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Category Archives: Location, Locution

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.

* * *

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…

* * *

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!

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). 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).

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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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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)..

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Deborah Lawrenson’s latest novel is inspired by the beautiful and dramatic Algarve coast—plus she’s giving away a copy!

Tracey Warr is back with her latest interview guest, the novelist Deborah Lawrenson, who started out life as a diplomatic kid (in America we call them “foreign service brats,” with “brat” being used in a good way). **NOTE: Deborah is giving away a copy of her latest book, 300 Days of Sun. Details below.**

My guest this month is British novelist Deborah Lawrenson—who, as the child of diplomatic service parents, was displaced from an early age, spending her childhood moving from Kuwait to China, Belgium, Luxembourg and Singapore.

After graduating from Cambridge University, Deborah worked as a journalist in London, the highlight of which was working under gossip columnist Nigel Dempster, until she built up her confidence to start writing novels. She has now produced eight, including:

  • The Lantern, a modern gothic tale set in the lush countryside of Provence, in the tradition of Daphne de Maurier’s Rebecca; has been a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic; featured on Channel 4’s TV Book Club (watch discussion HERE).
  • The Art of Falling, which was chosen for the prestigious WHSmith Fresh Talent promotion (2005)—set mostly in Italy, past and present.
  • The Sea Garden, consisting of three novellas set in southern France.
  • Songs of Blue and Gold, a love story set in a lush, richly imagined Corfu, inspired by the life of British writer Lawrence Durrell (incidentally, ITV recently screened a hit drama series based on the Durrells’ expat life in Corfu).

Deborah’s latest novel, 300 Days of Sun, which came out in April, is an atmospheric tale of spies and lies set in Portugal.

Deborah lives in Kent with her husband and daughter—though the family spends as much time as possible at a crumbling hamlet in the Luberon region of Provence, France.

* * *

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

In the case of my new novel, 300 Days of Sun, it was definitely location (though this isn’t always the case with my books). I went to Faro, in southern Portugal, to accompany my 17-year-old daughter when she enrolled in a two-week Portuguese course in the town. While she got to grips with a new language, I wandered around the old town with my notebook and camera, and let my imagination flow. Once I was inspired by the setting, I began to research the history of the country—and was drawn to the fascinating years of the Second World War when Portugal, as a neutral country, was a cauldron of intrigue, spies, enemies, opportunists and double-dealers. Since then, the beautiful and dramatic Algarve coast has become known as a wonderful, friendly place to spend time in the sun—three hundred days of it a year—but there have been some dark events there too, in particular, a notorious case of child abduction.

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

I’m quite a visual person, so I will always try to paint a vivid picture of the landscapes and immediate surroundings of my characters. Recently someone very kindly—and perceptively—told me that when I evoke a sense of place, it should more accurately be termed “the senses” of place. That is what I try to do: to write sensuously, to make the narrative conjure up the sounds and feel, and the smells, of the story. It’s the details that help the reader feel immersed in a place or time, and I do carefully research to make the transportation as accurate as possible.

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

It’s all of these. You could argue that they are all interlinked anyway, as the culture of a place develops from its unique landscape. Whether that’s the harsh pragmatism of a people scratching a living from the soil of the Provençal uplands, or the geographical situation of Portugal that made it an historically outward-looking seafaring nation and the last escape hatch of Europe during WWII, the physical attributes of a place will influence the character and achievements of its inhabitants. If there was one unifying factor in the novels I write, it would probably be that. And food is simply another aspect of it: fish by the sea; cheese in the mountains from the goats and sheep that are the most viable form of livestock; endless variety in the melting pots of the great cosmopolitan cities.

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

Here are a couple of paragraphs setting the scene in Faro, from the opening pages of 300 Days of Sun:

“My first few days in the country, I was astonished by how many Russian tourists there were here, chattering in the shops and streets. Then I realised: to the uninitiated, Portuguese sounds like Russian. The language is nothing like the soft singsong of Spanish or Italian. The sounds shush and slip around like the shining, sliding cobblestones under your feet.”

“The temperature was climbing. The air was heavy with orange dust from the Sahara that fell like a sprinkling of paprika powder over the town’s white sills and ledges. I walked down to the ferry, needing to get out over water to catch some fresh wind. As the boat ploughed through green salt marshes, I did breathe more easily.”

"The air [in Faro] was heavy with orange dust from the Sahara..."

“The air [in Faro] was heavy with orange dust from the Sahara…”

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

Obviously, knowing a place well will give a novel real depth, as I hope I achieved in The Lantern and The Sea Garden, both set in the South of France, which is my second home. However, I do think it’s possible to visit somewhere relatively briefly but to look hard and use what you see as the basis of a setting, so long as you do some decent research as well. After all, the characters in a novel might only visit a particular place once, and in that case, first impressions will be very useful.

The Lantern and The Sea Garden are both set in the South of France, Deborah's second home.

The Lantern and The Sea Garden are both set in the South of France, Deborah’s second home.

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

For me, Lawrence Durrell is the undisputed master. I also love the way Mary Stewart and Daphne du Maurier combined evocative locations with romantic suspense.

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

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

Thanks so much, Deborah.

* * *

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

And if you would like to discover more about Deborah you can visit her author site and blog, where she writes not only about her books but all things inspired by the South of France. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

BOOK GIVEAWAY*******************************
Deborah is offering a free copy of her new novel as a prize. To enter the competition please “Like” Deborah Lawrenson’s Facebook page. Then find the link on her page to this interview and enter a comment underneath.
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À bientôt! Till next time when my guests will be a Canadian husband and wife team who write novels together about a pair of unusual sleuths in an 18th-century Kent village, and who are themselves displaced inhabitants there.

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! I note that one of the Channel 4 reviewers raved about Deborah’s first book for its “extraordinary description of place and descriptions of smell”; and readers have asked her if they can get the perfume, Lavande de Nuit, she describes in that work. (As it turns out, it exists only in her imagination!) —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 author, apart from those of Kuwait and Cambridge, which are from Pixabay.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Scottish expat writer Clare Kane’s novel immerses readers in 1930s Shanghai—plus we’re giving away her book and Donna Leon’s latest!

New columnist Tracey Warr arrives with her first interview guest, the displaced Scottish writer, Clare Kane. **NOTE: Help celebrate her opening column by becoming one of the lucky readers to win Clare’s book and Donna Leon’s latest. Details below.**

My guest this month is novelist Clare Kane. She was born in Scotland but has lived most of her life elsewhere. After studying Chinese at Oxford and working as a Reuters journalist in Madrid, she is currently living in Shanghai, where she works in marketing for TNS (she has a fellowship with WPP, the world’s largest communications services group). She spends her free time exploring the city’s past which she vividly evokes in her debut novel, Electric Shadows of Shanghai.

(And when she’s not writing about the past or researching markets, she’s writing about fashion and why we wear what we wear.)

Electric Shadows of Shanghai creates a fascinating world populated by British diplomats and wives, American journalists, glamorous stars of the Chinese silent film and Russian taxi-dancers turned ballerinas. It poignantly captures how the dreams and desires of these expat and Chinese inhabitants of the city lead them to interact and clash.

Electric-Shadows-high-res-cover-400x

Clare and I share a publisher, Impress Books, but have never met.

Let’s meet her now and hear her views on location, locution.

* * *

Welcome, Clare, to Location, Locution, and thank you for agreeing to be my very first guest. Can I ask which came first, story or location?

Location without a doubt. I’ve always been fascinated by China, and most of my short fiction writing is set there. But time also plays a part. As you pointed out in your introduction, my novel Electric Shadows of Shanghai is set in the 1930s, a particularly rich era in Shanghai’s history when as a free port it attracted people from all over the world: Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, White Russians escaping the Bolsheviks and plenty of adventurers looking to make their fortune.

The story couldn’t have taken place anywhere but Shanghai in the 1930s. Plots are built on conflict and the tensions that existed then helped shaped the story. China was pushing towards modernity, women were bobbing their hair and young men were returning from overseas educations to promote foreign ideas of democracy but these advances were overshadowed by political tensions, the constant threat of Japan and inequalities between rich and poor.

I knew I wanted to write about Shanghai, which has long been my favourite place in the world. Prior to living here each visit was a jolt to the senses, a reminder I was alive. The novel was also driven by my interest in Ruan Lingyu, a silent film actress from the time popular for her modern fashions, progressive ideas and films tackling tough social realities. I also wanted to write about the Russians who came to Shanghai, aristocrats who found themselves working as bodyguards and nightclub dancers (and those were the lucky ones). And I’d long had an idea in my head about a British couple coming to the city and it tearing their marriage apart (as it still does to this day). I pulled these various threads together into one plot and that is Electric Shadows of Shanghai

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

First, I have to get a hold on the atmosphere myself. With Shanghai it’s easy: I live here. Evoking the past is harder, but not impossible. The city is full of Art Deco haunts almost unchanged from their glory days in the 1930s, where for a moment you can feel like you’ve travelled in time. I also think that despite all the changes that have taken place over the last century, Shanghai probably feels very much as it did in the 1930s. A place of possibility, drawing eclectic characters from around the world. The seedy underbelly that existed then is still here now. And the clash of high and low living—cocktail bars next to noodle stalls—is still very much present.

But I don’t think you should bore the reader with lengthy descriptions of place. It’s about building on any impressions they may already have of a place by weaving in details to the narrative and letting their imaginations do the rest. No reader is a blank slate and I’ve found that even people who have never been to Shanghai nor given the place much thought have an impression of exoticism and glamour when they hear “Shanghai”. It’s my job to build on that, encouraging certain ideas and tearing down others.

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

Tapping into senses other than sight is vital. Descriptions of buildings and landscapes get dull very quickly. I find it’s the snippets of sound, the wafts of smell, that really build a place in the mind. But the people are perhaps most indicative of a place. Not in terms of what it looks like on a map but in how it shapes people. When I look at the characters in my novel many of them are striving, determined to build something in the city, while others are more dissolute, giving in to the sleaze and losing themselves to the night. Each type—and no character is completely clear-cut—reflects their surroundings in their actions.

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

These are the opening lines of Electric Shadows of Shanghai:

Over a million women in Shanghai and one in thirteen a prostitute. Another myth of the Orient, Will thought, when Rollo told him a couple of hours earlier. But he recalled it now on the threshold of the Paradise, its neon promise reflected on the cobbles of the alleyway darkening in milky dusk. They were right on the edge of the International Settlement now, where the sombre society of the Bund gave way to the sweet tang of the night that made the two syllables of Shanghai so thrilling to the foreign ear.

I wanted to plunge the reader into Old Shanghai right away, and I tried to do this both through literal description and by inviting the reader to recall their own impressions of Shanghai (“so thrilling to the foreign ear”).

You live in Shanghai and describe yourself as a Chinese history geek. IN general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

I have written about places I’ve never visited and I don’t think writers should rule somewhere out just because they aren’t personally familiar with it. Writing is about imagination, after all. It depends on how key place is to the story, how much knowing where this street meets that one impacts on the plot. You run the risk of offending people if you misrepresent a place and doubly so if you’ve never even been there. But if it’s the mood of the place that matters—the bustle of New York in the 1980s, the bleakness of the North Korean countryside—rather than the reality of it, I don’t think we should be precious about places. But research is always key. If you’re not going to research a place, why use it? Just invent a place instead.

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

One of my favourite authors is Janice Y K Lee, who has written two novels about Hong Kong. Both are incredibly evocative. She captures the place on every level: the physical look and feel of it and the society that populates the islands. She very gently unravels all the tensions of the place and I love that in her latest book, The Expatriates, she does that through the stories of various women living there.

I’m also a big fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I know absolutely nothing about Nigeria but she brings it to life with every word. She makes the reader feel totally comfortable, unveiling place and history as part of an engaging story. I love that she weaves the stories of everyday people into huge historical events. She humanises history. And like Lee, place is key to her novels. They couldn’t take place anywhere else.

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

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

Thanks so much, Clare.

* * *

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

And if you would like to discover more about Clare, you can visit her author site. You can also follow her on twitter.

*******************************BOOK GIVEAWAY*******************************
To celebrate the launch of this new series of interviews, I am giving away:

1) A copy of Donna Leon’s new Brunetti novel, The Waters of Eternal Youth, the 25th in this excellent series, available for the first two readers (US addresses only for this one I’m afraid!) to email Tracey with the names of Brunetti’s wife and children. Answers to traceykwarr@gmail.com

2) A free ebook (via Apple iBooks store) of Clare Kane’s Electric Shadows of Shanghai for the first two readers (anywhere) to email Tracey with the name of the main river that flows through Shanghai. Answers to traceykwarr@gmail.com
****************************************************************************

À bientôt! Till next time when my guest will be an English novelist living part-time in France and writing about Portugal in her new novel.

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! Shanghai in the 1930s was its own kind of displaced nation, so what a great choice of author/book to kick off the series. And that giveaway—it’s fabulous! —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 post!

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Photo credits: Top of page: (LOCATION ROW) Author photo and book cover (supplied); The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). (LOCUTION ROW) “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); 24 Shanghai street scene, by mksfca via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); Shanghai street scenes 1, by Wolfgang Staudt via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Writer Tracey Warr is a troubadour of medieval life, telling stories she collects from roaming far and wide

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest, and last(!), interview guest.

My guest this month is Tracey Warr, a writer of fiction and nonfiction who was born in London and lived there for a substantial portion of her life—but these days can be found in Pembrokeshire, in the south west of Wales; on the Aveyron in southern France; or in transit.

Actually, Tracey is more than just a guest; from next month onwards, she will be assuming the reins of the Location, Locution column. I’ve enjoyed my time interviewing a variety of talented expat authors, and I thank you all for your comments and for being part of my writing life.

I know you will be in good hands with Tracey, who already has lots of interesting interviews lined up for you. But first, like Jill Marsh and I before her, Tracey will introduce herself and her writing by answering the Location, Locution interview questions.

Tracey has enjoyed two illustrious careers. Her day job for many years was as an academic specialist in contemporary art history and theory. She studied English Literature at Oxford University and holds a PhD in Art History. She held the post of senior lecturer for 15 years, teaching art history and theory in not only the UK but also Germany and the Netherlands. She has been involved in art curation projects all over the world, including in Australia, the USA, Spain, Lithuania, Norway and Finland. She has a long list of published books and articles and contributes art book reviews to Times Higher Education. Her most recent publication in the contemporary art field is the edited volume Remote Performances in Nature and Architecture, which came out last year with Routledge.

But if Tracey’s head is in the world of contemporary art, her heart belongs to historical fiction. After earning an MA in Creative Writing at University of Wales Trinity St Davids in Carmarthen, she entered her second career: writing fiction and biographies inspired by the landscapes and medieval histories of southern France and south west Wales.

If Tracey’s head is in the world of contemporary art, her heart belongs to historical fiction. Photo credits: (top row) The mind via Pixabay; cover art for Warr’s recent book; (middle row) Tracey Warr author photo; Map bastides in 1271, by FRAMYJO, Wikimedia Commons (public domain); (bottom row) Hearts via Pixabay; Ramon Berenguer I and his wife, Almodis de la Marche, counting out 2,000 ounces of gold coins, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Thus far Tracey has published two novels set in early medieval France, Spain and Wales: Almodis the Peaceweaver (2011) and The Viking Hostage (2014). Her new novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, due out later this year, focuses on the 12th-century Welsh princess Nest ferch Rhys and the Welsh resistance to the Normans. In addition, Tracey is working on a biography entitled Three Female Lords, charting the lives and interactions of three medieval sisters who ruled in 11th-century southern France and Catalonia.

Tracey has already garnered numerous awards in her new career as a novelist and biographer. I won’t go on to list them because I am eager to get to our interview, but I urge you to read about her accolades on the page created by her publisher, Impress Books.

And now let’s meet Tracey Warr and hear her views on location, locution.

* * *

Welcome, Tracey, to Location, Locution, a column that will soon be yours! You have a strong sense of place in your historical novels, but tell us, which comes first, story or location?

Thank you, Lorraine, for hosting me and I look forward to assuming the column reins next month. In answer to your question: location! I was staying in a friend’s house in a remote village in the Tarn Valley in southern France for four months during a very cold winter. I visited the nearby medieval castle and village of Brousse-le-Château with my nephew, who was around 10 at the time and asked me to write a story about the castle. He loved it when I made up stories, and actually had me under a “contract” to write him at least one story a year—a hard task-master! During my research I came across an extraordinary real woman, Almodis de La Marche—and realised she would make a fascinating adult novel. The incidents of her life astonished me and I had to become a self-taught historian to discover more and more about her and then imagine what had happened during the gaps in the historical evidence. The landscape in this part of France is littered with spectacular castles and medieval bastide towns clustered around hilltops and connected by rivers, which served as highways in medieval times, so it became a process of location initiating and then feeding the development of the story.

Almodis inspiration

During her research on the castle, Tracey Warr came across an extraordinary real woman, Almodis de La Marche. Photo credits: Brousse-le-Château and Almodis cover art (supplied).

I’m particularly fascinated by watery landscapes—rivers, estuaries, coasts and islands. My second novel and the third one I’m working on now also began with landscapes—the Welsh islands off the coast of Pembrokeshire and the great triple river estuary at Carmarthen Bay.

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

If possible go there, take photographs, experience it, make notes on how it smells, sounds, feels, looks. The small details you gain from walking the ground are invaluable. The novel I’m writing at the moment centres around a number of medieval castles in Wales. I spent a few days staying in the village of Llansteffan near one of the castles, walking the cliffs and looking down on the spectacular river estuary and the dangerous tides and sandbanks of Carmarthen Bay. Watching birds hovering in the wind, seeing the weather lowering and rain coming in fast—I’ve used all those details in the novel. Although I’m writing historical fiction and many things have changed in a place, there are also many things that don’t change.

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

I use all of those, with landscape probably dominating, but I also use objects in museums, the literature of the times and places and medieval cookery books to help me evoke places. My characters need to eat, sleep, work, travel, use the garderobe and observe the rhythms of medieval life. A map of 11th-century Toulouse, a model of Viking Dublin, a Viking serpent brooch, medieval objects such as the Dunstable Swan Jewel, a medieval book of hours, the poetry of the female troubadours—all have been vital in helping me to create my fictional locations.

The Viking Hostage influences

Medieval objects such as the Dunstable Swan Jewel have been vital in helping Tracey create her fiction. Photo credits: (clockwise from top left) The Viking Hostage cover art, Dunstable Swan Jewel (British Museum), print from a Viking brooch (all supplied); Labors of the Months: May, from a Flemish Book of Hours (Bruges) via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Books such as medieval historian Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, which treats that distant time like the Rough Guide series, are full of helpful details on everyday life. I do a lot of historical, literary, material culture and visual research, picking out details that I can use and adapt to my story to create a credible world for my readers to step into. I started writing medieval fiction as a kind of holiday in time away from my academic work with contemporary art, so I try to recreate that experience for the reader. I hope that when they have their noses in my books, sitting on the Tube in London, on a train going to Birmingham, in their modern bedrooms and living rooms or on a crowded beach, they find themselves travelling with my characters to 11th-century Barcelona, 10th-century Tallinn (in Estonia), 12th-century Pembroke—or they are on a Viking ship or a medieval passenger boat plying up and down the Thames.

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

In The Viking Hostage I used my knowledge of traditional markets in France and modern-day Tallinn to help me create the opening scene in the 10th-century Tallinn slave market:

A list of items for sale was called out in the marketplace. I was described as one female Northchild, but my name is Sigrid Thorolfsdottir. I am for sale along with my brothers, Thorgils and Olafr, who stand either side, holding my hands.

‘Ease up Sigrid,’ Thorgils whispers to me, ‘you’re crunching the bones of my hand. It will be alright.’

I try to relax my grip on his knuckles and look out at the few buyers staring up at the platform where we stand barefoot. Most of the crowd have gone since we are the last and least interesting item. Around the edges of the market square tall, thin houses are painted in gay colours. Awnings above the stalls flap in the slight breeze, their colours leached out by sun. Apples, nuts and cheeses are carefully arranged in small mounds and circles. Chickens are panicking in wooden cages. If I squint my eyes I can just see the sun sparkling on the sea in the distance, beyond the square and the buildings, and the buyers.

‘Three fine children of the Northmen, already growing muscled and hard-working,’ Klerkon, the slaver, shouts to the sparse audience, pushing up the grimy sleeve of Thorgils’ shift and pinching the flesh of his bicep, leaving white fingerprints against the brown skin. I glance up at the angry muscle shifting in my brother’s cheek.

Medieval markets

“A list of items for sale was called out in the marketplace. I was described as one female Northchild…” Photo credits: Talinn, Estonia (Old Town) via Pixabay; Villefranche-de-Rouergue market (supplied).

Later on in the novel my heroines are held hostage by Vikings on a Welsh island. I blended together the real Welsh islands of Caldey and Skomer, which were actually occupied by Vikings, to create my fictional island.

We climb the hill in the direction Thorgils indicated. As we move up the path we alarm plump brown curlews with long curving beaks like darning needles that are nesting in the brilliant green bracken. Large dragon-flies fly towards us swerving at the last minute. From the top of the hill we can discern the rough diamond shape of the island, cliffs spearing out erratically into the blue sea on all sides and ravines full of white flowers. Our eyes crease against the brightness of the light reflecting from the surrounding water. There is an overwhelming sense of space. The grey cliffs are dotted with short bright green grass and yellow lichen. To the left comes the regular boom of the sea in a rocky blow-hole. The white foam of waves studded with black boulders look like a thin necklace slung around the coast. Thick green and yellow seaweed rolls back and forth on the strand. The irregular patchwork of fields established by the monks where the thralls now labour, blanket the rocks and undulations of the island. Planes of colour are visible in the sea—greens, dark blues, grey-blues, grey-greens and blacks. Strings of other islands in the distance look as if they have been dropped out of the sky from a giant’s hand.

The island is teeming with life. Raucous screeching seabirds wheel around us, sit on nests on the narrow ledges of the guano-streaked cliffs like a great shrieking city, skid across the surface of the ocean carrying flapping fish in their beaks, plunge-dive at dark clouds of mackerel. Aina and I lay on our bellies on the edge of the cliff, watching the birds. There are fat black and white birds with striped beaks and long talons like the fingers of a lute player.

Blend of two islands

“Planes of colour are visible in the sea—greens, dark blues, grey-blues, grey-greens and blacks.” Photo credits: (top) Sea cave right through Skomer; view of the sea through Llansteffan Castle (both supplied).

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

It helps to know a place well from living there or visiting and making detailed research. But I also sometimes completely imagine a place without going there, or I transpose my knowledge and experiences of one place to somewhere else. In my first novel I had to write about a journey across the Pyrenees. At the time I’d never been there so I used maps together with experiences of the Scottish Highlands to conjure it. Now I have spent quite a lot of time in writing residencies in the Pyrenees and would probably write it differently—but I hope the ‘Scottish’ version still worked in the novel for the readers. I find that if I really imagine a place or a building in my own head, such as the Norman motte-and-bailey castle at Cardiff that I’m writing about at the moment, this can drive the plot. Certain scenes and events happen because of the layout of a place, because I’m imagining moving through that place with my characters.

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

Donna Leon—in her Commissario Brunetti series, she makes me feel that I am in Venice, wandering the streets, riding boats in the canals with Brunetti, dropping into a corner bar for a glass of wine or a quick coffee, accompanying him on his way home for a delicious lunch with his smart, Henry-James-loving wife. Being in Venice with Brunetti is at least 60 percent of the charm of reading those books, and the murder mystery is the rest. British historical crime writer Antonia Hodgson—her 18th-century London in her recent novel, The Devil in Marshalsea, is absolutely believable and alarming. And Wilkie Collins—in The Moonstone, he creates a vivid landscape and mansion that his story unfolds within, and he infuses place with emotions and suspense.

Fave books for place Tracey Warr

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

Thanks so much, Tracey!

* * *

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

And if you’d like to discover more about Tracey before she begins her column next month, why not visit her author site. You can also follow her on twitter.

And with that, I bid you a fond adieu!

* * *

Thanks, Lorraine! You’ve introduced us to so many fabulous writers, an experience that has touched all of us who have been inspired by the landscapes we’ve visited, or in many cases, have made into our homes. We hope you’ll drop by the Displaced Nation every so often and see what we’re up to. Don’t be a stranger!! —ML Awanohara

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Pining for her native Emerald Isle, Sheila Bugler writes crime novels with Irish connections

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

Part of being an Irish emigrant, whether in the UK or farther afield, is a nostalgia for the homeland and its green fields and rich, dark soil—as my guest this month, crime writer Sheila Bugler, will attest.

Sheila grew up in a small town in the west of Ireland. After studying psychology at University College Galway, she left her native land for a life abroad, working in Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland and Argentina. Today she lives with her husband and two children in Eastbourne, a seaside resort town on the south coast of England. Despite being settled in the UK, she pines for Ireland and describes herself as a “reluctant emigrant.”

Sheila Bugler Ireland England

What’s more, these intense feelings for the Emerald Isle are what fuels her creative efforts. Sheila is the author of an acclaimed mystery series published by Brandon Books, an imprint of Ireland’s O’Brien Press, consisting so far of three books of a planned six: Hunting Shadows (2013), The Waiting Game (2014), and All Things Nice (forthcoming, April 2016). The series features Detective Inspector Ellen Kelly, a character whose “Irish roots shine through,” as one Amazon reviewer puts it, and is set amongst the displaced Irish community in southeast London.

As Sheila remarked in an interview with Triskele Books:

I adore Ireland and miss it (despite being very happy in the UK). For me, writing really is a way of connecting with my country. I write Irish characters (not exclusively, of course) and it was always very important to me that Ellen’s roots were Irish. At the moment, I can’t imagine writing a novel that doesn’t have some connection to Ireland.

Her characters, too, are inspired by place: by the bleak wilderness of the North Kent coast. Perhaps they find it reminiscent of the bleak and beautiful Aran Islands off the coast of Galway?

But let’s not get too carried away. It’s time to give Sheila the floor and hear what she has to say about location, locution.

* * *

Welcome, Sheila, to Location, Locution. You have a strong sense of place in your writing, but tell us, which tends to come first, story or location?

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine. In answer to your question: Story. But often there is a single image, in a particular place, which is the inspiration for that story.

What techniques do you use for evoking place in your crime stories?

I am quite an instinctive writer and try not to overthink the process as it happens. Of course, like all writers I have had to learn the basic techniques, but I don’t think you can force yourself to write in a particular way. Although location plays an important part in my novels, this isn’t a deliberate choice—it’s something that happens naturally as I write.

I like the way location can enhance a particular atmosphere you are trying to create. In my first two novels, Hunting Shadows and The Waiting Game, parts of each book are based in the beautiful, bleak Hoo Peninsula of north Kent.

In Hunting Shadows, this is the perfect location for one of the central characters, Brian. He is an isolated loner and the isolated landscape is a great way of showing how Brian lives his life. In contrast, there is a character in The Waiting Game who uses the Hoo’s wide open spaces and big skies as a backdrop to her work as an artist.

If I am struggling to create a sense of place, I will do some or all of the following:

  • Close my eyes and try to get a picture in my head.
  • Play some music that has a connection with the landscape I’m trying to evoke (for example, bluegrass when I’m writing about the Hoo, traditional Irish music when writing about the west of Ireland).
  • I wait until I can see the place, hear it, smell it, feel it.
  • And then I write it.

Sheila Bugler locations

Which particular features have you used to create a sense of what clearly is to you a special location? Landscape, culture, food?

Obviously it’s all of those things. However, you don’t need to use every one of them to evoke a sense of place.

The author JJ Marsh, for example, puts a lot of importance on food when she is writing about the different locations in her novels (I should add she doesn’t just write about food!).

The Irish noir writer Ken Bruen perfectly evokes the city of Galway[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galway] with almost no reference to the external landscape. Instead, he brings the city to perfect life through his characters’ voices and the internal spaces, particularly the pubs. Likewise, Ian Rankin manages to perfectly evoke his home city of Edinburgh without ever needing to give us “in your face” descriptions.

As in real life, your characters move through a rich world of noises, smells, colours, places and other people. If you don’t forget that when you are writing, then neither will your readers.

I’m pleased you mentioned JJ Marsh. She was the original creator of this column! But returning to your own works: can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

I’m going to share two different examples.

First, a short scene from my novel, Hunting Shadows. In this scene, I tried to give an impression of the location through the reactions of the two characters:

Ellen stepped out of the car and looked around. The place reminded her of the black-and-white photos in her parents’ house of old Irish towns. It gave her that same feeling that she was observing somewhere from a time long past. Apart from a scattering of houses—a mixture of semi-derelict Victorian cottages and cheap, flat-roofed eyesores—there was nothing else.

From where she stood, the landscape sloped down to the Thames marshes, bleak and desolate under the heavy sky.

“Listen,” Dai whispered.

Ellen frowned. “What? I can’t hear anything.”

“Duelling banjos,” he said. “I knew it. “Deliverance” country. We’re not safe in a place like this.”

ThamesMarshes_quote
And here is a very different piece from a stand-alone novel I am working on called Walk Away. I don’t normally write this descriptively but my own love for this part of Ireland obviously influenced me:

The town was on the southern edge of Galway Bay, the hills of the Burren sloping up behind it, the vast sweep of the Atlantic Ocean stretching out in front of it. Next stop America. It was beautiful. He knew that. Probably always had.

Sydney was home these days. A modern, open-plan apartment with muted colours, floor to ceiling windows and views across Sydney Harbour. All very tasteful and perfect for a shit-hot, sharp-dressing, arse-kicking, wheeling-and-dealing corporate lawyer.

But this, he had forgotten. The way the limestone landscape seemed to move as the light reflected off it. Changing colour all the time from purple to pale pink to grey and back to purple again, in harmony and contrast with the sea.

The_Burren_in_the_evening_sun_515x_quote

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

If you are using a real location as a setting, you need to know enough about it so it seems real to your reader. In today’s world, there is no excuse not to do this. We all have access to the internet and Google maps. If you haven’t visited a place, do some basic research and make sure you include this in your novel. Using a real pub, for example, instead of making one up can really add to the sense of authenticity.

I once read a crime novel set in Lewisham (where I was living at the time). In one scene, a character is walking down Lewisham High Street and bemoaning the lack of a Marks and Spencer’s. We have M&S in Lewisham! This—and other aspects of the novel—made it clear to me the writer had never been to Lewisham and didn’t know anything about the place he was writing about.

Of course, we can also write about fictional locations. If you do that, your own sense of the place needs to be well-formed before you write about it. The important thing is this: whatever location you choose, it must feel authentic for the story you are writing.

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

JJ Marsh writes beautifully in her European crime series featuring Beatrice Stubbs. Similarly, Gilly Hamer writes wonderful descriptions of the stunning Anglesea coastline where her novels are set.

For many reasons, I hold Ken Bruen up as a master when it comes to using location in his novels. He perfectly evokes Galway city, capturing not only its beauty but also the voices and characters of the people who live in that very special place. He is my absolute writing hero.

Bulger fave authors

Thanks so much, Sheila!

* * *

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

And if you’d like to discover more about Sheila, why not visit her author site. You can also follow her on twitter.

Until next month!

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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 of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0). First collage: Sheila Bugler (supplied); County Galway, Eastbourne Pier & shamrock via Pixabay. Second collage: Book cover art; The Tir Na Nog Irish Pub, Wandsworth – London, by Jim Linwood (CC BY 2.0); All Hallows Marshes, Hoo, Kent, by Amanda Slater via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). First quote: Hang on, is that grass over there?, by Andrew Bowden (CC BY-SA 2.0). Second quote: Burren landscape in the evening sun, by YvonneM via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0). Favorite books collage: Cover art; Blitz Movie Poster via Wikimedia Commons.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Uprooted from life in the UK, Vanessa Couchman writes novels about people with roots

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

This month’s guest, Vanessa Couchman, was uprooted from her native UK in 1997, when she moved, with her husband (who is Swedish) to an 18th-century farmhouse in the Midi-Pyrénées region, in southwest France. Between the pair of them (he has lived in France twice and in the UK) they have clocked up nearly 60 years of living abroad!

Like many Scandinavians, her better half is fluent in several languages, but Vanessa has done her best to catch up. “My French was hopeless when we first moved here,” she told me, “but, by force of perseverance, I am now almost fluent.”

She still enjoys occasional visits to London for art galleries, bookshops and museums, but in general, she says, England makes her feel like a fish out of water. As she puts it on Life on La Lune, the blog she keeps about her life in France:

I love living here, even if aspects of French life are still unfathomable.

As for work, like my guest last month, Rachel Abbott, Vanessa is a refugee from corporate life in the UK (she worked first in publishing and then in public sector auditing and research). Unlike Rachel, she still has a day job: running her own copywriting business and writing magazine and journal articles about aspects of French life.

But being an expat has also enabled her to become what she calls on her writer’s blog a “young author” of fiction (“young” because she started comparatively late): specifically, historical fiction, which harks back to one of her great passions in life (she read history at Oxford University). She produced her first novel, The House at Zaronza, a year-and-a-half ago with Crooked Cat Publishing.

Thanks to modern technology, Vanessa can live in rural France without being cut off from other English-language writers. She belongs to Writers Abroad, an online community of expat writers based in countries from Nova Scotia to Australia. “This is a great support network and has helped improve my writing no end,” she says. “The members have all become friends, even though I may never meet some of them.”

And these days there are more English-language writers in her local area—enough for Vanessa to help establish, in 2013, an annual Franco-British literary festival in the nearby village of Perisot.

But I mustn’t gloss over an extremely important detail about this expat author’s story. Although she has written short stories set in rural France, Vanessa chose to set her first novel in early 20th-century Corsica. As she told another interviewer:

Corsica is almost a character in its own right in “The House at Zaronza” and a lot of people have remarked that it comes over strongly. I ought to be getting commission from the Corsica Tourist Board!

Vanessa Cushman France and Corsica

Living in one place while dreaming of another. Photo credits: (top row) Midi-Pyrénées region in southwest France, where Vanessa Couchman lives (via Pixabay); the square tower of the Château of Cornusson, in Parisot, by Thérèse Gaigé via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0); (middle row) Vanessa Couchman and Nonza Paoline Tower, Corsica (both supplied); (bottom row) Corsican village and Filitosa IX stern face captured in granite (both supplied).

Corsica?! What’s more, the novel explores a topic that seemingly has not been nearly as important to Vanessa as it is to her characters: “how centuries of Corsican history and culture remain deeply rooted in people, even if they move away,” as she puts it. We see this dynamic in her main character, Maria, when she leaves Corsica to serve as a military nurse on the Western Front during World War I. Unlike her creator, Maria feels displaced.

So what has drawn Vanessa Couchman so powerfully to this particular location? Perhaps there is something about this Mediterranean island’s own displacement that appeals to her? Annexed by France in 1769, Corsica retains a distinctly Italian flavor. Vanessa, too, is some kind of mix: an Oxford-trained historian who feels more at home in the French countryside than in the UK, a “young author” of historical fiction…

But instead of speculating, let’s see what Vanessa herself has to say on the topic of location, locution.

* * *

Welcome, Vanessa, to Location, Locution. I can vouch for the fact that you have a strong sense of place in your writing, but tell us, which tends to come first, story or location?

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine.

For my first novel, The House at Zaronza, story and location came together, really. As you said, it is set mostly on Corsica. In fact it is based on a true story my husband and I came across on holiday there. The owners of the B&B found some old love letters hidden in a niche in the attic when they restored the house. They were from the local schoolmaster to the daughter of the house in the 1890s. Her parents would have disapproved, so they met in secret. She was required to marry a cousin to keep the family property together, which was common in Corsica into the 20th century.

The story kept nagging at me, so I had to write it. I’m very attached to the Mediterranean island of Corsica, with its rugged and majestic scenery—we’ve visited six times! And so it made perfect sense to set the novel there, especially as it has distinct cultural and historical elements that I was able to use in the story. The house and the village of the title are loosely based on real life, which enabled me to visualise the place as I wrote it, although I changed a number of aspects, including the name. The name of the village in the title of my book, Zaronza, is invented.

The House at Zaronza_cover_pm

As you hinted in your introduction, Corsica won’t leave me alone and so my second novel—a work in progress—is set there, too. A third is in my head, also against the backdrop of the island.

That said, I do also want to set novels in southwest France, where I live, one day. As you also mentioned, a number of my short stories are already set here.

What techniques do you use for evoking the atmosphere of Corsica?

I believe it’s important for readers to feel they are there so that they get fully involved with the characters and their surroundings. That means evoking a complete sensory picture of the place. I went to a great workshop about creating a world for your novel. We were told to go outside for 10 minutes and make notes of what we saw, touched, heard, smelled and even tasted. This heightened sensory awareness is very valuable when describing a place.

I also think that using particular objects or landmarks in a novel gives them symbolic significance and helps to add depth to the setting. So, in The House at Zaronza, the front door often catches on the flagstones, a ruined tower on top of a hill is a place the heroine, Maria, always goes to think, and her father’s stylet (a Corsican dagger) becomes a symbol of him.

Which particular features have you used to create a sense of what clearly is to you a special location? Landscape, culture, food?

All of those things are important to me and I try to weave them into my writing. When it comes to Corsica, I am particularly interested in its culture. I’ve been greatly influenced by a wonderful book called Granite Island: Portrait of Corsica, by Dorothy Carrington, who first visited Corsica just after World War II. She was so taken with it that she eventually lived there and became an international authority on its history and culture. I wish I could have met her, but she died aged 91 in 2002.

Despite being French since 1768, and Genoese before that, Corsica has always been a land apart. It has been invaded, conquered and occupied from prehistoric times, so the island was a cultural melting pot, and as you speculated at the outset, I think that appeals to me. Different traditions have overlaid one another, such as Christianity on top of paganism. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up when we visited a megalithic site at Filitosa, where standing stones carved with stern human faces have been excavated.

Until very recently, the Corsicans had strong superstitious beliefs, some of which I am writing into my second novel. The geography of this mountainous island and the isolation of many of the villages also led to the development of solid clan bonds. The concept of honour is very deep-seated and to infringe someone’s honour was a serious matter that could lead to vendettas of long duration. I find all this fascinating, though it’s easy for people to parody it.

Which of your works provides the best illustration of place, and can you give us a brief example?

Here’s a short extract from The House at Zaronza. A young British woman has come to Corsica for the first time to find out more about her Corsican forebears:

She moved to the other window and opened it. A salt-laden breeze wafted in. For a moment, the sight of the purple-tinged mountains on the other side of the bay made her hold her breath. The sun’s lengthening rays tinted the sea with red and gold. Another scent prickled her nostrils, aromatic and dry like sun-baked mud. She closed her eyes and breathed it in. This was the unique aroma of Corsica, that many Corsicans claim they can detect miles out to sea: part of the magic of the island, the Circe that had enchanted many a traveller before Rachel.

VanessaCouchman_quotes_small

Photo credits: (left) Corsica Ferries, by Conan via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); The witch Circe poisons Odysseu’s men, by Alessandro Allori (1580), Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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

I wouldn’t advise using a real place as a setting if you don’t know it at all. There are exceptions— the summit of Everest, for example, or the South Pole—which most people are unlikely ever to visit; and there are plenty of descriptions of them to draw on. Having said that, the novelist Rosie Thomas has been to both of those extreme locations and is a distinct example of someone who has visited all the exotic places she writes about. But if you really want your readers to get inside a place, I believe you have to know it yourself. I would feel uneasy trying to describe somewhere I have never been.

Having said that, I do think it’s possible to know a location too well. If you write about the place you live in, there’s a danger that you start taking for granted what visitors see as fresh and new. I try to prevent this by visiting places I know well in SW France, finding out new things about them and then recording them on my French life blog.

I also take many photos, both of Corsica when we are there and of my region in France. These visual prompts help me a lot when I’m writing.

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

There are so many! But some stand out for me and have influenced my own writing. Hannah Kent‘s first novel Burial Rites is set in 19th-century Iceland, and she evokes brilliantly the uncompromising landscape and climate, the hard and unforgiving life of the people and the plight of unmarried women at that time. Jessie Burton‘s The Miniaturist is set in 17th-century Amsterdam, a time when the city was wealthy and thriving but stifled by the strict morality that prevailed. They both evoke a strong sense of place in these two very different novels. This is challenging in any novel, but particularly in an historical novel, where you have to describe locations that may have changed significantly over time. Khaled Hosseini‘s novels set in Afghanistan have given me a much deeper insight into that troubled country and its modern history.

Vanessa Inspirational Reads

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

Thanks so much, Vanessa!

* * *

Readers, any questions for Vanessa Couchman? Please leave them in the comments below before she immerses herself in all things Corsican again…

And if you’d like to discover more about Vanessa, why not visit her site about living in France, Life on La Lune, as well as her author site. You can also follow her on twitter at @Vanessainfrance and Facebook.

Until next month!

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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 of page): The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Rachel Abbott, proof positive it’s never too late to become a best-selling novelist—and expat

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

My guest this month, Rachel Abbott, did not start out as a writer, though she claims she always had a novel in her head. Born in Manchester, she trained as a systems analyst but then ended up founding her own interactive media company, where, as managing director, she wrote everyday but mostly board reports, user manuals, and creative treatments for clients.

Around 15 years ago, she sold the company and moved with her husband to Le Marche, in central Italy. The pair set to work on renovating a ruined small monastery, where they lived for several years.

When six-foot snowdrifts prevented her from leaving the house for a couple of weeks, Rachel started writing and found she couldn’t stop. She self-published her first novel just over four years ago, a psychological thriller called Only the Innocent, which is set very briefly in Italy but mostly takes place in rural Oxfordshire.

Only the Innocent reached the number 1 spot in the Kindle store just over three months later and went on to become the second highest selling self-published title in 2012. It was subsequently published by Thomas and Mercer in the USA, where in just a few months it achieved number 1 in the US charts, making Rachel’s debut a number one bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Guardian newspaper dubbed Rachel “the e-publishing sensation of 2012” while The Observer stated “self-published authors such as Rachel Abbott are the trade’s hottest property.”

That’s how this Mancunian fell into a brilliant new career. Two years after her break-out success, Rachel released her long-awaited second novel, The Back Road—which quickly reached number 2 on the UK Kindle chart and has over 450 five-star reviews. (The back road of the title is in a made-up village called Little Melham, in the heart of the English countryside.)

Rachel's first two psychological thrillers, both international bestsellers.

Rachel’s first two psychological thrillers, both of which rapidly became international bestsellers.

Her latest works, Sleep Tight (partially set in Anglesey, one of the Channel Islands, which Rachel visited as a child), Stranger Child and Nowhere Child have followed the same pattern of success. All of them take place mainly within Rachel’s hometown of Manchester.

Rachel's latest three books. Stranger Child, a stand-alone novella but featuring the same characters as Stranger Child, came out in October.

Rachel’s latest three books. The very latest, Nowhere Child, came out in October. It’s a stand-alone novella but features the same characters as Stranger Child.

As far as the expat life goes, Rachel now divides her time between Italy (where she lives in her second property, an apartment in an old fort, which overlooks the sea) and Alderney, in the Channel Islands, which is just off the coast of France. She explains her decision to spend time on this beautiful island as follows:

“There are so many wonderful aspects of living in another country—not least getting to understand their culture. Italians are extreme in their emotions, and that—for me—was a joy to watch, even when they are shouting at each other (because it usually doesn’t last). I did, however, struggle with the language. I can now speak reasonable Italian, but as a writer I found it difficult not to be speaking English all the time! I discovered that from time to time I struggled to remember the correct English words, and I felt it was time to move back to an English-speaking country if I was to continue to write. So I moved to Alderney. Not quite the UK, but close. It’s a wonderful island, and life here is as perfect as it gets.”

Despite her new-found worldliness, Rachel insists she remains a Lancastrian at heart.

Photo credits: Rachel Abbott (inset); Whitworth Street, Manchester, by Mikey via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) ; Montalto delle Marche, by Sgobbone via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Braye Beach (Alderney, Channel Islands), by TheOnlyMoxey via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

Photo credits: Rachel Abbott (inset, supplied); Whitworth Street, Manchester, by Mikey via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Montalto delle Marche, by Sgobbone via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Braye Beach (Alderney, Channel Islands), by TheOnlyMoxey via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

* * *

Welcome, Rachel, to Location, Locution. It seems your writing career and your expat life developed in tandem, but which comes first when you are writing, story or location?

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine.

In all cases, my story has come first. My most recent books are set in Manchester, but the locations within Manchester are determined by the story. My concern is that I am going to run out of spooky places for the strange goings on that I need in my stories!

What techniques do you use for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

I have a very visual imagination, and in every major location in any of my books, I know exactly what it looks like. That’s my starting point. I can wander the halls of houses, or creep along canal banks at night. So I know what I can see. I then start to think about what it might smell like—and much of that is determined by what is happening. A house can smell of baking cakes, or of rotting food—so I imagine myself there, and think how it might smell. Finally, I listen. What will the sounds be like? Where is the location—outdoors or indoors? What are the surroundings like—are there trains nearby, or a distant motorway? I close my eyes, and I am there—feeling what my characters are feeling.

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

It depends on the stage in the story. The character might be walking along a country lane, but if she is scared, the overhanging trees, dripping with rain from the recent storm would be the features to focus on. If it’s a happy day, it might be the cows munching contentedly on the grass in the fields. With this in mind, any feature can help to create that sense of the location.

Which of your works provides the best illustration of place, and can you give us a brief example?

Here’s a passage from my latest, Nowhere Child:

The freezing November wind is bouncing off the damp walls, hitting us in icy blasts as if someone keeps opening and closing a door. But there isn’t any door—just a gaping black hole. There are four or five groups of us down here, sitting in twos and threes huddled around our feeble fires. We keep to ourselves mostly. I can see the odd face, lit from below by the weak yellow flames, features hovering, disembodied, against the black walls, the eyes hollow pits. I can hear the occasional murmur of conversation but mostly I listen to the steady drip from the roof. It is relentless, and I’m not surprised when Andy says that dripping water is used as a form of torture. Another drop joins in, this time with a slightly different tone. There is a pause, and for a second I wonder if it’s stopped. But of course it hasn’t. Drip-drop. Drip-drop.

Nowhere_child_quote

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

Some settings exist in my imagination. Others have to be realistic. I am currently writing a story about an area of Manchester that I didn’t know existed—even though I lived there for a large proportion of my life. I have been unable to visit it myself in time to write the first draft of the book, but my sister lives nearby. So she has been out on research trips for me, taking photos and videos. I have used to map to pinpoint the places that I want her to take pictures of, and I’ve also used Google Maps—in walkabout mode—to get me close enough. I have studied this place in as much detail as possible without an actual visit, and I will visit it myself before the final version is written.

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

I love the sense of location in Daphne Du Maurier’s books—in particular, Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. One is set in a magnificent, if malevolent old property, the other a run down and gloomy inn, which is never open to the public. The locations are so vivid in these books that a mental image is formed even before seeing them on the big screen!

The locations of these two Daphne du Maurier classics are so vivid, you don't even need to see Hitchcock's films!

The locations of these two Daphne du Maurier classics are so vivid, you don’t even need to see Hitchcock’s films!

Thanks so much, Rachel!

* * *

Readers, any questions for Rachel Abbott? Please leave them in the comments below before she jets off to one of her exotic locales…

And if you’d like to discover more about Rachel, why not visit her author site. You can also follow her on twitter at @RachelAbbott.

Until next month!

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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 of page): The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Trish Nicholson, a writer whose talents have blossomed in unusual places

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

My guest this month, Trish Nicholson, is something of an exotic plant—the kind one discovers flowering profusely in a far-flung part of the world.

Trish’s birthplace, the Isle of Man, sounds remote to many of us—but not so for Trish, who, despite being half Manx (a mix of Celtic and Nordic), wasn’t able to bloom where she was planted. Following in the footsteps of some of her intrepid ancestors, she left her birthplace and hasn’t looked back.

Her first destination was the UK, in pursuit of higher education and a career. Trish is also half-Scottish, but, though she lived in Scotland for 12 years, her roots did not prove deep enough and she moved on to Europe and much further afield…transplanting herself to Papua New Guinea!

Yes, Trish was stationed in the West Sepik (Sandaun) Province of Papua New Guinea for five years working on aid and development projects while also serving as Honorary Consul for the British High Commission. Rest assured, conditions here were exotic enough for Trish not only to put down roots but to blossom and thrive. As she attests in the travel memoir she published last month, PNG contains the wildest places in the tropics. Among other challenges, she had to contend with crocodiles (the book is titled Inside the Crocodile), sorcery and near-fatal malaria.

Photo credits (clockwise from upper left): Mooragh Park Lake, Ramsey (Isle of Man), by Tony Hisgett via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Trisha Nicholson (supplied); Explosions (in PNG), by Taro Taylor via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

Photo credits (clockwise from upper left): Mooragh Park Lake, Ramsey (Isle of Man), by Tony Hisgett via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Trisha Nicholson (supplied); Explosions (in PNG), by Taro Taylor via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

The so-called Land of Surprises must have been a hard act to follow, but Asia Pacific being Trish’s most nurturant habitat, she soon found other challenges—the next one being to direct the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) operations in the Philippines while completing her doctorate in social anthropology. After the Philippines, she obtained a research grant to study indigenous tourism in Vietnam and Australia.

And I mustn’t forget to mention that along the way there have also been frequent trips to South America and Africa, along with treks in Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal.

Trish did return to England eventually—only to decide the time had come to try transplanting herself to the “winterless” far north of New Zealand, where, as she says in her blog:

native trees grow even more in winter than summer because they have more moisture.

Hmmm… sounds a little like Trish?

And now let’s talk about Trish’s body of works. A compulsive scribbler, she has produced plenty of what she calls “creative nonfiction”—from articles for mainstream media to a book on responsible travel tourism—as well as short stories during her twenty years of wandering the globe.

More recently, since moving to New Zealand, she has published a series of e-books on her travels—one of the most popular of which is the illustrated travelogue Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. And now there is the aforementioned Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals.

Trish’s nonfiction output also includes a volume on creative reading/writing as well as a guide to becoming a non-fiction author. And let’s not forget the historical anthology of storytelling, which she intends to sit down and write now that she’s settled on a quiet New Zealand hillside. That’s when she’s not hiding in her tree house or blogging. Her blog is called, appropriately enough, “Words in the Treehouse.”

* * *

Welcome, Trish, to Location, Locution. I know that your travels have led to much of your writing, but which tends to come first, story or location?

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine.

It depends on what kind of writing I’m doing, of course. For short stories it’s usually character that comes first for me, but it’s close because characters are an integral part of their setting. In building up the story, character and setting feed upon each other. Location can affect a character’s mood, sometimes their whole outlook on life, and a change of location can be a turning point. But, as I said, it’s a two-way influence; people can also have an impact on their surroundings.

For my travelogues, experience of location came first, but the same principle applies: people feed off setting and vice versa. In this case, of course, the “characters” are actual people I met along the way.

Notably, you were right in saying that my travels led to my writing. I did not set out to write a book at the beginning of either of the two travelogues I have produced. I was inspired to visit Bhutan by an article in a 1914 National Geographic magazine my aunt had left me in a box of dusty old books. It was full of the most amazing photographs of mist threaded mountains, exotic architecture, and distinguished looking men wearing what appeared to be navy blue dressing gowns with broad white cuffs… Papua New Guinea, as you explained in your introduction, was a five-year work assignment, fulfilling a teenage dream to work overseas. Only afterwards did these locations compel me to write about them.

What techniques do you use for evoking the atmosphere of a place? After all, you’ve faced the challenge of describing places very few of the rest of us have visited.

I’m not sure if it’s a technique because it’s not something I do consciously as I write, but your question made me think about it. It’s not so easy to explain, but I seem to identify a feature that is characteristic of a particular place and use my senses to link to it emotionally—trying to recreate in words what I felt when I was there. It’s not simply “place” though, but more a series of “moments-in-place.” The atmosphere of a place changes depending on time of day, seasons and events. It’s possible to keep track of these changes if you maintain a detailed journal as I always do—scraps of information about everything I see, hear, smell and feel. With buildings and landscapes, for example, I record how light and weather affect them. A grey stone wall, for instance, may look hard and forbidding in Scotland, but under a tropical sun it feels surprisingly soft and warm. I note sounds and snippets of overheard conversation, clothes, colours, rhythms of people’s movements—all of which suggest place. Scribbling is a bit of an obsession with me, perhaps a way of hanging on to something I don’t want to end. My other obsession is photography, probably for the same reason. In my early travelling days I used Kodachrome but film was expensive; now you can take large memory cards and click away without a thought. When I’m writing, I scroll through my images and they recall whole scenes for me. The jottings and photographs aid my memory for those sensuous details that I believe evoke atmosphere.

Two of Trish's tools for capturing the details of places. Photo credits: (top) Notebook collection, by Dvortygirl via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Kodachrome, by Pittaya Sroilong via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Two of Trish’s tools for capturing the details of place. Photo credits: (top) Notebook collection, by Dvortygirl via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Kodachrome, by
Pittaya Sroilong via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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

They all can, of course, depending on the story and a writer’s personal interests. I’m certainly no foodie, but even I can feel the tropical heat of Papua New Guinea when recalling drinking kulau (Tok Pisin for “juice from a young green coconut”) straight from a young coconut—the rough, dry shell on my lips, the smooth sweet coolness dribbling down my chin. Language, too, has always been a significant feature for me. Many writers avoid using dialect or foreign words in dialogue so as not to stress the reader, but there are ways of making it easier, and readers enjoy a little challenge. I write dialect or local language in short stories and in travelogues because it draws readers closer to people. And if I want to create the sense of a very specific location, I focus on whatever features are found only in that one place—for example, in Bhutan, the painted red bands around a building that tells you there are sacred relics inside, or in Australia, the surreal landforms of the Bungle Bungles that seem to stride across the landscape enacting their own primordial drama.

Which of your works provides the best illustration of place, and can you give us a brief example?

From Inside the Crocodile, a jungle moment on the hair-raising trek from Oksapmin to Lake Kopiago:

The heavy shower was reduced to drizzle under the canopy and it invigorated the forest; every shade of green was intensified, glistening and vivid. Lazy drops of water glided along leaves, dripping silently onto moss beneath. Fine hairs on the ribs of fern fronds, usually invisible, were lit-up by tiny twinkling water droplets like miniature fairy lights. And the air was filled with the fecund mustiness of moist earth seasoned with the tang of wet foliage … the forest stood in strange, expectant silence, muffled by the press of growing, spreading vegetation all around us. Yet every surface, especially the dark underside, was teeming with life we could not see, or would not recognise if we did, and we couldn’t see beyond the next tree trunk or veil of hanging moss. The sense of being enclosed, entrapped within an unknowable multitude, was overpowering.

Photo credits: (top) A frog inside the papaya tree, one of many critters found in PNG; one of many disintegrating bamboo bridges in PNG (by Trish Nicholson, supplied).

Photo credits: (top) A frog inside the papaya tree, one of many critters found in PNG; one of many disintegrating bamboo bridges in PNG (by Trish Nicholson, supplied).

And if I’m allowed another little one, from Journey in Bhutan, my journal entry the evening after we visited the ancient temple of Kyichu Lhakhang:

… I want to remember how it felt when I first entered the lhakhang – the dark wooden floor, polished and worn into grooves by centuries of calloused feet; distant chanting heard through a haze of incense; Buddhas lustrous in the flickering light of butter lamps – thirteen centuries of reverence are distilled in that room creating an almost palpable sanctity. I feel the balm of its atmosphere as I write – it’s almost like a presence.

Photo credits: (clockwise from top left) Rinpung Dzong, a large dzong (Buddhist monastery and fortress) found in Paro District, Bhutan; book cover art; ancient religious relics inside the lhakhang (all photos supplied by Trish Nicholson).

Photo credits: (top) Rinpung Dzong, a large dzong (Buddhist monastery and fortress) found in Paro District, Bhutan; book cover art; ancient religious relics inside the lhakhang (by Trish Nicholson, supplied).

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

This is a particularly interesting question because I believe one can be in a location too long. The point is not how much time is spent in a place, but how well we “see” it. In an urban setting, I can spend an hour leaning against a wall on a street corner, or a day walking the streets at random, and gather a huge number of impressions and factual details. In remote areas it takes longer because the changing elements have a greater affect on atmosphere. But this may be enough for the setting of a single story. Obviously, for a travelogue, longer immersion is necessary to reach a depth of understanding across time and seasons. But it depends also on how one writes about a place, the scope of the account. I was in Bhutan for a month, much of that time trekking, so although I included monasteries and temples, and carried out a lot of research on cultural and historical background, Journey in Bhutan focuses on the trek rather than trying to cover the whole country superficially. So, how long is too long? After a few years in Papua New Guinea I noted in my journal:

I’m losing all sense of “normal”.

I began taking for granted what seemed extraordinary to a visitor. Fortunately, I had recorded early events that revealed my astonishment and joy and alienation as a greenhorn during those first months. Without the journals, Inside the Crocodile would have lacked that perspective on the location because, after a while, we cease to “see” so clearly.

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

Hard to pick a few from so many: Vikram Seth for his depiction of India—but his first book, From Heaven Lake, was a vivid travelogue of Sinkiang and Tibet; he was still a student but the novelist is already burgeoning in those pages. Khaled Hosseini, who so cleverly weaves his characters into the texture of place in The Kite Runner, and Nikolai Gogol, especially in Dead Souls, where his detailing of personal possessions in a room reveals not only a distinctly Russian steppes atmosphere, but also a character’s past and present. And one more: Ruth Rendell appears to break all the “rules” in The Keys to the Street by opening with almost two pages describing London’s ornamental iron railings—but in such a way that with the first paragraph we are already anxious about those spikes.

Trish's picks for writers who have mastered the art of writing about place.

Trish’s picks for writers who have mastered the art of writing about place.

Thanks so much, Trish! I can easily see why one reviewer described you as “full of humour, adventure, and iron determination…”

* * *

Readers, any questions for Trish Nicholson? Please leave them in the comments below before she disappears back into her treehouse.

And if you’d like to discover more about Trish, why not visit her author site. She also chirps on twitter at @TrishaNicholson.

Until next month!

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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Photo credits (top of page): The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: The Way of expat author Joan Fallon lies in writing about the Camino and other Spain-related themes

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

The theologian Richard Niebuhr once wrote:

Pilgrims are poets who create by taking journeys.

In that sense, today’s author, Joan Fallon, can be considered a modern-day pilgrim, of the kind often encountered within the Displaced Nation. She may not have walked the Camino de Santiago—but the path she took in her life led her to a place where she could write a novel about someone who did.

Joan was born with a foot in two cultural camps: her father was Irish and her mother, Scottish. Her first journey into a brand new culture was made as a child, when her family moved from Dumfries, Scotland, to the south of England, which many Celts consider to be a foreign country.

Joan went on to spend her formative years in England. She married, had a family (a son and a daughter), and worked as a teacher while also earning a BA from the Open University in History and Literature.

But in England, Joan was still a pilgrim; she hadn’t yet found the Way. In fact, she lost her way for some time after her son dropped dead unexpectedly when he was only 17. She abandoned her career in teaching (she couldn’t bear being around kids his age) to become a management trainer.

Soon, though, it was time to don her pilgrim’s boots again, this time for a journey into southern Spain. When her husband took early retirement, the couple set off just before the start of the new millennium for their new home in Benajarafe, a coastal village that is a few miles east of Málaga, in Andalusia.

This journey, which brings us to where we find Joan now, led her to the goal she was seeking all along: an opportunity to try out the life of full-time writer. As she put it in a recent interview:

It is something that I had been waiting all my life to do.

Joan completed an Open University course in creative writing, but it wasn’t until she’d spent six years taking journeys within Spain, learning the language and talking to people, that she would embrace her destiny fully. (She was also settling in, finding out how to cope with Spanish bureaucracy and generally dealing with the numerous everyday things that we take for granted in our home country or don’t need: obtaining an identity card, a social security card, becoming a tax resident, registering at the town hall, changing to Spanish number plates, making friends, finding a hairdresser that you like, a new dentist, a new doctor, a vet, a plumber…)

Eventually, her immersion in the Spanish language and local culture paid off. Always interested in social history, Joan decided to interview a number of older Spanish women about how their lives had changed since Franco had died in 1975. She translated the interviews into English, which led to her first published book, Daughters of Spain.

The research for this book also produced two novels:

Joan Fallon's writing career has flowered in Benajarafe, initially with books set in the Franco era

Joan Fallon’s writing career has flowered in Benajarafe, initially with books set in the Franco era. Photo credits: Joan Fallon’s author photo and book covers (supplied); Benajarafe, by Tony Bowden (CC BY-SA 2.0).

One of Joan’s subsequent novels grew out of her experiences of mixing with both Spanish and foreign nationals: Loving Harry, a story about two women in love with the same man, set in expat Spain.

Joan’s frequent visits to other parts of Spain have also inspired books. It was a trip to Galicia that gave her the idea of writing Santiago Talesabout a woman whose life is in tatters and who decides to walk the Camino de Santiago seeking solutions.

Likewise a visit to the Moorish ruins at Madinat al Zahra near Córdoba inspired her to research and write The Shining City, a novel set in Moorish Spain during 10th century.

All of Joan’s novels feature strong women as their heroineswomen who face some kind of difficulty and have to overcome it.

* * *

Welcome, Joan, to Location, Locution. Spain clearly has had a powerful effect on your writing, but which comes first, story or location?

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine. It depends on the book I am writing whether location or story is the most important. Santiago Tales, as you’ve explained, was set on the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain—location was essential to the story. Spanish Lavender is a love story set in the Spanish Civil War, but it takes place specifically in Málaga, a city I know very well—and therefore I started with the location. In another of my books, The Only Blue Door, which you didn’t mention, I wrote about three children sent to Australia during wartime. Never having been to Australia, I found it hard to write about a place I did not know personally so had to rely on my research. In this case, it was the story that was predominant, not the location.

It sounds as though you like to know the place very well before using it as a setting?

Yes, I prefer to write about places I know. If I don’t know the location well, then I will visit it a number of times noting the layout, the atmosphere and anything else I can put into my writing. Sometimes I will interview someone about a place when I know that they have a greater knowledge of the location than I do. This is what I did with Santiago Tales. I knew the area well but not from the point of view of a pilgrim, so I interviewed a woman who had walked the 800 km of the Camino and was delighted to tell me of her exploits. This gave me the little details that I needed to make my story credible.

Photo credits: Puente rústico, by José Antonio Gil Martínez via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

Photo credits: Puente rústico, by José Antonio Gil Martínez via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); book cover art (supplied).

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

I try to remember as many details as I can, imagining that I am there again and then imagining the character in the location as I knew it. If my story is set somewhere that I have only visited on a few occasions, then it needs more effort to conjure up the required atmosphere, and I will read about the location and look at photographs. Sometimes it is something as simple as knowing if there are hills in the area that the character has to climb or rivers that he has to cross or when he sits down what he can see. All this helps to transport the reader to the location that you have chosen. For me it is a mixture of combining what I know the place is like with the atmosphere I am trying to convey for the story.

Which of your works provides the best illustration of place, and can you give us a brief example?

Place is an especially important factor in The Shining City, which I wrote after visiting the ruins of a city near Córdoba called Madinat al Zahra. I was fascinated by the place and the fact that, although it was once a very prosperous and cultured city, it was abandoned and fell into complete disrepair after only 70 years. It seemed the ideal place to set a historical novel about the Moors in Spain.

Here is a passage from my book, depicting a character from England’s West Country who is following the French Way of the Way of St. James:

The Galician countryside is distinctive. It reminds her a little of her own West Country, with its small fields and dry-stone walls. The change was obvious as soon as she reached O’Cebreiro, set in the green, rolling hills across the border from León, and saw the round stone houses of the area, with their straw roofs and Iron Age design. She has even passed Celtic crosses at the roadside, so like the ones in Cornwall, and fields of fat, contented brown and white cattle. Just like the west coast of Britain and Ireland, Galicia receives its fair share of Atlantic wind and rain and this is evident in the verdure of its countryside. No, she is no longer walking through the dry Meseta; this part of Spain is very different and, to her, feels more like home.

Photo credits: Book cover art (supplied); Medina Azahara - Cordoba, by Roberto Venturini via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Photo credits: Book cover art (supplied); Medina Azahara – Cordoba, by Roberto Venturini via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Is landscape the only feature you look at to create a sense of location? What about culture, or even food?

All of those and more, depending on the location. Returning to the example of The Shining City, about a place that I had visited when it was a ruin, I had to do a lot of research into what it would have been like when it was a thriving city. I needed to know what food was available at the time, what they grew and what they imported, what type of housing people lived in, how they dressed and what the climate was like. Although this is a historical novel, set in 10th-century Spain, the fact that I live in Spain and know the area well made it so much easier to create the right atmosphere; I knew from experience what the weather was like at different times of the year, which flowers were in bloom and when; and I could imagine easily what the roads to the city were like then from what I could see today.

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

I read a book by John Lanchester called Capital, which was the story of a street in London told through the lives of the people who lived there. He used location very well and made it the central pivot for his novel. Donna Tartt also uses location very well and creates a rich and detailed background to her novels. Another writer that gives great importance to location in her novels is Barbara Kingsolver, and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels about two girls growing up in Naples recreate the atmosphere of that wild-child city beautifully.

Fallon Faves

Joan’s picks for writers who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Joan!

* * *

Readers, any questions for Spain-obsessed Joan Fallon? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you’d like to discover more about Joan, why not visit her author site +/or her site dedicated to her books that are set in Spain, A Spanish Notebook. You can also follow her on twitter at @joan_fallon and @notesonspain +/or like her Facebook page.

Until next month!

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).

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