rough and hirsute as giant spiders….Ahead of and encircling them lay semi-jungled fields, groves, vineyards climbing towards the purple-blue mountains.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?

Time spent in situ and depth of experience are both extremely important to me. I am not comfortable unless I know how the streets smell, which varieties of trees and plants grow in the vicinity, the local wildlife. The tolling of church bells or the cry of the muezzin? Costumes, clothes of the period. For the novel I am currently writing, one of the two leading female characters dreams of being an actress, so I had great fun reading old French movie and fashion magazines. I love choosing the cars that each character will drive; what date the automobiles were produced. I think about how different the French Riviera is today compared to, for example, the late forties or early fifties of the last century. It is all these tiny details and many more that I have such fun discovering and that make the difference.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

Graham Greene, of course, is a master. Few writers match his ability to create within one or two lines a local character or flavour. Just one example is The Heart of the Matter, which is set in West Africa: marvellous. You want to swot away the flies! (By the way, he lived near me in the South of France and we talked once or twice about books and publishing!) Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. Or, if you are attracted to Naples and southern Italy, try the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante. She is a novelist who allows you to smell the streets, hear the creaking wheels of old bikes and automobiles, the cries from on high in the tenements. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner is a very evocative and moving introduction to Kabul, Afghanistan, and really sets up the changes from pre-Taliban days. I read a great deal of travel writing, too.

Carol Drinkwater’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Carol, for your answers. It’s been a pleasure.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Carol? Please leave them in the comments below.

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Carol Drinkwater and her creative output, I suggest you visit her author site. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

And since ML brought up the French election at the outset, let’s give Carol the last word on the matter; here’s her recent tweet:

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Carol! I am intrigued that, unlike your last interviewee, Stephen Goldenberg, Carol favors meticulous research. Maybe it’s the actress in her, but she doesn’t seem to be a reclusive sort of writer. She says she’ll talk to anyone and everyone and also speaks French well enough to “wheedle her way into” people’s houses. I’m guessing this is why her readers find her books so authentic? —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published three early medieval novels with Impress Books: Conquest: Daughter of the Last King (2016), The Viking Hostage (2014), and Almodis the Peaceweaver (2011), as well as a future fiction novella, Meanda (2016), set on a watery exoplanet, as well as non-fiction books and essays on contemporary art. She teaches on creative writing courses in France with A Chapter Away.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of biweekly posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo, supplied; other photos via Pixabay.

All other visuals are from Pixabay.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: After spending summers in rural France, Stephen Goldenberg uses Villefranche as setting for murder mystery novel


Tracey Warr is here with a fellow British novelist Stephen Goldenberg, with whom she’ll soon be appearing for a book talk in Villefranche-en-Rouergue. It’s one of France’s most beautiful villages and the setting for Goldenberg’s latest mystery novel.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is fellow novelist Stephen Goldenberg, who was born, and has lived most of his life, in London. He now lives for a portion of the year in south-west France, a location that inspired his latest novel, Car Wheels on a Gravel Drive.

Goldenberg studied Law at Oxford University; but because of his love for reading great literature, he went on to train to be an English teacher. For the next 35 years he taught English in London secondary schools and became one of the first school teachers to introduce the subject of Media Studies.

Since taking early retirement, Goldenberg has written and published three novels and renovated an 18th-century stone-built farmhouse in the village of Calcomier in the Aveyron, a region of southern France named after the Aveyron River. He and his partner, Sue, have lived in the house for around five months a year for the last ten years. They try to be as involved as possible with the community, including helping out at the annual village fete. The house, Stephen says, is a perfectly peaceful place to write, especially on the small shaded terrace down by the river.

In addition to Car Wheels on a Gravel Drive, which came out last year and, as mentioned, is set in rural France, Goldenberg has self-published two other novels of suspense, both set in Britain: The Lying Game (Matador, 2012) and Stony Ground (Lulu, 2007). He says that his latest book reflects his fascination with the laid back rural French lifestyle and the lives of the many British expats who live there permanently.

What’s next? Goldenberg will be back on his home turf. His next novel, The Autobiography of an Invisible Man, takes place in London and is based on the life of a man who occasionally modeled for the displaced Irish-born British artist Francis Bacon.

* * *

Welcome, Stephen, to Location, Locution. Which comes first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?

For Car Wheels on a Gravel Drive it was definitely location. For my other novels, it’s been the story first followed by the assumption that it’s automatically going to be set in and around London because that’s where I’ve spent the vast majority of my life. But it was my partner, Sue, who suggested that I should set my next novel in south-west France since, by then, we’d had the house near Villefranche de Rouergue for six or seven years and were beginning to feel at home.

Your main characters are English expats?

Once I had my location, it was obvious to me that my main characters would be English expats who had relocated to rural France from London. And then, I decided that they would have made this move for the wrong reason—namely, because they were having troubles with their relationship and decided that a dramatic change of location and lifestyle would solve their problems. Also, at about the same time, the murder of an English expat, Jacqueline Wilson, who lived not far from us, had hit the headlines and gave me the idea of writing a murder mystery novel involving an Englishwoman who had recently relocated to the area.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

For me, sense of place is always created through a very light touch approach. I’m not one for masses of detailed description or massive amounts of research. A cumulation of small details can create a strong atmosphere. I particularly like to include the slightly quirky or unusual. For example, my use of a real café/restaurant in Aurillac called L’Abside, which is in a strange building grafted on to the side of a church.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

Much as I’m a lover of food, especially the cuisine of south-west France, it doesn’t play much of a role in my novels. In the case of this novel, it was very much about culture—especially the experience of expatriates trying to adapt to the language and culture of their adopted country in circumstances that are far from ideal. As far as the landscape is concerned, I wanted to write something that reflected my experience as a big city dweller getting used to the radical difference in moving to a small village in rural France.

Can you give a brief example of your latest work that illustrates place?

Jeremy had lost track of what day of the week it was until he drove into Villefranche at lunchtime and saw that the restaurants were crammed full. Of course. Thursday. Market day. He zigzagged around the stallholders in the Place Notre Dame packing their produce into vans, skipping out the way of the municipal dustcart hoovering up the fruit and vegetable detritus. He climbed the steps up to the terrace on the far side of the square and surveyed the café’s outdoor seating area, firstly to check that there was no-one there that he knew and, when he was sure of that, to find an empty table.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?

If it is the main setting, then the answer is very well. Even though I don’t include that much description in my actual writing, I need to have a clear sense of exactly where my characters are. However, I do not believe in doing too much research for novels and, sometimes, I slip in settings that I hardly know at all (e.g., Decazeville in the present novel) just because it was the most convenient town between Villefranche and Aurillac.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

Location isn’t something that particularly attracts me in choosing which novels to read and often, I find writers who are too heavy on atmospheric description off-putting. But there are two writers who, I think, use location really well. Thomas E. Kennedy is an American who lives in Copenhagen and sets his novels there. It’s a city I’ve never been to but, thanks largely to his writing, I hope to pay a visit soon. And then there’s one of my all-time favourite writers, Richard Russo, whose novels are set in small town upstate New York. I visited the area a couple of years ago and, because of his writing, found it strangely familiar.

Stephen Goldenberg’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Stephen, for your answers. It’s been a pleasure.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Stephen? Please leave them in the comments below.

As ML mentioned at the outset, Stephen and I will both be talking about our recent novels in Villefranche-en-Rouergue, France. The event takes place on 21 April 2017 at the English Library. All Displaced Nationers are welcome! For further details, please contact me at traceykwarr@gmail.com

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Stephen Goldenberg and his novels, I suggest you visit his author site.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Stephen! I find it intriguing that Stephen tries not to over-research location, even when using an adopted home as a setting. He is right that it’s a balance, and authors can get carried away describing place. —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published three early medieval novels with Impress Books: Conquest: Daughter of the Last King (2016), The Viking Hostage (2014), and Almodis the Peaceweaver (2011), as well as a future fiction novella, Meanda (2016), set on a watery exoplanet, as well as non-fiction books and essays on contemporary art. She teaches on creative writing courses in France with A Chapter Away.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of biweekly posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo, supplied; London street scene via Pixabay.

All other visuals use photos supplied by Stephen Goldenberg or book cover art.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: For acclaimed British novelist Simon Mawer, not feeling at home anywhere fires creativity


Tracey Warr is here with the extraordinary Simon Mawer, whose work is on a par with Australian-born, U.S.-based Peter Carey and Sri Lankan-born Canadian Michael Ondaatje. Like them, he has used his displacement to produce an award-winning body of fiction.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is world-class novelist Simon Mawer.

As ML implied, Mawer is a natural fit for the Displaced Nation. Though British, he has lived in Italy for many years and to this day finds his imagination fired by the extraordinary and the unfamiliar.

He also had a peripatetic upbringing. His father served in the Royal Air Force, and his family spent three years on the island of Cyprus—an experience that informed his novel Swimming to Ithaca (2006)—and a total of five years in Malta.

About his childhood spent in other cultures, Mawer has this to say:

These experiences planted in me a love of the Mediterranean world which has lasted my whole life. They also gave me a taste for exile which I have never lost. When people ask me where I come from I am still unable to reply. I have lived in Italy for more than three decades, but Italy is not home. Home is where the mind is, perhaps.

Returning to the UK for boarding school, Mawer attended Oxford University where he earned a degree in zoology. He spent three years teaching biology at the secondary-school level in the Channel Islands, two years in Scotland, and two in Malta, before moving to Rome where he has lived ever since, teaching biology for over thirty years at St George’s British International School in Rome (he retired in 2010). Because teaching took up so much of his time, he didn’t publish his first novel, Chimera, until age 40, when he sold it to Hamish Hamilton.

Mawer’s ten novels are imbued with a compelling sense of time and place. His characters grapple with their own fraught and hybrid identities. The Bitter Cross (1992) is the only one set in the distant past: taking place in the 16th-century Mediterranean, it explores the theme of exile and belonging through the eyes of one of the last of the English knights, from the vantage point of retirement on the fortress island of Malta.

But the rest of Mawer’s novels take place in the early 20th century, with settings ranging through 1930s Czechoslovakia, 1940s occupied France, wartime Rome, 1950s London during the Cold War, Cyprus, Israel and Palestine.

The following six have won high accolades:

  • Mawer’s first novel, the aforementioned Chimera (1989), tells the story of a part-Italian, part-English archeologist who is haunted by his own past. On an archeological dig in central Italy, he recalls being parachuted into wartime Italy as a Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent. It won the McKitterick Prize for First Novels.
  • Mendel’s Dwarf (1997), described by the New Yorker as “furious, tender and wittily erudite,” blends fact and fiction by telling the story of the fictional Benedict Lambert, a distant descendant of real-life founder of the modern science of genetics, Gregor Mendel. Like Mendel, Lambert struggles to unlock the secrets of heredity and genetic determinism. However, Benedict’s mission is particularly urgent—he was born a dwarf. The book reached the last ten of the Booker Prize and was a New York Times “Book to Remember”.
  • Set partly in wartime Britain and partly in the anarchic world of British rock-climbing in the early seventies, The Fall (2003) is about many kinds of falling: off mountains, into love, out of love, from grace. It was the winner of the 2003 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature.
  • The Glass Room (2009) centers on a couple who who live in a modernist house that resembles the real-life Villa Tugendhat, which the German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed for a wealthy Jewish man and his gentile wife in Brno (now in the Czech Republic). But then the storm clouds of World War II gather and the family flees through Switzerland to the United States. This work was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and the Wingate Prize, and was a bestseller in the US and the UK. The Guardian described it as “a thing of extraordinary beauty and symmetry,” and the Washington Post found it “eerily erotic and tremendously exciting.” The Glass Room was adapted for the stage from the book’s Czech translation for a performance in the city of Brno (which, incidentally, is the seat of the priory where Mendel performed his experiments).
  • Mawer’s ninth novel, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky (Trapeze in the US) (2012) was described by the Daily Telegraph as “an absorbing novel full of treachery, twilight and terror.” Set during World War II, the novel follows the path of the half-English half-French diplomat’s daughter Marian Sutro. Her hybrid status is an advantage in wartime, and she ends up serving as an agent in occupied Europe. The Guardian once described Sutro as “perhaps the closest thing to a female James Bond in English literature.”
  • Mawer must have enjoyed the company of this complex female protagonist as Marian Sutro returns again in his most recent novel, Tightrope (2015), a cold war thriller set in 1950s London. One of a handful of surviving agents of the Special Operations Executive, Sutro tries to cast off her identity as heroine of the resistance, but the memories of torture, heartbreak and betrayal won’t leave her—nor will the longing for adventure. Tightrope was described by the Sunday Times as “a sophisticated, deviously constructed story,” and by the Mail on Sunday as “gripping stuff, with a sinuous plot and some haunting bedroom scenes.” It won the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and was Waterstones Novel of the Month (March 2016).

Mawer has also written two nonfiction books:

* * *

Welcome, Simon, to Location, Locution. Which tends to come first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?

This very much depends on the book. Most begin with an idea—for example my last pair of novels, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky (Trapeze, in the US) and Tightrope, began with the idea of a young woman—a mere 19 years old—being recruited into a clandestine warfare outfit in the middle of the Second World War. Everything else followed from that. Similarly The Fall began with a literal fall, in this case the fall of a climber from a mountain wall. But once I’d got a mountain involved it was pretty obvious that location was going to become important. Indeed the Sunday Times reviewer drew attention to precisely this:

“What makes The Fall truly valuable, and truly unusual is its sense of landscape. Much British writing these days seems to be self-consciously urban. Mawer’s novel, distinguished by its keen descriptive sense of rock-face, crag, lake, snow and stone, bucks that trend beautifully.”

However, two novels later The Glass Room most definitely began with a location—the mesmerising Tugendhat House in the Czech Republic that I first visited in 1994. Standing in rooms that seemed to have barely changed from the 1930s, in a building that to this day remains a touchstone for modernist design, it was obvious for me to think, “There’s a story here.” I’m a writer of fiction so the subsequent story had to be my own creation rather than the true story of the family that built the house; but there is no doubt that location came first.

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What is your technique for evoking the atmosphere of the various places where you’ve set your four novels?

If there were only one technique it would be easy (and dull). There are many techniques but for me underlying everything is the idea that the reader must do some work. The writer’s task is to stir the imagination not replace it. So you evoke place with small hints, little details, small observations, and you rely on the intelligence of the reader to create the whole picture in his or her head. Don’t underestimate the literary intelligence of the reader—the ones without it are probably watching TV anyway. At best they’ll only be reading Dan Brown.

Which particular features create a sense of location: landscape, culture, food?

It depends on the location. For landscape one tends to resort to descriptive devices, leavened with metaphor of course. But it’s important not to overdo it and to restrain yourself from indulging in purple prose. Description should be brushed into the narrative with rapid, impressionist strokes. Urban locations, on the other hand, lend themselves to cultural references (see the example below).

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

How about Paris immediately after the war, as described in Tightrope:

Her first visit to the city since the war. Paris with a superficial gloss to it, like a piece of silver plate that has been polished up but is still worn away in places to show the base metal beneath: the drab buildings in need of cleaning, the broken pavements, the impoverished shops. But Paris with a strange, febrile vitality, Paris that was home to the theatre of the absurd and was itself a kind of theatre with people performing on its various stages, writers in the cafés of the Left Bank, politicians treading the boards of the National Assembly or berating crowds in place de la Bastille, black jazzmen from America sounding off in basements and cellars, models strutting on catwalks wearing clothes that outraged the poor of Saint-Denis and Belleville, tarts and pimps on the pavements of Pigalle. Paris canaille.

Paris canaille? Coarse, tawdry, crooked Paris. It’s the title of a song of the time written by Léo Ferré and first made popular by Catherine Sauvage. If the readers get that, great. If not, it doesn’t matter. But give them the opportunity to find out if they want to. You’ll find it here.

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

It is possible to know a place too well. I have lived in Italy for about 40 years and have written very little that is set in this country. It is too familiar to me (yes, Italy can become too familiar!). What fires my imagination is the extraordinary and the unfamiliar—so I’ve set novels in Israel/Palestine, Czechoslovakia, World War II London, Cyprus, 16th-century Malta. Of course once your imagination has been lit, then it is necessary to get to know the place sufficiently to write about it with conviction without ever losing the sense of newness and discovery.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

Perhaps one writer above all: Graham Greene. He was a master at location, so much so that critics even bestowed his name on the world that his characters inhabit: Greeneland. You know it. It’s hot, arid, run down, plagued with dust and corruption and lost faith. That’s the ultimate achievement, to create a world so vivid that it transcends any real location and instead belongs entirely to you, the creator.

So true! I should tell you that my last guest, the novelist Dinah Jefferies, chose one of your books—The Girl Who Fell from the Sky—in answer to this question.

Thanks so much, Simon, for joining us. It’s been a pleasure, as always.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Simon? Please leave them in the comments below.

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Simon Mawer and his novels, I suggest you visit his author site. You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Simon! I have to say I’m particularly intrigued by Simon’s statement that he’s written very little in Italy despite (because of?) having lived 40 years in the country. That suggests that we international creatives should get started sooner rather than later if we decide to write about our adopted homes! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels with Impress Books. She recently published, in English and French, a future fiction novella, Meanda, set on a watery exoplanet, as an Amazon Kindle ebook. Her latest medieval novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th-century Wales and England, came out in October.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of biweekly posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo, supplied; Roman scene via Pixabay; Cyprus. Nicosia 1969 – 70, by Brian Harrington Spier via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Street and Glastonbury Tor taken from Walton Hill, by Edwin Graham via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).
“Glass Room” visual: (top) Mies van Der Rohe- Tugendhat House, 1930, by Rory Hyde via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); (bottom left) The Glass Room on stage at the City Theatre, Brn (Pavla Vitázková as Liesel, Svetlana Jantová as Kata), supplied; and Simon Mawer relaxing in the living room of the Tugendhat House, with the director of the house, Iveta Černá looking on, supplied.
“Paris as theatre” visual: (clockwise from top left): Acetate fabrics by Robert Perrier, 1951 Autumn-Winter via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); Screenshot from Catherine Sauvage “Paris Canaille” (live official), Archive INA; Waiting for Godot (cover detail) via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0); and Zsa Zsa Gabor playing Jane Avril in the film Moulin Rouge (1952) via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain 1.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Novelist Dinah Jefferies melds themes of displacement and loss with the seductive beauty of the East

dinah-jefferies-location-locution
Tracey Warr is here with fellow historical novelist Dinah Jefferies. Dinah has led an unusually eventful life: not only has she lived in various countries but she has also suffered the loss of a child. These experiences have fueled a writing career that took off when Dinah reached her mid-sixties.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is Dinah Jefferies, who was born in 1948 in Malaya—as Malaysia was known then—where she spent the first nine years of her life, growing up against the background of civil war. Once Malaya gained independence from England, her parents decided to move back home.

Dinah found it wrenching. As she told a UK magazine:

“I was incredibly happy in Malaya. We just wore flip-flops and pants at home; it was so hot… I loved going to the Chinese quarter with my amah, sitting cross-legged on straw mats with her family, eating bright yellow, strong-tasting ice cream. It was like nothing like I’ve ever tasted since.”

Moreover, England did not make a good first impression:

“I just remember absolute devastation when I saw what England was like: February, the middle of winter – grey, cold, wet; no sunshine; horrible clothes.”

Dinah was bullied at school, and although she defended herself, that “feeling of not being quite a member of anything has stayed with me all my life.”

This outsider status led to a certain restlessness, which should be familiar to any of our Third Culture Kid readers. As a teenager, Dinah lived in Tuscany and worked as an au pair for an Italian countess. Much later, with her second husband, she attempted to retire in a 16th-century village in Northern Andalusia—a plan cut short after they lost most of their money in the crash of 2008.

But the experience that shattered life as she knew it was the death of her son in 1985, when he was just 14. Formally trained as an artist, Dinah channeled her unrelenting grief into her art work. Later her move to Spain afforded an opportunity to experiment with fiction writing. After settling in Gloucestershire to be near her grandchildren, she took to writing full time and found she enjoyed weaving her experiences of loss and displacement into stories set in the “extremely seductive beauty of the East.”

Dinah’s first published novel, The Separation, came out in 2014, when she was 65 years old. Set in 1950s Malaya, the book tells the story of a mother who journeys through the civil-war-torn jungle to find out why her husband and daughters moved up country without her.

Dinah landed a contract with Viking Penguin for that book and has produced a novel for them every year since:

  • The Tea Planter’s Wife (2015). Set in 1920s Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the book revolves around a young Englishwoman who has married a tea plantation owner and widower, only to discover he’s been keeping some terrible secrets about his past.
  • The Silk Merchant’s Daughter (2016): Set in 1950s French Indochina (now Vietnam), the era when militants were determined to end French rule, the story concerns a half-French, half Vietnamese woman who is torn between two worlds.
  • Before the Rains (forthcoming, February 2017): Set in 1930s India, the book follows the progress of a British photojournalist who is sent to photograph the royal family in the princely state of Rajputana (Rajasthan). She ends up falling in love with the Prince’s brother…

To research her books Dinah has traveled to Sri Lanka, Vietnam and India. She will be speaking at the Fairway Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka in January, should any of you Displaced Nationers find yourselves in that part of the world.
dinah-jefferies-4-books

* * *

Welcome, Dinah, to Location, Locution. Which tends to come first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?

For all four of my books the location came first, though story comes a very close second. Once I’ve decided on the place, I then research the period and usually while researching that, the kind of characters I want begin to emerge. Sometimes I have the kernel of an idea before I hit on the location. For The Tea Planter’s Wife I did have the idea of a life-changing secret before I chose Sri Lanka—or Ceylon as it was then known.

What is your technique for evoking the atmosphere of the various places where you’ve set your four novels?

It’s all about sensory detail. For my third book, The Silk Merchant’s Daughter, set in Vietnam, it was all about evoking the contrast between the elegant French quarter of Hanoi, as opposed to the clutter and noise of the ancient Vietnamese quarter with canaries singing in bamboo cages and the scent of charcoal and ginger in the air. The setting has to work to support the story in some way, and as this is a story of a woman caught between two worlds. I needed to show how different those two worlds were.

Which particular features create a sense of location: landscape, culture, food?

All those and more. I include everything I can to create the atmosphere of the place and the time. For historical fiction, one has to get the historical details right, too: the type of buildings, what people wore, their mindset, etc. It’s about what the characters would be seeing in their daily lives and how they would be interacting with their surroundings. For me the landscape has to almost be a character in itself. I try to re-create the beauty of the world in question as well as its unique personality.

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

From The Tea Planter’s Wife:

“Below her, gentle, flower filled gardens sloped down to the lake in three terraces, with paths, steps and benches strategically placed between the three. The lake itself was the most gloriously shining silver she’d ever seen. All memory of the previous day’s car journey, with its terrifying hairpin bends, deep ravines, and nauseating bumps, was instantly washed away. Rising up behind the lake, and surrounding it, was a tapestry of green velvet, the tea bushes as symmetrical as if they’d been stitched in rows, where women tea-pickers wore eye-catching brightly coloured saris, and looked like tiny embroidered birds who had stopped to peck.”

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

I like to know it as well as I can and I always visit a location I’m planning to use. Just being in a place can help in ways you never could have imagined if you hadn’t been there. When doing research for The Tea Planter’s Wife, I was staying at a tea plantation in Sri Lanka and found a library of wonderful books I’d never have known about back home. Those books provided me with amazing details, as did sitting outside in the evening watching the fireflies and listening to the cicadas. Being there made it real.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

I love Julia Gregson’s book East of The Sun for the way it evokes a particular time in India. Also Simon Mawer’s The Girl who Fell from the Sky set in wartime France. Both are great books with terrifically realistic settings that are an important element of the story.

Dinah Jefferies’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Interesting! I should tell you that one of my other guests, the novelist Hazel Gaynor, chose your books—The Tea Planter’s Wife and The Silk Merchant’s Daughter—in answer to this question. Also, my very next guest will be one of your picks, Simon Mawer.

Thanks so much, Dinah, for joining us. It’s been a pleasure.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Dinah? Please leave them in the comments below.

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Dinah Jefferies and her novels, I suggest you visit her author site. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Dinah! Dinah, your Third Culture Kid story tells us so much about you. I wonder if it’s the reason location comes first, before story? And hats off to you for starting a writing career in your sixties. What a tribute to resilience, as well as to the therapeutic power of art! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels with Impress Books. She recently published, in English and French, a future fiction novella, Meanda, set on a watery exoplanet, as an Amazon Kindle ebook. Her latest medieval novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th-century Wales and England, came out in October.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of biweekly posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo and photos of Dinah in Hall of Mirrors at Amer Fort (near Jaipur, India) and of Malacca, Malaya, supplied by Dinah Jefferies; and photo of England: Rainy Day, by David Wright via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Visual that accompanies the quotation: Tea Picking In Sri Lanka, by Steenbergs via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Charles Lambert draws on his displaced life to produce psychological thrillers

location-locution-charles-lambert
Tracey Warr is here with fellow displaced Brit Charles Lambert, a master writer of literary thrillers. He was born in England, lives in Italy, and describes himself as deeply enjoying the status of being a foreigner.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is the writer Charles Lambert, who was born in Lichfield, UK, a cathedral city in the Midlands, but who has lived in Italy for most of his adult life. After graduating from Cambridge, Charles worked as an EFL teacher in Milan and Turin in the mid-1970s—one of the most tumultuous periods in post-war Italian history, which he has written about in his psychological thriller, The View from the Tower.

After two years, he moved to Setúbal, Portugal, a smallish town south of Lisbon—and found himself, once again, at the heart of a political situation he struggled to understand (see his novella, The Slave House). After six months and a disastrous love affair, he returned to the UK to “get a proper job.” He ended up working as an assistant editor at a medical publisher’s on Euston Road.

Fifteen months later, desperately unhappy, he turned down a promotion and headed back to Italy, where he has lived ever since—initially in Modena (northern Italy) and then in Fondi, about halfway between Rome and Naples.

As I’ve already indicated, all of these backings and forthings have provided rich fodder for Charles’s imagination. Even his current work, as a language teacher in Italian universities, a job he has done since 1982, “makes up in the endless variety of human contact what it lacks, signally, in career opportunities,” as he puts it. Charles has also worked as a journalist for the news agency ANSA, translated for academic presses in the UK and the USA, edited for international agencies, and written critical essays on, among other things, George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, in which he confesses a unashamedly nerdish interest.

But his true passion is fiction writing—in particular, the psychological literary thriller. In addition to his many blog posts, the afore-mentioned novella, The Slave House, the occasional poem, and his acclaimed short story collection, The Scent of Cinnamon (for which he won an O. Henry prize), he has written four novels:

  • The Children’s Home (Scribner, 2016): An inversion of a modern fairytale, the story centers on a disfigured recluse living on his family estate, with a housekeeper as his only companion. His solitude is disrupted when stray children start showing up on his doorstep.
  • The View from the Tower (Penguin Random House, 2013): A psychological thriller and second in a planned trilogy about the darker side of Rome, the story centers on Helen, who has been having an affair with her husband’s best friend, Giacomo, an ex-terrorist, for 30 years. She is in a hotel room in Rome with Giacomo when she receives the news that her husband, a high-level politician, has been murdered. She simultaneously becomes a suspect and suspicious of everyone around her—forcing her to examine her own past and peel back the years of secrets and lies.
  • Any Human Face (Picador, 2011): The first in a planned trilogy about the seamier side of Rome, the story concerns what happens when Andrew, a quirky gay bookstore owner and sometime art/antiquity dealer in Rome, stumbles into a political vipers’ nest involving high-level politicians and Vatican officials while also struggling to overcome heartbreak from his past and learning to love again. When the book first came out, the Guardian called it a “sophisticated literary thriller set on the seamier fringe of Rome’s gay scene, a magnet for the lonely and displaced located a long way off the tourist trail.”
  • Little Monsters (Picador, 2008): Lambert’s début novel and the first of his books set in modern Italy, this is the story of Carol, a young teenager who, having witnessed her father killing her mother, is put into the care of her aunt, who hates and resents her, and her uncle, whom she eventually marries. The story is told in two time frames: Carol as ward and Carol as an adult, when she finds herself drawn to a boat-refugee child in Italy (the child reminds her of her unwanted teenaged self).

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He also recently produced a fictionalized memoir, With a Zero at Its Heart, capturing moments from his life in a unique, experimental format.

Charles says he has no plans to return to the UK, and Brexit is unlikely to persuade him to change his mind:

I don’t define myself as an expat. If I had to define myself, I’d probably go for “economic migrant” or, more simply, “foreigner”, a status I deeply enjoy.

For entirely pragmatic reasons, he is currently in the process of becoming an Italian citizen.

And now let’s hear from Charles about what techniques she uses to conjure up the Italy he knows so well as a long-time resident while also cherishing his status of outsider.

* * *

Welcome, Charles, to Location, Locution. Which tends to come first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?

Every book is different. My first novel, Little Monsters, began with a sentence and, within seconds, the sentence had found a home in the Peak District, where I spent most of my adolescence. That place, and my memories of it, dictated much of the narrative. The other half of the book was set in contemporary Italy, where I live, although the story took me to a part of Italy I didn’t know that well and I had to use my imagination. So, one novel, half story-led, half place-led. The next two novels I published were both set in Rome, and I can’t imagine them being set in any other city. Rome’s a city with a uniquely composted history of beauty and blood-letting, high ideals and dirty low-down dealings, and the novels dig into that humus with relish. My most recent novel, on the other hand, The Children’s Home, is set in an undefined place and time and the lack of temporal and geographical definition is an integral part of the story.

What is your technique for evoking the atmosphere of these places?

When I’m writing I have a strong sense of where I am. It’s in my mind’s eye, so to speak, so all I need to do is look around and report on what I see. If the place is a real place, then memory is involved. If it isn’t, the details come as I need them. A shop, a street, a tree… As a general rule, though, I’d say less is more. It’s what I call the “Bakelite-ashtray fallacy”—the idea that obsessively name-checking historical materials and brands gives a sense of period. It doesn’t. It gives a sense of working too hard to create a sense of period, and is inevitably counter-productive. The same is true with a sense of place. Too much description draws attention to itself and to the writer’s eagerness to be believed, not to the place it’s supposed to be describing.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

All three, to a greater or lesser degree, and I’d add language to the list—but, as I said above, with parsimony. It can be hard to resist the temptation to describe in detail every dish your characters are eating—especially if you love food as much as I do and the scene is set in Italy, as scenes in my work often are—but if the purpose of the scene is, well, non-gastronomic, you just need to do your best to keep the detail pared down. My agent, with exemplary dedication, once counted the number of bottles of red wine consumed in one of my novels (Any Human Face, if you’re curious). It was frighteningly high but, we both agreed, integral to the narrative, although it may have contributed to creating, for my characters at least, a serious sense of dislocation!
red-wine-bottles
More seriously, I think descriptions of place need to serve a double purpose. They provide a location, but that location must also give the reader something else, something about the characters’ relationship with that place, for example, or about the way the place might have shaped the characters, who they are, what they think, why they behave the way they do. Without that, it’s window dressing.

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

From Any Human Face (Picador, 2010):

Thirty years ago, Andrew lived just round the corner from Campo de’Fiori, in a two-room garret above the latteria. The latteria still sells its large white bowls of caffelatte and rusk-like biscuits, but Andrew moved on when the intensifying effect of a picturesque tiled roof on winter cold and summer heat became too much for him. Since then, like some bobbing object impelled by a centrifugal force he can neither understand nor halt, he has lived in a series of rented flats, each one a half-mile further from the centre than the one before. By an equally mysterious process, his worldly goods have accumulated as their worth has diminished; each time he moves, the boxes and plastic sacks into which he has stuffed his life seem more forbidding, more intractable. He shuttles between the old flat and the new in whichever car he has borrowed, just one step above a bag lady pushing an overloaded supermarket trolley, front wheel askew, his whole world teetering on a metaphorical wonky castor. He used to think corridors were wasted space. He doesn’t think that now.
roman-roof-tiles

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

Intimately, fairly well, hardly at all. Once again, in other words, it depends. In the passage above, I’m describing a part of Rome I lived in for many years. I had breakfast in that latteria, I ate those biscuits, I sweated and shivered in the kind of garret Andrew lived in. In another novel, on the other hand, long sections are set in a town I spent four days in some years ago and have never revisited. I’m hoping no one will notice. I need to have “felt” the place in some way but that doesn’t necessarily require years of research (although Google Street View can come in handy) or lived, physical presence. Sometimes, a single word might be enough to evoke what’s needed. One of the most potent descriptions of place for me comes at the beginning of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis: “His room, a proper human room although a little too small…”, where the two words “proper” and “human” are enough to mark out the extraordinariness of what’s occurred. His room becomes our room, and yet not our room.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

In their very different ways, Cormac McCarthy and Penelope Fitzgerald. In works like the Border Trilogy, McCarthy’s vision of the world and of the lives of its inhabitants (both human and animal) make up a single vision: harsh, numinous, both indifferent and interwoven, a wonder of observation and lyricism. The settings in Fitzgerald’s last four novels range from 1950s Italy to pre-revolutionary Moscow, and there isn’t a moment when the world of the novel isn’t entirely believable. Once again, the trick is to reduce the detail to a bare—and convincing—minimum. There’s a moment in Innocence where children go to Upim (an Italian Woolworth’s) before school starts to buy their exercise books. I don’t know how Fitzgerald knew this, but it was all that was needed to persuade me of the authenticity of the novel’s world.

a-few-of-cls-fave-books

Charles Lambert’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Charles, for your answers. It’s been a great pleasure.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Charles? Please leave them in the comments below.

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Charles Lambert and his body of work, I suggest you visit his author site. You can also follow him on Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Charles! I found this discussion fascinating. —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels with Impress Books. She just now published, in English and French, a future fiction novella, Meanda, set on a watery exoplanet, as an Amazon Kindle ebook. Her new historical novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in October.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Photo credits: Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo, photo of Setúbal graffiti and of Italian cafe scene were supplied by Charles Lambert; A view of Lichfield Cathedral from the north West, by Roger Robinson via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0). Visuals that accompany the two quotations: Empty wine bottles via Pixabay; Roof Tiles (Rome), by Stewart Butterfield via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Novelist Hazel Gaynor illuminates the lives of early 20th-century women with an adventuresome streak

location-locution-hazel-gaynor
Tracey Warr is here with fellow historical novelist Hazel Gaynor. As it happens, I recently read her book Memories of Violets, which makes me think we’re in for a treat!

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is Hazel Gaynor. Originally from North Yorkshire, England, Hazel moved to Kildare, Ireland, in 2001, where she has lived since with her husband and two children. Both her place of origin, England, and her adoptive country, Ireland, feature in her fiction writing, and travel, along with adventure and displacement, is a recurring trope in her work, which thus far has to do with the lives of women of bygone eras whose stories have never been fully told.

This summer Hazel published her third novel, The Girl from the Savoy, which conjures up a vivid picture of London and social change in the 1920s. It tells the story of two women from very different backgrounds. Dolly is a new chambermaid at London’s iconic Savoy Hotel and longs for a better life. Loretta is a famous actress in the West End. Both are struggling in the aftermath of the Great War. The book came out in June and is already an Irish Times and Globe & Mail Canada bestseller.

I suspect that like ML, some of you are familiar with Hazel’s previous two novels:

  • A Memory of Violets: A Novel of London’s Flower Sellers (2015), based on the lives of London’s flower sellers. The book grew out of Hazel’s love of the plays Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. She decided she wanted to write about the real Eliza Doolittles—the women who sold flowers and watercress on the streets of London. The book has been a New York Times and USA Today bestseller.
  • The Girl Who Came Home, the story of a group of Irish emigrants aboard RMS Initially self-published, the book was published again in 2014, when HarperCollins picked it up along with A Memory of Violets—it went on to win the 2015 RNA Historical Novel of the Year award.

Hazel is also one of nine authors to contribute a short story to the World War I anthology Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War (2016). Her story, “Hush,” shows midwife Annie Rawlins doing everything she can to save an infant’s life, while her son, fighting in France, does everything he can to preserve his life in hopes of making it to the end of the war. Hazel’s work has been translated into several languages and she is represented by Michelle Brower of Kuhn Projects/Zachary Shuster Harmsworth, New York.

hazel-gaynor-works

And now let’s hear from Hazel about what techniques she uses to conjure up the lives of women in the early 20th century who, like you and me, opted not to stay put in the place where they were born and sought a more adventuresome life.

* * *

Welcome, Hazel, to Location, Locution. Obviously, as a historical novelist, you are inspired by the past. But which tends to come first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?

The idea for The Girl from the Savoy initially developed from a conversation with my editor and our mutual love of the 1920s. This was a period of real social change—especially for women—and that always allows for a great story. I knew I wanted to set the story in London, and that it would revolve around an ordinary working girl who had access to the glamorous women she admired and aspired to be like. The social scene of London’s iconic hotels during this era was the perfect setting. When I started researching the history of The Savoy I found so many fascinating accounts of famous people who had dined and stayed there. I imagined the young chambermaids gossiping about the hotel guests in their room late at night, and the story developed from there.

What was your technique for evoking the atmosphere of 1920s London and the Savoy Hotel?

It starts with lots of research so that I understand both the location and the historical era I’m writing in. I love the process of discovery and research and I’m always surprised by what I learn. In researching The Girl from the Savoy I spent an amazing afternoon with the archivist at The Savoy hotel. Sitting in the stunning foyer, talking through the hotel’s rich history was really special. I also spent several afternoons at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Theatre and Performance Archives, reading through scrapbooks of famous actresses and theatrical producers of the 1920s, which was incredibly inspiring. To help recreate the atmosphere of a particular time and place for the modern reader, I make ample use of the five senses, sound and smell especially, as well as visual description.

savoy-inspirations

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

It depends on the novel. In The Girl Who Came Home, my novel about Irish emigrants on the Titanic, it was partly about depicting the simplicity of the rural Irish landscape and Irish culture, but also about recreating for the reader the sheer scale of The Titanic, and the chaos of the sinking. The central present-day character in A Memory of Violets is Tilly Harper, who leaves the sweeping landscape of the Lake District for the claustrophobic bustle and noise of Victorian London, to take up the job of assistant housemother at Mr. Shaw’s Home for Watercress and Flower Girls (based on the real-life story of John Groom’s Flower Mission). In The Girl from the Savoy my main locations are London and The Savoy, so I focused on capturing the contrast between the glamour of the hotel guests with the simplicity of my character Dolly’s life “downstairs” at the hotel. Culture—especially fashion and music—was also important in creating a real sense of era and location and really capturing that 1920s vibe.

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

From the opening chapter of The Girl from the Savoy:

I pass bicycle shops and tobacconists, wine merchants drapers and milliners, the rain falling in great curtains around me as I catch my reflection in the shop windows. I dodge newspaper vendors and sidestep a huddle of gentlemen in bowler hats as tramcars and motorcars rattle along the road beside me, clanging their bells and tooting their horns. Cries of the street sellers and the pounding hooves of a dray horse add to the jumble of noise. My stomach tumbles like a butter churn, excited and terrified by the prospect of my new position as a maid at The Savoy hotel.
cries-of-streetsellers

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

I like to know the place very well, and always try to go there, if possible, to understand the shape of the landscape and to absorb the atmosphere. For example, I visited Addergoole in County Mayo, Ireland, which was the setting for the Irish scenes in The Girl Who Came Home. I also visited Covent Garden for A Memory of Violets and I know the Lake District very well, so could easily write the scenes set there.
violets-and-girl-who-came-home-locations
Of course, London and the Savoy Hotel and the Victoria Embankment Gardens (which are behind the Savoy) were essential places to visit for research, and to imagine Dolly’s life there in the 1920s.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

I loved Hannah Kent’s descriptions of Iceland in Burial Rites. [Editor’s note: Kent was born in Adelaide but spent time in Iceland on a Rotary scholarship.] Dinah Jefferies also creates a wonderful sense of location in her novels The Tea Planter’s Wife, set in 1920s Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and The Silk Merchant’s Daughter, which takes place in the turmoil of 1950s Vietnam. [Editor’s note: Jefferies was born in Malaysia and moved to the UK at the age of nine.]

Hazel Gaynor's picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Hazel Gaynor’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Hazel, for your answers. It’s been a pleasure.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Hazel? Please leave them in the comments below.

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Hazel Gaynor and her books, I suggest you visit her author site. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter. And I urge you to check out the blog that she keeps for writing.ie, called Carry on Writing, consisting of interviews with leading novelists, including Philippa Gregory, Sebastian Faulks, Kate Mosse, Jojo Moyes and Cheryl Strayed.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! As I mentioned, I read Hazel Gaynor’s Memories of Violets earlier this year. I was impressed by her ability to re-imagine the lives of London’s flower sellers—of whom most of us have a romanticized image based on movies like Oliver Twist or Pygmalion. I liked that she combed the historical records for details she could use to ensure that her story came close to their everyday reality. In a sense she was helping to write their history but then filling in the gaps with her imagination. And I’m already looking forward to her next book, about the true story of two young cousins who claimed to photograph fairies in their Yorkshire village in the 1920s. The girls’ photos of the so-called Cottingley Fairies captured the public imagination, and Hazel’s version will no doubt capture that of today’s readers! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels with Impress Books. She just now published, in English and French, a future fiction novella, Meanda, set on a watery exoplanet, as an Amazon Kindle ebook. Her new historical novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in October.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). All other photos were supplied by the author or downloaded from Pixabay.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: In trio of memoirs, Marjory McGinn celebrates life inside the heart of Greece at height of economic crisis

Location Locution Marjory McGinn
Tracey Warr is here with Marjory McGinn, a Scottish writer who grew up in Australia and now lives in East Sussex, England. In the course of a life spent trundling between Northern and Southern hemispheres, Marjory discovered Greece, which is the only non-English speaking country she has lived in (fortunately, she can speak some Greek). Her memoirs on her midlife Grecian adventures show a journalist’s eye for mood and detail and a gift for telling a good story, as Tracey’s interview will reveal.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is Marjory McGinn, who credits her childhood migration from Scotland to Australia for inspiring an interest in travel and writing and putting a nomadic spin on her adult life. After leaving school in Sydney, Australia, and a short stint working for an airline, Marjory undertook a long overseas trip, arriving firstly in the land of her birth, Scotland. “It was a rite of passage for the children of migrant families in Australia seeking to go back to the ‘old country’ to hunt down their roots and find the cultural links they thought they were missing,” she says.

Greece was always her real destination, however, for reasons she outlines in her series of travel memoirs. The first time she visited Greece, during the military dictatorship in the 1970s, she stayed a year, working in Athens. Despite (perhaps because of?) the political unrest, it was the start of a lifelong love affair with the country. As Marjory puts it in one of her books:

“I was instantly smitten with the place. It was nothing I could easily define, but more a fusion of disparate things, all maddeningly exotic to my young mind.”

Circling back to Australia in the early 1980s, Marjory became a journalist and worked for leading newspapers in Sydney as a feature writer. At the peak of her career, however, the urge to uproot took over once again. Accompanied this time by her English partner and fellow journalist, Jim, she moved back to Scotland at the dawn of the 21st century. The couple carried on working in newspapers for 10 years, but then a decline in the industry inspired them to have a mid-life odyssey in Greece, with their slightly mad Jack Russell terrier, Wallace, in tow.

At that time, of course, Greece was sliding into economic crisis and would soon have to be bailed out repeatedly by its EU partners; it was a country on the edge. But Marjorie and her two companions were undaunted, and what should have been a year living in a hillside village in the wild Mani region (the middle peninsula of the southern Peloponnese), turned into three. They spent another year in the nearby Messinian peninsula, in 2014.

“I think I have probably undertaken a serious move at the start of every decade, for different reasons, and the issue of ‘where is home?’ has been one that I have examined a lot and also in my three travel memoirs, in an ever restless search for the perfect location,” Marjory says. “I am not sure I’ve found it yet, but Greece has already taken a firm grip of my heart. Although we are now back in the UK, living in England this time, Greece will always be on our future odyssey wish-list.”

Marjory’s first Greek travel memoir, Things Can Only Get Feta, about life in the Mani village at the start of the debt crisis, was published in 2013, followed by its sequel, Homer’s Where the Heart Is. Her most recent memoir, A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree, came out last month.

MM Trilogy

Now let’s talk to Marjory and hear about how she approached the challenge of capturing life in rural Greece during turbulent times to her readers.

* * *

Welcome, Marjory, to Location, Locution. What was it about living in Greece that inspired you to write a series of memoirs?

When I started writing my first travel memoir, Things Can Only Get Feta, I was living in the the hillside village of Megali Mantineia, and location—it’s a traditional farming settlement—was a driving force. The Mani region of Greece is wild, unspoilt, majestic: beneath the Taygetos mountains, with olive groves spilling down hillsides to the edge of the Messinian Gulf. Like much of rural southern Greece, it also has a rawness about it. So the scenery had a powerful effect on my imagination. But the location on its own might not have inspired me to write a book. What did, however, was a chance meeting early on with an eccentric goat herder, Foteini, who has featured in my three books (that’s her on the cover of the first one) and was probably their unlikely muse. She certainly inspired my journalistic curiosity, and from then on a narrative started to take shape in my mind. She had been riding down the road on her donkey in the village of Megali Mantineia, where we had just looked at a stone house for rent for a year. We weren’t sure about the house, but Foteini sealed our fate by chivvying us up. “Why wouldn’t you take it?” she said, abruptly. Why indeed. So we did, and it was to be the start of one of the most curious and challenging friendships of my life. The fact that I had some reasonable Greek language skills to begin with meant I was able to connect with Foteini and many of the other wonderful villagers struggling through the economic crisis, and I knew I had to write a book to somehow capture the way of life that hadn’t changed that much in centuries—but I felt that due to the Greek sovereign-debt crisis, it would.
Foteini quote

You wanted to make your readers feel what it is like to live in rural Greece at a time of economic turmoil. What was your technique for evoking the atmosphere?

For me it’s always about the people and I tried to evoke the spirit of Greece through the people I befriended, and also through descriptions of their homes, their celebrations and all the funny and touching moments we shared, because really, Greeks are big characters and they dwarf other aspects like landscape—in my mind anyway. I also like to evoke an atmosphere with humour. I do tend to see humour in everything and in the three books I’ve homed in on quirky things—like the way Foteini always dresses in mismatched layers and the fact she likes to peel and then wash her bananas before she eats them. Things like that always cracked me up.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

I think culture and food in rural Greece gives a strong sense of location. This is a place brimming with customs and local events: saints’ days, feast days, local fetes, and national celebrations. At any one time in Greece, someone is celebrating something. And food is at the heart of everything and it does tend to capture the essence of life, like the ritual of lamb cooked on a spit outdoors at Easter. Greeks can spend half the day sitting around a meal table with family and friends, sharing food and a modest amount of wine. What intoxicates most Greeks is company, parea, and I sometimes think the food is really just a bonus.

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

For our latest odyssey in Greece we lived in Koroni, in Messinia (the left-hand prong of the three Peloponnese peninsulas), a region that hasn’t been written about a great deal. We lived on a hillside again in a glorious setting, ironically, right opposite the Mani and the spine of the Taygetos mountains. This was a very peaceful and unspoilt region. The passage is from my latest memoir, A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree:

The late afternoons in June were amongst the nicest hours of summer, after the midday heat had died down and especially if cooling winds made a gentle susurrus through the olive orchards from the sea below. It was impossible not to be seduced by the ease of life before the big heatwaves of July and August bore down on us all. We would often go for a late walk, taking the road that continued north past the turn-off for the villa complex. On either side were orchards with ancient olive trees standing in rows, their trunks thick and gnarled with age, but nowhere near past their usefulness. There were small farms, some no more than dry patches of land with wire enclosures for goats and turkeys, watched over by a few chained hounds.

On the right-hand side, another track ascended to a high plateau of land overlooking the gulf. This had been a village once, called Ayios Dimitrios, settled in the 18th century. It was encircled by olive trees growing right to the edge of the cliff-face with the sea below. All that remained of the village were the skeletal outlines of walls hidden in long grass and herb bushes, and a large grinding stone from the village’s olive press.

It was a quiet place, with a peaceful sense of the past, of lives well lived and not quite forgotten. Under one of the olive trees a rickety wooden ladder, used for harvesting, was abandoned and leaning against the trunk, as if offering a stairway to heaven. This place came pretty close already.
Seduced by the ease of life

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

With a travel memoir, knowing a place well need not be an issue if being a newcomer, an ingénue, is part of the narrative. With my memoirs, I already knew a lot about Greece before I went, after living there in my youth and after many long stays. I didn’t know a lot about rural Greece though, and the Mani in particular. It was a quick learning curve, however, because as journalists, Jim and I decided to freelance while there to help fund our adventure and had to connect with the region and the people in quick time, which was no great hardship. I think that helped us enormously and made it easier for me to write a truthful account of living there during the crisis. My third book, A Scorpion In The Lemon Tree, set on the Messinian peninsula, where we lived for a year in 2014, was a totally different experience, as it was a place that we knew nothing about, and more than that, was not the place we really wanted to be. How this happened, and how we dealt with it, formed the main crux of the story, so it worked to my advantage.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

My first literary hero was the displaced (Polish-British) writer Joseph Conrad. The way he evokes the dark, brooding qualities of central Africa in Heart Of Darkness is spine-tinglingit’s still one of my favourite books. I love Patricia Highsmith’s books, especially The Talented Mr Ripley, a novel about (and by!) a displaced American. The Italian locations in the book are so sensual and pervasive, they almost become an extra character in the book.

MM fave authors

Marjory McGinn’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Marjory, for your answers. It’s been a pleasure.

Thank you for inviting me to discuss my wanderings on your Location, Locution page for the Displaced Nation site. I enjoyed the experience.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Marjory? Please leave them in the comments below.  And I have one signed copy of A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree, which will go to for FIRST reader to email me their name and postal address traceykwarr@gmail.com with “A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree” in the subject line. **Too late! THE GIVEAWAY NOW HAS A WINNER. Maybe next time?**

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Marjory McGinn and her books, I suggest you visit her Big Fat Greek Odyssey author site and blog. You can also follow her on Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! I’ve always had a soft spot for Greece myself and was worried about the country during its economic crisis. It was also hit hard by the refugee crisis, I believe. I’ve also never been to the Peloponnese; it sounds fascinating! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels with Impress Books. She just now published, in English and French, a future fiction novella, Meanda, set on a watery exoplanet, as an Amazon Kindle ebook. Her new historical novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in September.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). All other photos were supplied by the author or downloaded from Pixabay, except for: 1) photo of Koroni: [Untitled – Koroni], by MihiScholl via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); photo of Joseph Conrad: Joseph Conrad via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain Mark 1.0); and 3) photo of Patricia Highsmith: Highsmith on After Dark (1988), by Open Media Ltd via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Writing in Finnish and English, expat novelist Emmi Itäranta creates fantasy worlds that feel palpably real

Location Locution Emmi Itaranta
Tracey Warr is here with a Finnish-born writer Emmi Itäranta, for whom displacement means living in another country (England) and writing dual-language dystopian novels. As a special note to long-time Displaced Nation readers, the book that had the greatest impact on Emmi as a child was Alice in Wonderland—until she discovered science fiction and fantasy.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers. My guest this month is Emmi Itäranta, who grew up in Tampere, a city surrounded by two lakes in southern Finland.

And if her childhood was spent in a territory located between Lakes Näsijärvi and Pyhäjärvi, she has chosen to spend her adulthood afloat between two languages, Finnish and English.

After earning an MA in Drama from the University of Finland and temping for a few years in jobs ranging from scriptwriter to press officer, she challenged herself to do an MA in Creative Writing in English at the University of Kent in the UK. As part of that course, she began writing her first novel, Memory of Water, working in English and Finnish simultaneously. As that title suggests, it’s set in a dystopian future where fresh water is scarce.

MoW US cover

England is now Emmi’s home: she has lived in Canterbury since 2007. But she continues to write fiction in both English and Finnish. (She speaks English at home with her Spanish husband.) Emmi feels that her books would be different altogether if she wrote them in only one language. In answer to an interviewer’s questions about the dual-language process that produced Memory of Water, she had the following to say:

I began writing the book in English because part of it formed my creative writing dissertation at the University of Kent, but early on I realised that drafting it in Finnish at the same time helped me polish the writing. The two languages seemed to support and inform each other. You get very, very close to the text when you work in two languages; translators often spot details that the author and editor may have missed. It is a slow process, and hard work, but ultimately I find it rewarding.

Emmi has now come out with her second novel. Published in Finnish in 2015, it has just now made its English-language debut in the UK with Harper Voyager, under the title The City of Woven Streets. The U.S. edition, to be published later this year, will be called The Weaver.
The Woven Streets The Weaver

The City of Woven Streets / The Weaver is a story about an island that is slowly sinking into the sea (if Emmi’s first book had too little water, this one has too much), and where dreaming is forbidden. It has elements of urban fantasy but its world has a feel of the past, rather than present or future. In a city where human life has little value, you must practice a craft if you want to stay alive.

Now let’s talk to Emmi about she gets her readers to experience these extraordinary settings.

* * *

Welcome, Emmi, to Location, Locution. Which comes first in your novels, story or location?

For my second novel, The Weaver / The City of Woven Streets, the location came first. I saw an imaginary city with its strange own internal laws and spent months writing scenes that simply explored the setting but were not yet connected by a story. This surprised me because in my first book, Memory of Water, the story and location were intertwined from the beginning. For that book, the first image that came to me was a young woman preparing tea in a dry future world. The story called for a specific location—far north, near the Arctic—and the location shaped the story.

For those who haven’t read Emmi’s first novel yet: The main character, Noria, lives near present-day Kuusamo, northern Finland, where she is learning to become a tea master in her father’s footsteps. By then Finland is ruled by an Asian superpower, and water for tea is a rare treasure.

Emmi, your novels have a strong sense of place. Can you tell us what techniques you use for evoking those feelings in your readers?

I try to imagine how the characters would experience the place through their senses. What are the shapes and colours surrounding them? How does the air smell and taste? How does the ground feel under their feet, what sounds does it make as they walk? What do they notice, what is relevant to them individually, but also as part of the community that inhabits this setting?

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

All of those, but I would also add things like weather and seasons. Furthermore, I think a sense of history is important, in fiction just as it is in real life. Even if we don’t know the history of a location in detail, the feeling that there is one helps make it more plausible and gives it depth.

Did you have any real cities in mine when you created the city in The Weaver / The City of Woven Streets?

Yes, The Weaver / The City of Woven Streets is set in a fantasy world but to make it feel tangibly real, I used my knowledge and impressions of old European cities I have visited, mainly Prague, Venice and Dubrovnik.

Cities that inspired The Weaver

Three of the European cities that inspired Emmi Itäranta’s city in her latest novel: Venice (center); Prague (bottom right); and Dubrovnik (other three photos).

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

I’d like to share a passage from the first chapter of The Weaver / The City of Woven Streets. It aims to create a sense of the surroundings my main character, Eliana, lives in, a world that is unfamiliar and recognisable at once:

I like the air gondola port because you cannot see the Tower from there: its tall, dark figure is concealed behind the wall and the buildings of the House of Webs. Here I can imagine for a moment that I am beyond the reach of the Council’s gaze. I like the port best at this hour, when the cables have not yet started creaking. The vessels are still, their weight hanging mid-air, or resting at the dock, or floating in the water of the canals. The gate cracks open without a sound. The wrought iron is cold against my skin, and the humidity gathered on its surface clings to my palms. The cable of the air route dives into the precipice, which begins at the rock landing of the port, and the city opens below. I walk along the landing close to the brink. It is steep as a broken bridge. Far below, the sharp edges of Halfway Canal cut through the guts of the island, outlining waters that always run dark, even in brightest summer light.

The sky has begun to fade into the colours of smoke and roses. The first light already clings to the rooftops and windows, to the glint of the Glass Grove a distance away. The flood has finally ceased to rise, and down in the city the water rests on streets and squares. Its surface is smooth and unbroken in the calm closeness of dawn: a strange mirror, like a dark sheet of glass enclosing a shadow double of the city.
The Weaver_quote

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

My stories tend to be set in the future or entirely fictional worlds, so you could say the settings are imaginary for the most part. However, I do use real places as inspiration and find that visiting them where possible really helps bring the fictional setting to life. For The Weaver / The City of Woven Streets, I looked at photographs and journals from my visits to different cities, particularly those with a long history. I’m always interested in trying to understand how different eras have shaped a place. So the end result becomes a mixture of imagination, history, memory and subjective experience.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

There are so many, but the first one that comes to mind is China Miéville and the strange geography of his novel The City and the City. It portrays two fictional cities that overlap, yet are distinct from each other with their own unique and recognisable features, cultures and complex unspoken agreements that define the border between the two. The setting almost becomes a character in its own right.

China Mieville The City and The City

Emmi Itäranta’s pick for a novelist who has mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Emmi, for your answers.

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Readers, any questions for Emmi? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you would like to discover more about her, I suggest that you visit her author site. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

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Thank you so much, Tracey! I loved hearing about the way Emmi’s imagination works, feeding on everything from linguistic differences to her travels within Europe. —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels with Impress Books. She just now published, in English and French, a future fiction novella, Meanda, set on a watery exoplanet, as an Amazon Kindle ebook. Her new historical novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in September.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Related posts:

Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Emmi’s author bio photo is by Heini Lehväslaiho. All other photos were supplied by the author or downloaded from Pixabay except for 1) in top collage: Cherub (Canterbury, England), by Upupa4me via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and 2) in bottom collage: Author China Mieville at Utopiales 2010 (France), self-photographed, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Under pseudonym A.J. MacKenzie, Canadian expat couple set crime fiction series in 18th-century Kent village

Location Locution Mackenzie
Tracey Warr is back, this time with a Canadian couple who are practically British—to the point where they have even started writing quintessentially British crime fiction! **Who would like to win a wonderfully atmospheric murder mystery set in Romney Marsh? Two copies on offer. Details below.**

My guests this month, Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel, have written more than twenty non-fiction books between them, on subjects ranging from doing business in China and managing for success (Morgen) to medieval warfare and economic history (Marilyn). They are also the joint authors of The Road to Crécy: The English Invasion of France, 1346.

But today we’ll be talking about a work of fiction they have produced. The Body on the Doorstep is their first novel as a couple—and the fulfilment of a long-held dream. Fiction writing is where their heart lies, and this novel is just the beginning of a planned series featuring a pair of unlikely sleuths: the tipsy Reverend Hardcastle and the widow, Amelia Chaytor.

Marilyn grew up in Ontario, in the suburbs of Toronto, while Morgen’s family come from northern British Columbia. They met at the University of Victoria, where both were studying history, and married two years later, taking two years out from university to work and travel in Europe before returning to complete their degrees. They were determined to come back to Britain and settle there if possible. “From almost the first moment of arrival, I felt at home here,” says Marilyn.

They came back to Britain in 1987, living in London and then for 12 years in Kent before moving to Devon in 2000. After nearly thirty years living in Britain, both are a little confused by the question, “What is it like to live abroad?”

For them, England is home; Canada is abroad, even though both still have strong family ties in the latter. Questions of ethnicity and belonging, for them, are complex. While both feel that Devon and England are home, they are also very much aware of being Canadians, immigrants.

That sense of being an immigrant, of being from somewhere else, was helpful when it came to the two lead characters of The Body on the Doorstep. Reverend Hardcastle knows his smuggling parishioners well, but is well aware he is not one of them. Amelia Chaytor is also an outsider, a widow still bitterly grieving, and craving solitude. The immigrant experience, say Marilyn and Morgen, taught them about the self-reliance and self-sufficiency, qualities they have passed on to their characters.

Growing up in northern Canada in the 1960s, Morgen lived an essentially pre-modern lifestyle without electricity, running water or most of the conveniences of modern life. That, he says, makes it easier to empathise with people living their lives by candlelight and drawing water from wells in late 18th-century England. Whereas Marilyn feels a little displaced: how did a medievalist end up writing novels set in the late 18th century? She is still looking for an answer.

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Welcome, Morgen and Marilyn, to Location, Locution. Can I ask which came first, story or location?

We had to stop and think about this one, because we couldn’t remember! But probably it was the location, Romney Marsh, because that is so crucial to the book. Romney Marsh is a very distinctive and particular space, a flat open plain jutting out into the sea and fenced off from the rest of Kent by hills. In the early 19th century the Reverend Barham nicknamed the Marsh “the Fifth Continent” because it was so obviously different from the land around it.

This is a historical novel, set during the time of the French Revolution, and the themes involve smuggling, spying and the threat of imminent invasion. You couldn’t ask for a better location for this story; and to a large extent, the location shaped the story and became part of it.
Body on the Doorstep_cover_400x

What techniques do you use for evoking place in your novel? After all, the action takes place long ago.

For us, the key thing is to engage the senses. We like to do more than just describe the visual image of a place. We try to engage as many of the senses as possible, to make the reader feel as if they are actually there.

Sound is vital: the hiss of wind in trees, the suck and roar of waves on shingle beaches, the bleating of sheep, the sound of bees, the rattle of silver in the dining room. Sounds evoke very powerful images, as do smells: of mud, dung, fine wine, perfume, gunsmoke. One feels the glow of a fire, the hot sun on one’s face that causes sweat to break out, the bitter tang of a north wind bearing snow. And taste too: on a stormy day by the sea you taste salt spray on your lips. You taste the food you eat, from stale ship’s biscuit to quails with Madeira sauce. Combining all the senses can make people feel they are part of the scene, not just onlookers, and that is what we try to do.

Also, we tend not to stop and engage in long descriptions of landscape or scene. Most of our descriptions of the landscape/location are made while characters are on the move. Their interaction with the location is key. Those are okay if the landscape or scene is particularly important, or dramatic, but there is always a risk that you will interrupt the flow. We try to introduce a sense of movement into our descriptions.

Ideally, the scene should be dynamic, not static. Even it is just lambs jumping and playing in a meadow, there is something happening so that readers can focus their attention. Just as with the sensory details, the aim is to make readers feel like they have stepped through the looking glass. They are not just watching, they are there, participating.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

Everything. We’re historical novelists, and everything about people’s lives can be used to give a sense of place, and most importantly, of place-in-time; that is, a particular place at a defined moment in time. So it is landscape, culture, food, dress, methods of transport, housing, drugs, servants, weapons; all the things that tell readers where and when the action is happening.

We also find weather an important scene-setter because weather affects mood so much; it can impact on the mood of the characters, and if we get it right, even the readers. Again, as historical novelists, weather is even more important because, except for the very well-to-do, there was no escape from it. There was no central heating, no rubber boots, no Gortex. People lived with the weather and in the weather, and experienced and felt it far more than we do now.

That said, it is really important not to go overboard and start sounding like an encyclopedia when describing a location. We have a term we use when we think we are indulging in too much description: “Reykjavik”.

Yes, we’d better explain that, hadn’t we? While travelling in Europe on honeymoon, during a very cold winter many years ago, we both read a thriller that happened to be lying around. In the course of the story, the hero is travelling on a plane from Washington to Moscow. Midway through the journey the plane lands in Reykjavik. There then follows a short essay on Iceland, its geography, history, economy, politics, culture and so on, all very accurate and detailed. We waited to see how the story would unfold in Iceland. Instead, the plane refuelled and took off again, without the hero setting foot on the ground! So, “Reykjavik” is code for “interesting detail which does not actually set the scene or advance the story”.
Reykjavic code

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

We’ll offer two, if we may, each of which illustrates a particular way of how we (try to) do it. In the first, the two heroes, Mrs Chaytor and Reverend Hardcastle, are driving back to St Mary in the Marsh. Mrs Chaytor has the reins.

They trotted briskly through Brenzett, and once past the village she whipped up on the long straight to Old Romney. The gig flew down the road, so fast that the rector had to hold onto his hat.

‘What puzzles you now?’ she called over the noise of iron-shod hooves and iron-rimmed wheels.

‘Two men died that night, half a mile apart and within five minutes of each other.’

‘I see. You wonder if the two events might be related. Either your killer, or your victim, or both, might have had some connection with the smugglers.’

‘What other reason would either have for being out on the Marsh on the night of a new moon?’

‘I see your point,’ said his companion thoughtfully, shaking the reins and urging the horse to further speed. ‘It does not feel like a coincidence, does it?’

‘Over the years, I have learned to distrust the very idea of coincidence,’ said the rector, clutching again at his hat. ‘My dear Mrs Chaytor, there is a dray in the road ahead.’

There was indeed a dray in the road ahead, loaded with timber and drawn by two plodding horses. Mrs Chaytor touched the reins to guide the pony and, without slackening speed, pulled around the dray on the outside, one wheel running onto the grass verge, and then swerved back onto the road. The driver of the dray, startled out of his doze, yelled abuse after her. The rector stared at his companion, wondering where she had learned to drive. Thereafter he concentrated on holding his seat as they shot through Old Romney at a speed that left chickens squawking indignantly in the road behind them, and raced on towards the coast. Only on the outskirts of St Mary did she slacken speed, and she trotted the gig sedately up the high street towards the church.
Hold your seat Old Romney

Here, we’re trying to keep things moving. The emphasis is on both picture and speed; that’s the dynamic aspect we talked about.

In contrast, here is the scene where a group of smugglers are ambushed on the Marsh:

From somewhere up ahead there was a hissing noise, like a snake preparing to strike. Suddenly light exploded across the Marsh, an eerie, shivering, unearthly blue light that showed the scene before them in garish contrast. The light glowed off a column of men making their way silently across the Marsh, masked and hooded men with weapons cradled in their arms. Nearer at hand, other men crouched in the grass or in a ditch, their own weapons levelled.

The imperative here is different. Something very violent is about to happen. The scene is deliberately static; we give you detail of what you can see, so that you have it clear in your heads before everything explodes. We use the blue light of the flare to make the scene shocking and disturbing.

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

Very well, but not too well. You have to know it well enough to appreciate its distinctiveness, for your purposes, the things that make it stand out. That means visiting the place, of course, and not just driving through it. It is really important to get out and walk the ground, get your boots dirty, as anthropologists say. Look at the landscapes and the buildings, and talk to people: they will give you all sorts of details you will find nowhere else.

As historical novelists, we also need to get to know that place-in-time, which means stripping away the veneer of roads and bridges and power stations and housing estates and trying to work out what the places looked like in 1796. Documentary sources are a great help with this, as are maps. For example, Romney Marsh today is crossed by modern, tarmacked roads. In our period, as the geographer Hasted writes, apart from the high road from Appledore to New Romney and on to Dymchurch, most roads on the Marsh were distinguished from their surrounding fields only by the presence of a fence on either side.

But you can get to know a landscape almost too well. Again, there comes the urge to describe it in such intimate detail that you lose sight of the story. When that happens: time to call “Reykjavik!”

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

Lindsey Davis does a marvelous job with ancient Rome. Fountain Court, where her detective hero, Falco, lives, comes alive; we can see it, and hear its sounds, and smell its smells (she is particularly good with smells). Dorothy Dunnett made the Scottish borders feel like an old friend long before we ever visited them; years after first reading The Game of Kings, walking in Yarrowdale we expected to see Lymond and his horsemen sweeping over the hills. Dick Francis makes you absolutely feel like you are on the back of a horse. Andrea Camilleri evokes Sicily in the same way that Donna Leon evokes Venice; reading their books, you can close your eyes and you are there. But the master is Tolstoy. Be it a battlefield, a ball or a sleigh ride in a winter forest, he does it with both artistry and craft. He puts you there, in the middle of it all, as a participant. One can only admire.

Fave Books Mackenzie

AJ MacKenzie’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Marilyn and Morgen, for your thoughtful answers.

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Readers, any questions for Marilyn and Morgen? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you would like to discover more about A.J. MacKenzie, you can visit their author site and blog. You can also follow them on Twitter.

BOOK GIVEAWAY***********
I have two free copies of A.J. MacKenzie’s new novel to give away to the first two readers to send the correct answer to the question: How many wheels does an 18th-century gig have? Please email your answers ASAP to traceykwarr@gmail.com
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À bientôt! Till next time when my guest will be a Finnish novelist who lives in England, and writes about the future.

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Thank you so much, Tracey! I love the way AJ MacKenzie bring the past alive in the Kent marshes. And to think, they are both Canucks! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels and her forthcoming novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in the autumn.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). All other photos supplied by the authors or downloaded from Pixabay, with the exception of: Two Gigs in Trouble, a painting by Thomas Rowlandson, located at Yale Center for British Art, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)..

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