The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Tag Archives: Expat novelists

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Clare Flynn, a well-traveled novelist who specializes in geographical displacement

JJ Marsh Clare Flynn

LOCATION, LOCUTION columnist JJ Marsh (left) talks to the novelist Clare Flynn.

In this month’s LOCATION, LOCUTION, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Clare Flynn, the author of A Greater World and the just now published Kurinji Flowers.

Born in Liverpool, the eldest of five children, Clare Flynn read English Language and Literature at Manchester University, although spent most of her time exploring the city’s bars and nightclubs and founding the Rock ‘n’ Roll Society.

For many years she worked in consumer marketing, serving as the international marketing director for big global companies selling detergents, diapers, tuna fish and chocolate biscuits. This included stints in Paris, Brussels, Sydney and Milan.

She began her novel A Greater World, which is set in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, in 1998, after the first of many visits to Australia. When Clare had almost completed the first draft, burglars stole her computer. Determined that they would not get the better of her, she sat down and wrote it all again.

Her second novel, Kurinji Flowers, is set in a tea plantation in South India in the 1930s. The inspiration for the book came during a sleepless night in a hotel in Munnar in Kerala. The kurinji flowers of the title grow across this region and are renowned for flowering only once in every 12 years.

Both novels are about people being displaced. In A Greater World Elizabeth Morton and Michael Winterbourne are unwilling emigrants from England for Australia, driven away by tragic events. Ginny Dunbar in Kurinji Flowers, following a scandal that wrecks her future, is catapulted from her life as a debutante into the world of colonial India. None of these people is equipped to deal with what lies ahead.

Which came first, story or location?

Definitely location. My latest book, Kurinji Flowers, is set in a small hill town in South India. While on holiday in Kerala, in 2011, the plot came to me one sleepless night. By morning I’d mapped out the basic elements although, as always when writing, it’s changed radically since then. It’s set in the 1930s in a fictional hill town called Mudoorayam, loosely based on Munnar. After I’d finished the first draft I went back, alone, to the area and stayed in a former plantation manager’s bungalow in the midst of the tea gardens. As well as writing, I sketched and painted (then decided my main character would paint, too).

Kurinji Flowers Collage

Photo credit: Kurinji flowers by Suresh Krishna (CC BY-SA 2.0); book cover art.

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

Definitely being there. I try to walk in my characters’ steps. A Greater World is set mainly in the Blue Mountains and Sydney. I was lucky enough to work there for six months—the perfect opportunity to imbibe a place. I went back after the first draft was written—again, alone, and just went everywhere, taking photographs and making notes. I do a lot of research as well—and gather pictures, both online and in books. As my novels are historical, old photographs are invaluable.

A Greater World Collage

Photo credit: The Three Sisters, Katoomba, New South Wales, Australia, by JJ Harrison (CC BY-SA 3.0); book cover art.


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

I think they all do. Plus sounds and smells—when the heroine of Kurinji Flowers, Ginny Dunbar, arrives in Bombay from England, the scene is evoked with six different sounds, eleven smells and loads of colours. I also use trees, flowers, birds, architecture—anything that makes the place special and takes you there. Writing about London is hard for me as it’s so familiar—but the fact that my plots are historical helps: I have to do a bit of time-travelling. I try to use place as part of the narrative, not as add-on description—it has to have a fundamental impact on the plot.

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

From Kurinji Flowers:

We went back to England and a bungalow on the downs outside Eastbourne, where after a while I started to become fond of the sheep, the curving contours of the landscape and the grey-green, chalky sea. But I missed Muddy. I missed the warmth of the late afternoon sun, the intensity of the rains, the bustle of the market, the vast undulating expanse of the tea plantations, the gentle cry of the Nilgiri pigeons, the sluggish, murky river, the blue of the morning glory, and the patchwork of the tea gardens in more shades of green than my palette could do justice.

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

You don’t need to know it well, but you have to feel strongly enough about it to bring it to life on the page. There are people who write beautifully about places they’ve never visited—finding inspiration in other literature, in photographs and art. Shakespeare never left England as far as I know and it didn’t stop him writing about distant places real and imagined. And you can always use some artistic licence if you rename the place, as I did with my hill town.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
So many—but I’ll pick Dickens and Chapter 1 of Bleak House, which gives a fabulous evocation of smoggy, muddy, London in “implacable November weather,” with a whole page devoted to describing the fog. Read that and you can’t help but be there trudging through those streets and coughing up that filthy air. And what’s great about it is that the depiction of the fog is also an extended metaphor for the impenetrable fog that is the Court of Chancery.

* * *

Next month’s Location, LocutionThe Rucksack Universe series author Anthony St. Clair, with his travel fantasy books set in Hong Kong, India and Ireland.

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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 seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Advertisements

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Fran Pickering, London-based crime writer and Japanophile

Fran PickeringIn this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Fran Pickering, a London-based crime and mystery writer who has lived and travelled extensively in Japan. Her experiences there provide the inspiration for her Josie Clark in Japan mystery series. She also writes about London art and events with a Japanese connection on her blog, Sequins and Cherry Blossom. Her latest Josie Clark book, The Haiku Murder, has just come out, on 13th October. Find out more at franpickering.com.

Which came first, story or location?

Location. I wanted to share my love of Japan in a way that would be interesting and non-academic, so I started writing murder mysteries about an expat Londoner in Tokyo.

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

I know Japan so well now, I have to think myself back into the mind of a person encountering it for the first time and remember how strange and foreign it seemed to me originally. I go for the little, easily forgotten details – the smell of the drains in Tokyo, the sound of the mechanical cuckoo on the pedestrian crossings in Takarazuka, the complexities of different shoes and socks for different surfaces in a traditional inn. It’s the small things that bring a place alive.

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

Food is very big for me. Japanese people are obsessed with food – they talk about it all the time – but so many people in the West think sushi and noodles is all there is to Japanese cuisine. As Josie investigates the latest murder she needs to ask a lot of questions, and the easiest way to do that is in cafes (she spends a lot of time in Starbucks) or over meals. The sort of meals people eat and where they eat them gives a clue to their character too.

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

Here’s an excerpt from The Cherry Blossom Murder:

It was just after nine o’clock. The streets of Akasaka were crowded and noisy. A gaudily decorated pachinko parlour blasted out an advertisement for their new pinball machines, accompanied by an irritating advertising jingle; inside the parlour Josie could see people staring zombie-like at the pachinko machines as the tiny silver balls spun and fell, spun and fell, endlessly fed from the bowl beside each player.The Cherry Blossom Murder

A group of young men and women passed her, the girls in short skirts, one of them loping along drunkenly as the boys held her upright. Behind them came a group of salarymen, still in their work suits, noisily discussing their golf handicaps. They barged Josie unthinkingly off the pavement.

A fortune teller sitting on the pavement behind a table plastered with pictures of hands called to Josie to come and have her future read. For a moment she was tempted, but then she walked on, past Denny’s and Johnny’s and Cozy Corner, all brightly lit and full of people, to the familiar yellow sign of Doutor’s coffee house.

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

If it’s a real place, then you need to have been there and looked at it carefully. I try and revisit places I write about to make sure I’ve got it absolutely right, and to pick up on aspects I may have overlooked the first time. It’s remarkable how memory can play you tricks, or leave you with a superficial impression. I take photographs of key settings to refer to later.

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

Lee Child. He’s an English writer whose books are set in the States with an American protagonist. He really nails it; the flavour of the country leaps off the page. And Ben Aaronovitch, whose Rivers of London series takes you into every nook and cranny of Covent Garden and makes you almost believe that a building on the south side of Russell Square actually does contain the Folly.

* * *

Next month’s Location, Locution: Clare Flynn, whose books are set in Australia and India.

_(75_of_75)

 

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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 seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Catriona Troth, novelist – from Scotland to Canada to a long stay in the Chilterns

Kat

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Catriona Troth, who was born in Scotland and grew up in Canada before coming back to the UK. She has now lived in the Chilterns longer than she has ever lived in anywhere, a fact that still comes as a surprise.

After more than twenty years spent writing technical reports at work and fiction on the commuter train, Catriona made the shift into freelance writing. Her writing explores themes of identity and childhood memory. Her novella, Gift of the Raven, is set against a backcloth of Canada from the suburbs of Montreal to the forests of the Haida Gwaii. Her novel, Ghost Town, is set in Coventry in 1981, when the city of Two Tone and Ska was riven with battles between skinheads and young Asians.

Which comes first, story or location?
In my case, it’s usually a collision between the two. I have a story in my mind, I look for a location, and when I find the right one, some sort of explosive reaction happens that produces something I never anticipated.

Ghost TownHow do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I think it’s always about the small, telling details. Readers get bored with long passages of description, so you focus on something striking. It’s important, too, that you appeal to all the readers senses – smell and taste and touch as well and seeing and hearing. It’s also important to see setting not as something static, but as it relates to your characters – how they interact with a place, how it looks through their eyes.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
It depends. In Gift of the Raven, I was mostly evoking wild places, so landscape was important, and the way colours change with light, and the sounds of wild birds. On the other hand, in my novel, Ghost Town, the setting was the Coventry at a very specific point in time. So I was looking for ways to evoke the contradictions of the city – the old medieval buildings, the post-War concrete monoliths, the grandeur of the new cathedral. But also the little things that mark out what it was like to live in the city at that particular time – like which groups of kids hung out where, how they dressed, what music they liked. One thing that was important to me in both cases was weather – a place can be very different in bright sunshine than it is in teeming rain or thick snow.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
For me, knowing the location well allows me to give the story texture and depth. I’m terrible for worrying over whether I have got details right! The internet is great for being able to check things like that – but it can also be a terrible trap, hobbling you when you should be getting the bones of the story down.

Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
This is the description, from Gift of the Raven, of a lake in the Rocky Mountains, seen through the eyes of a young boy who is just discovering his own artistic talent.

49560-copyofgiftoftheravencovermediumI was at one end of a narrow lake. The other end disappeared off into tomorrow. Below where I stood, the wind ruffled the edges of the water, but out there it could have been polished stone. A stone so blue you could lose yourself in the colour. At either side—like bold strokes of a palette knife from the sky to the lake—were mountains. Green-black pine over an ash-grey beach, peaks of dazzling white snow …

No. The snow wasn’t just white. In the sunshine it was a hundred different colours. Pink. Blue. Gold. You only saw white if you were too lazy to look.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
A book I read earlier this year which I thought was extraordinary in terms of setting was Peter May’s Lewis Man. He managed to capture the way islands of Hebrides change, day by day, with the changing weather, and also the way the character of the different islands change with the character of their inhabitants. Masterly to achieve this while still creating a fast-paced thriller.

Joanne Harris creates a sense of place through tastes and smells – food is almost always a huge part of her books. Reading some of the passages in her books you can feel as if you have just enjoyed a banquet of tastes.

And for a book that evoked both a time and a place, I’d choose Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. The scene where the reader is enticed to follow Sugar into the sleaziest corners of Victorian London is spell-binding. I couldn’t put the book down after that.

* * *

Next month’s Location, Locution: Fran Pickering sets her Josie Clark series in Japan. East-West fusion murder mysteries with a cultural twist.

_(75_of_75)

 

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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 seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Jessica Bell – Australian contemporary fiction author in Ithaca, Greece

black and white_Jessica BellIn this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Jessica Bell, a thirty-something Australian-native contemporary fiction author, poet and singer/songwriter/ guitarist. Jessica is the Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal and the director of the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek island of Ithaca. She makes a living as a writer/editor for English Language Teaching Publishers worldwide, such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, MacMillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning.

Which came first, story or location?

Neither. My characters always start off a story. But if I had to choose, I would say location comes before story as I think the location of the story would have a lot of impact on how it’s told.

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

I try to incorporate as many of the senses as possible. Utilizing the six senses (see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and instinct) can really bring your writing to life. To do this successfully, you need to “show, not tell.” Otherwise, these senses will not really be senses. The reader won’t actually experience them, they will only “read about” them. And the whole point of reading a great book is to feel like you aren’t actually reading. Right? Right. Using the six senses in an effective way will accomplish this.

The key to using sense in your writing, however, is to limit your use of the words, see, feel, hear, smell and taste. That’s not to say you shouldn’t ever use these words, but just be aware you don’t overuse them.

The most ideal way to incorporate senses is to employ language in which sense is already a part of. For example, instead of saying the kitchen smelled sweet with melted chocolate, show the reader what’s cooking, and consequently that taste and scent will be present in the narrative without you having to point it out.

Using the six senses well is also not only about having your characters sense things, it’s about making your readers sense things—even elements that your characters aren’t feeling, i.e., if the reader knows more than your character(s) do, or if you’re showing something that you might react to differently than the characters in the book.

If you’d like more of my advice on writing craft, take a gander at Writing in a Nutshell.

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

Oh, everything!

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

Sure! This excerpt is from String Bridge:

String Bridge paperback coverThe island’s windy mountainous roads are framed with olive groves and air so crisp you could snap it like celery. The houses are stained with whitewash and embedded with old-style wooden shutters, tailored by the locals to keep the summer swelter out. They are painted blue, red, or green, but occasionally you may come across the odd pink or orange shutters, which are more often than not inhabited by the eccentric barmy type who are colour-blind, or the young and loaded foreigner who believes an island revolution should be in order.

Goats meander about the streets, butting each other’s heads senselessly as they try to escape oncoming cars and motorcycles. The roosters, chickens, and geese fire up the locals at the first sign of sunrise. Birds chirp, cicadas “jijiga” in the olive trees, and dogs bark as the bread truck, a red beat-up Ute, delivers fresh hot loaves to each residence, and slips the required amount of bread into handmade cloth bags hanging from wire fencing.

Summer on this island engraves your skin with a longing to spend sunrise to sunset lying on a small, empty, white-pebbled beach in a secluded cove at the end of a private dirt track. At midday, it gets so hot you need to wade through the heat waves rising from the uneven tarred road like kindred spirits before you can wade in the Ionian Sea to cool off—a flat, motionless oil bath which glows with an infinite turquoise glint. It may seem you are stepping into velvet, however, you emerge covered in a thin salty crust you can brush off like sand when it dries.

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

For the above example, I knew the setting extremely well as I have spent at least a quarter of my life on this Greek island. However, I don’t think you necessarily need to know a place to write about it well. For example, if you want to write about a Greek beach, just think of another beach you’ve been to, imagine it smaller, imagine pebbles instead of sand, how would that setting change affect your senses? Just use knowledge gleaned from other places you’ve been to and be smart about incorporating the differences. You’d be surprised what you can find on the Internet to help you.

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

Definitely Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, and Marilynne Robinson.

 

 

Writing in a Nutshell_Jessica BellSign up to Jessica’s newsletter and receive Book #1 of the Writing in a Nutshell Series, Show & Tell in a Nutshell, or Muted: A Short Story in Verse, for free.

Connect with Jessica online:

Website | Retreat & workshop | Blog | Vine Leaves Literary Journal | Facebook | Twitter

 

* * *

Next month’s Location, Locution: Scottish-born/Canadian-raised Catriona Troth, whose books Gift of the Raven and Ghost Town encompass 1970s Canada through the eyes of a young boy, and Britain’s 1980s race riots respectively. .

_(75_of_75)

 

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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 seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

LIBBY’S LIFE #91/#92 – The Stepfordization of Maggie

Maggie’s house used to feel like my second home. Every part of it was an extension of her, my “other” mother: the black wood-stove, the teapot-cats she didn’t have the heart to throw away, the colourful patchwork quilts draped over rocking chairs and love-seats.

I loved the stove’s smoky smell that wound through the house, even in summer, and clung to my clothes after every visit. So similar to cigar smoke, which I cannot bear, but so comforting in a way that tobacco residue never is.

I loved the china cats, gathering dust on the shelf above the kitchen window. They were as ugly as they were useless; cats of any material were never designed to hold hot liquids, and during afternoon tea, as Maggie tipped them over to pour, they would dribble incontinently over her plates of digestive biscuits and slices of Victoria sandwich.

And the quilts? I loved, simply adored, the stories that each quilt told.

“Now this white taffeta here, that’s from my wedding dress. Well, I say ‘dress’, but there wasn’t much of it. You couldn’t get more than a couple of patches out of it. It was the Sixties, and the skirt was noticeable more by its absence than presence. The blue seersucker, though, is from a party dress that Sara wore when she was five. It had a Peter Pan collar and puffed sleeves, and she looked like Miss Pears in it. And see this lime green? That’s part of the shirt I was wearing when I decided, just like that, that I’d had enough of Derek. I packed a bag for me and Sara and we left at midnight, like a pair of Cinderellas, while he was on night shift.”

The last story, about a patch of lime-green cotton commemorating her independence, is the one that keeps coming back to me as I sit with Maggie now in her living room.

Correction. This is not Maggie’s living room. Not anymore. It belongs to someone else who lives here now.

It’s as if the lime-green shirt lost its life in vain.

Gone is the wood-stove, replaced by a wall fire resembling a plasma TV.

Gone are the ceramic cats in the kitchen. The shelf where they used to sit has also gone, and in its place is a calico Roman blind. The countertops, which used to be barely visible for all the bric-a-brac — half-opened letters, a basket of middle-aged Golden Delicious, assorted supermarket receipts and special offer coupons — are clear of paraphernalia and smell faintly of lemon and ammonia. Only a coffeemaker and a toaster grace the surfaces.

And gone are the worn wooden rocking chairs and threadbare love seats, usurped by two cream, leather sofas, the type with angular seats that dig into the backs of your knees, and backrests that are too low to lean your head on.

Naturally, the life-history patchwork quilts are nowhere to be seen.

It’s like an “after” picture on a home makeover program.

Very sleek, very chic, very neutral. Devoid of personality.

Devoid of Maggie.

Well — devoid of the old Maggie, the Maggie who lived here a few months ago, the one whose personality was too big for this little cottage.

Since her ex has been living with her, though, her personality has been on a starvation diet.

The new Maggie twists slightly on her unforgiving sofa, and asks in a too-bright tone if I would like some tea. The old Maggie would have simply put the kettle on with nothing being said. Her Miss Manners style of etiquette is infectious, though, and I find myself answering:

“That would be perfectly lovely, thank you.”

She rejects my offer of help in the kitchen — something else the Maggie of old would not have done — so I stay seated and watch her walk into the kitchen. Even her dress code has changed: no more dirndl skirts or hippy kaftans, no more peasant blouses or wooden beads. I remember, when we first met, my impression of her was “Biba meets Miss Havisham of Great Expectations.”  Today, a first impression might be “Botox meets Liz Claiborne of Stepford Wives.”

What, I ask myself, can make a strong woman like Maggie turn into a drone?

It’s a rhetorical question. When you take into account the variables of Maggie’s life, only one has changed: her companion. Her ex-ex who, even when absent from the room as he is at present, keeps Maggie in a zombie-like trance by remote control.

Maggie’s personality started to alter quite a while ago, of course. My own diary pinpointed the moment as early as last September:

I have no idea what witchcraft Maggie’s ex has spun on my friend, but in the four weeks she was in the Keys, Maggie changed. She’s never been one to show or act her age — “Age is but a number” she is fond of saying — but since she came back, she’s been nearer in mental age and outlook to Jack than to me.

I did wonder if she was becoming prematurely senile, until I saw Maggie and Derek together one afternoon. Then I realised what had happened.

They’ve teleported themselves back forty years. She is behaving as she did when she was nineteen, and he thinks he’s the dashing young state trooper who stopped a redheaded English woman for speeding in a borrowed Corvette.

And it won’t work. You can’t be teenagers when you’re drawing a pension — at least, you can’t be the same teenagers that you used to be. By all means, have a second youth; but the key word there is “second”.

Reliving their first one will end in a pool of tears, I’m sure of it.

Ignoring Miss Manners’ probable advice to stay put on the sofa as my hostess had indicated I should, I follow Maggie into the kitchen.

She looks up as I approach, and I could swear that her expression is one of alarm.

“Let’s have a nice chat while the tea’s brewing,” I say, leaning cosily against the counter. “I haven’t seen you for ages. Not even in the shops, although I’ve seen Derek there a few times. How are you doing?”

Maggie’s alarmed expression returns to one more bland. She smiles and nods once to acknowledge her satisfactory wellbeing, and counts out spoonfuls of looseleaf tea into an angular, stainless-steel teapot that resembles not a tabby cat but part of a car engine.

I stare at the stainless steel monstrosity — no doubt an example of engineering perfection that it wouldn’t dream of dribbling over teatime cake and biscuits — and rage quietly to myself. How dare it decide that Maggie’s old china teapots weren’t good enough?

The answer to that is: it didn’t. Something else did.

Someone else did.

“And how is Derek?” I ask. “You haven’t kicked him out yet?”

Maggie’s eyes widen. She looks around furtively before replying.

“Of course not. Why would I do that?” she says. “We’re just getting to know each other again.”

She pours boiling water on the tea leaves, lets it brew for exactly two minutes, then pours me a cup. It’s not her usual brand of bright orange PG Tips. This stuff is pale grey with a slice of lemon floating in it, and it smells of lavender potpourri.

“The house looks beautiful,” I lie, after I’ve taken a sip. Not only does the tea smell like potpourri, but it tastes like it too. “Very tidy. Very clean. Very…” I can’t think how to describe the new, angular, clinical style that is so out of place in Maggie’s cosy home.

“Very not me, I think you’re trying to say.” Her voice is barely audible.

It’s the first sighting I’ve had of the real Maggie for several months, and in my surprise, I almost drop my cup.

“So why did you do it?” I ask.

Maggie purses her lips: Shush. Then she jerks her head slightly towards the door in the kitchen that leads to the den.

“Can you talk?” I whisper.

She shakes her head.

In a louder voice that will carry to the den where her ex-ex presumably is, she says, “Derek and I have plans to go out very soon, so I’m afraid you won’t be able to stay long. But before you leave, remind me to give you the CD you lent me last summer. I do apologise for keeping it so long.”

Again, a pursing of lips to silence any bemused reaction on my part. I’ve never lent Maggie any CDs. Ever.

I swig back the remnants of my lavender-flavoured tea and Maggie hustles me towards the front door. As I step out onto the porch, she thrusts a CD case at me. I shove it in my handbag without looking at it, get in the car, and head off home to see the children who have been tormenting a local high schooler who was foolish enough to volunteer to babysit.

Later, after dinner, I tell a slightly bored Oliver about the mysterious changes in our old neighbour. “And then, just before I left, she gave me a CD she says I lent her…but I’ve never lent her any CDs.”

“What was it?” Oliver asks.

I rummage in my handbag, which is a large sack-like affair in which everything falls to the bottom in a jumble of loose change, gas receipts, and Happy Meal toys, and pull out the CD case that Maggie had given me.

“A Beatles album,” I tell him, and hold the case up for him to see.

He squints. “I can’t see without my glasses. Which one?”

John, Paul, George, and Ringo; dressed in blue uniforms, holding their arms in various semaphore positions.

“‘Help’,” I say.

 

.

Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #93

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #90 – The Other Woman

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

LOCATION, LOCUTION: JJ Marsh looks back on a year with TDN

jill 3One year ago, Displaced Nation asked me to conduct a series of regular interviews with writers on their use of location. Place is vitally important to my writing and that of my colleagues at  Triskele Books . It’s our USP. After a year of interviews with authors from Brazil, America, South Africa, Ireland, France, India, Hungary/China, I’m looking back.

First, I’ve selected ten of favourite answers, on how these writers approach weaving literary magic carpets to transport readers to Bombay or Berlin, Syria or Odessa.
Secondly, I’ve added five of the most books that held me spellbound; works which make place a character in its own right.

Happy Anniversary!

Which came first, story or location?

 Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis:
“I knew Narcopolis would be set in Bombay. I started with that city and that period in mind. It was about telling a story that hadn’t been told before, in a way that Indian fiction doesn’t really tell stories. Unsentimental, brutal and beautiful. When I realised that was what the book would be like, it revealed itself to me.”

Charlotte Otter, author of Balthasar’s Gift:
“The two are intertwined. When the first images began to flash in my head more than eight years ago, the setting was immediately clear: my home town in South Africa, Pietermaritzburg. BV is a post-apartheid novel and PMB is struggling to become an effective post-apartheid city. It was the natural setting for the story that was starting to unspool before me.”

 

How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?

Chris Pavone, author of The Expats and The Accident:
“I love walking around cities, looking around at the architecture and the shops and the restaurants, at the people and their pet. My characters do the same, using all their senses to inhabit the world around them. Of course walking around, in and of itself, isn’t the type of action that does much to drive a plot forward, so characters should also be doing something else while walking around. Something such as spying.”

JD Smith, author of Tristan and Iseult, and The Rise of Zenobia:
“With great difficulty. In writing Tristan and Iseult I evoked the wet and wind the British know only too well. I’ve always lived on the coast, though in the north, not Cornwall (Kernow), but those salt winds and perpetually grey skies are the same. The Rise of Zenobia is based in 3rd century Syria, and I’m finding that much harder. I didn’t grow up with the atmosphere ingrained in me. I haven’t spent years of my childhood visiting the remains, the palaces and the fortifications. I rely on films a lot. Being a designer I’m an incredibly visual person, and seeing it played out, filmed in the locations I’m trying to conjure on the written page, helps immensely.”

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

Amanda Hodgkinson, author of Spilt Milk:
“All those but also I find the light is important. I adore Edward Hopper’s paintings for his use of light and I find writing can experiment in a similar way with light, creating mystery or clarity and deepening character.”

Janet Skeslien Charles, author of Moonlight in Odessa:
“For me, it is how characters react to situations. Odessa is the humor capital of the former Soviet Union, which means that my characters use humor as a shield to ward off painful situations. Odessans are capable of laughing at things that would make me bawl. Their mental toughness is impressive. So for me, the sense of city is the sense of self.”

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

Steven Conte, author of The Zookeeper’s War:
“With skill, only moderately well, though it’s probably wise to minimise the difference between your characters’ supposed knowledge of a setting and your own. This aside, the best fiction implies more than it states (Hemingway’s iceberg principle), and a few vivid details can be enough to evoke an entire town or city or region. I’d recommend not writing about famous landmarks, since locations such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Eiffel Tower and the Brandenburg Gate will remain clichés of place however brilliantly they might be described.”

AD Miller, author of Snowdrops:
“You need to know it, and then you need to unknow it. A novel isn’t a travelogue or an encyclopaedia; you enlist only those aspects or details of a place that serve the narrative.”

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

James Ferron Anderson, author of The River and the Sea:
“Charles Dickens in Chapter Three of Great Expectations uses the weather to bring alive his location when Pip runs in the morning to meet Magwitch. ‘The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes, so that instead of my running at everything, everything seemed to run at me.’ Wonderful stuff that took me to that location so effectively I still picture it. Anton Chekhov is marvellous for both countryside and city. Yalta is so alive, so liveable-in, in Lady With a Lapdog. W.G. Sebald, not a favourite writer of mine, is nevertheless someone whose ability to put me in his location I much admire.”

Share an extract from your work which illustrates place.

Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist and Eleven Minutes, on Geneva’s Water Fountain:

“Our body is almost completely made of water through which electric charges pass to convey information. One such piece of information is called Love, and this can interfere in the entire organism. Love changes all the time. I think that the symbol of Geneva is the most beautiful monument to Love yet conceived by any artist.”

Books I’d recommend for use of location:

* * *

In next month’s Location, Locution, our guest will be Jessica Bell, an Australian expat living in Greece, who writes fiction, advice for authors, and makes music too.

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

_(75_of_75)

Author photo: J J Marsh

STAY TUNED for our next 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 seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

 

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Charlotte Otter – South African expat and crime writer living in Germany

charlotte otter

Author photo: Charlotte Otter

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Charlotte Otter, a South African crime writer who lives in Germany.

Charlotte has worked as a writer since leaving university. Balthasar’s Gift is her first novel. It was published in Germany in 2013 as as Balthasars Vermaechtnis, by Argument Verlag mit Ariadne, a Hamburg publisher that focuses on crime fiction by women. It is also available as an e-book, published by Culturbooks. The English version will be published in June 2014 by South Africa’s Modjaji Books.

Charlotte blogs at Charlotte’s Web and takes coffee breaks on Twitter (@charlwrites). She is presently working on her second novel – an eco-conspiracy called Karkloof Blue.

When she is not thinking up ways to kill people, Charlotte is a corporate hack, mother of three, reader, traveller, feminist and optimist. She is happily married to the love of her life.

Check out her author site.

* * *

Which comes first, story or location?
The two are intertwined. When the first images for Balthasars Vermaechtnis began to flash in my head more than eight years ago, the setting was immediately clear: my home town in South Africa, Pietermaritzburg, often informally abbreviated as PMB. BV is a post-apartheid novel and PMB is struggling to become an effective post-apartheid city. It was the natural setting for the story that was starting to unspool before me.

How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I wrote a blog post a few years ago called I am from, and someone said to me they would love to read a novel with those elements in. I realised that my childhood memories of monkeys in the garden, chameleons on a bush and eating granadillas off the vine were not everyone’s memories and that some of them could be put to good use in landscaping a novel.

Which particular features create a sense of location? You’ve mentioned animals and fruits. Is it landscape, culture, food, all of the above?
All of the above. However, as I’m sure all writers say, they have to serve the story. The elements of location have to be sprinkled through the story with a light hand, serving to shine a light on the narrative and not distracting from it. Huge chunks of location, just like huge chunks of ill-disguised research, serve to pull the reader out of the story and that’s the last thing a writer wants. I try to be sparing and frugal with my detail, but at the same time apt. Location details are highlighters or amplifiers of the core narrative, never the story itself.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
In my case, I knew it very well. I would never be brave enough to set a novel in a place I didn’t know, because I would be nervous about making mistakes and looking like an idiot. For me authenticity is everything.

Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?

The city centre hummed with Saturday shoppers carrying glistening bags full of summer bargains from the fashion palaces on Church Street, gangs of teenagers flirting with each other, pavement hairdressers giving people their weekend dos. Radios blared, taxis hooted and added to the chaos by swerving across lanes, risking the lives of their passengers and all pedestrians. She dodged one self-styled ‘Road Warrior’ and swore. The driver leant out of his window and winked at her. ‘Calm down.’ Was this a message from the universe? Or had all the town’s taxi drivers ganged up to irritate her with their insistence on her remaining serene and tranquil?”

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
I think Barbara Kingsolver is a master of location. She is the best nature writer I know and she mostly sets her novels in rural surroundings. She does an incredible job of evoking a sense of place through her deep, abiding love of nature.

I Am From
I am from Africa. I am from blue skies, tropical breezes, and sunshine on my back. I am from tall trees that throw great shadows. I am from monkeys in the garden and a chameleon on a bush. I am from mountains that rarely see snow, beaches with huge waves, sharks behind the shoreline. I am from banana plants, sugar-cane and mealies. I am from huge moths and flying ants. I am from humidity, from thunderstorms that build up as black towers in the sky, and rain so hard it hurts my skin.

I am from eating outside. I am from the intense smell of a slightly under-ripe naartjie that I pick from its tree, dig open with dirty fingernails, and devour despite the sourness. I am from plucking granadillas off the vine and greedily sucking the juice. I am from braai meat, salad and crunchy white rolls. I am from mussels gathered from the sea.

I am from lucky beans. I am from a hoary old magnolia tree that bursts forth luscious, vanilla-scented blooms that decorate the Christmas table. I am from a red-brick house that looks out over trees and a hot town. I am from black and white tiles that cool hot summer feet. I am from the smell of dogs being washed. I am from the sound of Zulu hymns as I fall asleep.

I am from Marmite sandwiches. I am from a schoolbag digging into my shoulder as I walk home. I am from the smell of an over-chlorinated swimming-pool in my wet hair. I am from giggling. I am from eating all the cookie mixture. I am from marathon card games. I am from the thwack of tennis balls. I am from kissing boys.

I am from little brothers playing cricket on the lawn. I am from long car journeys. I am from beach holidays. I am from sand in my hair, from fairy gardens and dreaming I can fly. I am from blonde people. I am from children go to bed early. I am from fragrant grandmothers and laughing aunts. I am from a funny dad. I am from a little brother who shared my nightmares. I am from a mother who said, “You can do anything.”

Where are you from?

* * *

Next month’s Location, Locution:  Incredibly, it is now a year since Jill wrote her first “Location, Locution” column! In next month’s post, Jill will pick some of her favorite responses from her interviewees.

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

_(75_of_75)

Author photo: J J Marsh

STAY TUNED for our next 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 seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

LOCATION, LOCUTION: James Ferron Anderson, weaver, glassblower, soldier – and award-winning novelist

Author photo – James Ferron Anderson

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews James Ferron Anderson, author of  The River and The Sea.

James was born in Northern Ireland, and worked there as a weaver, glassblower and soldier. He eventually had children, moved to Norwich, UK, studied at UEA, and began to write in different forms, including poetry, short stories, plays and, more recently, novels. One of his first short stories, The Bog Menagerie, won the Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award. He won an Escalator Award winner for I Still Miss Someone, and a Writers’ Centre Free Reads Award winner. The River and The Sea won the Rethink Press New Novels Award in 2012, and was published in November 2012.

The River and The Sea is set in British Columbia. James is currently working on Terminal City, set in Vancouver. While he’s visited British Columbia and Vancouver many times (his once estranged brother lives there, but that’s another story) he has never lived there.

Visit his website at jamesferronanderson.com.

Which came first, story or location?
Location, and more so as I continue to write. I’ll stick with Terminal City, the novel I am currently working on, but it applies equally to The River and The Sea. I was already studying the history of British Columbia, and focusing on Vancouver, when I read that Errol Flynn had died there. It was the human touch that caught my attention: once flamboyant athletic actor reduced, much against his will, to selling his last possession of any worth, his yacht. Shattered, riddled with diseases, looking like seventy instead of the fifty he actually was, he dies. But if my head had not already been filled with images of Vancouver from its lumber town days in the early 1900s to its evolution into the city of glass it is today I may not have found myself, I would say unintentionally, making up stories based around a Flynn-type character.

Politics and mores are as an integral part of a location as are its streets or hills. It was what I knew of the political aspects of this West Coast city in the 30s and 40s that determined that Terminal City would be a crime story. I wanted that mixture of danger and timidity that noir provides: the lure of the forbidden and the pulling back from it. I’d say location determined the form, feel and nature of the book. The rest was my regular desire to tell stories of how people need each other, hate each other, love each other and dispense with each other.

Simply put, it begins with location, finding an interesting event and/or person in that location when I’m not knowingly looking, and getting hooked.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I think finding myself writing a story set in Vancouver (and it felt like finding more than choosing) was a just a wonderful gift. For a start, almost no one in the book was born in the city. They have a past at variance with their present, having come there from across the world for their own purposes. They are testing it, examining it, seeing what they can get from it. Will they be satisfied with what they’ve found? With the people they become over the twenty years of living there from 1939 to 1959? It makes the city, like the Thompson River in The River and The Sea, a protagonist in the book.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
Vancouver is a mild-weather city with plenty of rain. For noir it knocks LA into a cocked hat. It’s a city on a great bay so there are beaches, ships pass in and out visibly and constantly, there are well-forested and, for large parts of the year, snowy mountains rearing up just across Burrard Inlet. The wild and magnificent outdoors is no more than half an hour away, even in 1959.

Vancouver is a port, and more culturally mixed than an interior city. It’s in the far west of the continent: the final destination, like it or not, for the drifter or seeker after a better life. A large Asian presence leant, certainly in the period of which I am writing, a feeling of tension to nightlife, whether justified or not. My desire to use all that shaped the story.

Buildings matter. I have old all-wood housing from when Vancouver first laid down its streets side by side with the rise of its first multi-storey offices: a city in flux, home to people from elsewhere, also in flux, looking for roots and stability, looking for meaning too in the aftermath of a war.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
I couldn’t imagine locating a story in a place I didn’t know well. I was relishing knowing Vancouver more and more anyway. To set a novel there was an excuse to know it better again, from visiting, diving into the City Archives on-line, to examining Google Earth Street View for hours. Plenty, then. I want to make what I write correct as well as relevant to the story. That doesn’t mean that very much of what I know has to go on the page. I read a comment that Colm Toibin in writing his novel on Henry James, The Master, wore his learning lightly. I want to know everything that’s relevant, and more, and use it lightly. The tip of the iceberg theory.

There are tricks also. Why would a local person wonder or remark on anything like the view or the tram tracks in the streets? I feel description has to grow out of incident and dialogue in the narrative. The first person narrator of Terminal City has, in the 1939 scenes, only lived in Vancouver for a year and is still coming to terms with it. He can wonder and notice and remark a little more freely and yet, hopefully, realistically. In 1959 he can reflect on changes, good and bad.

Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?

The River and The SeaFrom The River and The Sea:

‘Snow was falling and visibility down to a few feet. We stopped in the afternoon and managed to light a fire and had tea and sugar. In a break in the snow Harry saw a raven. That meant there were caribou, and on the move.’

‘It did, did it?’

‘For a certainty, Harry said. We crossed a frozen lake, for easier walking, and came back onto the river. The wind was unrelenting. Even on the lake it took us four hours to make a couple of miles.’ Edward drank his tea. This was the most talking any of us had done for a long time. ‘We found a little clump of spruce. We ate some of the hide matting for the first time, but neither of us slept from the cold and the need to keep the fire going.’

It’s a narrative told to inform someone else and, almost incidentally, informs the reader. The intention was to convey their location as a site of cold, hunger and desperation, but it had to be an integral part of the story, not a piece of description standing to one side.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
Charles Dickens in Chapter Three of Great Expectations uses the weather to bring alive his location when Pip runs in the morning to meet Magwitch.The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes, so that instead of my running at everything, everything seemed to run at me.’ Wonderful stuff that took me to that location so effectively I still picture it. Anton Chekhov is marvellous for both countryside and city. Yalta is so alive, so liveable-in, in Lady With a Lapdog. W.G. Sebald, not a favourite writer of mine, is nevertheless someone whose ability to put me in his location I much admire.

 

Next month’s Location, Locution:  Jill interviews Charlotte Otter, South African author – now living in Germany, whose homeland provides fertile fictional soil.

 * * *

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

_(75_of_75)

Author photo: J J Marsh

STAY TUNED for our next 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 seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Andrea Cheng, award-winning children’s author

Author photo: Andrea Cheng

Author photo: Andrea Cheng

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Andrea Cheng, award-winning author of  books for children and young adults.  

Cheng’s first novel, Marika, was selected by the city of Cincinnati for “On the Same page,” a citywide reading program.  Honeysuckle House, Anna the Bookbinder, and Shanghai Messenger received Parent’s Choice Awards.  Grandfather Counts was featured on Reading Rainbow. Where the Steps Were, the first book that Cheng has both written and illustrated, received starred reviews in both Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus. The Year of the Book, a Junior Library Guild selection, was reviewed in the NY Times and was followed by The Year of the Baby (2013 May). Cheng’s most recent title is Etched in Clay.

Some of Cheng’s books draw on her background as the child of Hungarian immigrants as well as the background of her husband, the son of immigrants from China. Others draw on the lives of her children growing up in inner city Cincinnati where she and her husband now live.  Andrea studied Chinese at Cornell University where she received a Masters degree in linguistics.  She and her family have traveled to both Budapest and Shanghai to get to know their extended families.

Which came first, story or location?
I think character comes first in my writing, followed by location, atmosphere, etc.  Plot or ‘story” come later.  I usually start with a character at a particularly salient moment in a specific place, and go from there.

Year of the Book

Cover art: The Year of the Book, by Andrea Cheng

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I have to have spent a fair amount of time in a place before I can evoke the atmosphere.  I have to know how it smells and tastes and looks and feels.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
Everything!  I think I focus a lot on language, the way people talk. I think it would be very hard for me to write a story that takes place in a location in which I cannot speak the native language of the people who live there.

Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?
This is from my chapter book called THE YEAR OF THE FORTUNE COOKIE, coming out with Houghton Mifflin in May 2014.  It is for grades 3-6.  The main character, Ana Wang, is in Beijing:

It starts to rain.  The sky is almost dark, and the air smells like gasoline and charcoal.  We turn down an ally and wind our way behind some buildings.  “This is my home,” Fan says finally, opening a door with her key.

Inside the light is dim.  Her brother is watching television and her mother is cooking on a hot plate.  “This is my friend from America,” Fan says.  

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
I have to have spent time in the place and I have to understand the language of the people there.  The more time the better.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
I just read Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel, Lowland.  Although I think the book has some problems, I love her sense of place.

Next month’s Location, Locution:  Jill interviews James Ferron Anderson – weaver, glassblower, soldier, and now writer.

 * * *

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

_(75_of_75)

Author photo: J J Marsh

STAY TUNED for our next 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 seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Amanda Hodgkinson, author of “22 Britannia Road” and “Spilt Milk”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Author photo – Amanda Hodgkinson

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Amanda Hodgkinson, author of 22 Britannia Road and Spilt Milk.

Born in Somerset but raised in a village on the Blackwater estuary in Essex, Amanda has childhood memories of  shingle beaches and mudflats, grey-green heather, salt marshes, messing about in boats, gangs of rowdy kids playing all day along the sea-walls, and the ever-present cries of seagulls.

As an adult, she moved inland to Suffolk. She took an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia and after the MA, she and her husband, with two young daughters, upped sticks and bought a property in south west France. She intended to write a novel but spent the first few years of their new life mixing concrete to fix their house. She also had to learn French, settle her daughters into school and deal with the ups and downs of living in a country miles away from friends and family. Finally though, the family made a home in France. And she finished the novel…

22 Britannia Road became an international bestseller. Spilt Milk came out in February 2014 (Penguin Books) and a novella Tin Town (Grand Central Penguin US) will be published this summer. Meanwhile Amanda has begun work on a third novel. You can find out more about Amanda at her website, www.amandahodgkinson.com

Which came first, story or location?

With Spilt Milk, I was inspired by a location. I was visiting friends in rural Suffolk. It was late October, that lovely, damp time of year when the smell of leafmould is everywhere in the country. We went walking and ended up on the banks of a small river. I knew there and then that I wanted it to be the location for my next novel. I was amazed by the stillness of the place. The river had a timelessness to it. I suppose the slow moving waters suited the themes I was interested in writing about – the passing of time in families, the stories we keep and the ones we allow to slip away from us. By the time we’d walked back home, I had the beginnings of the novel in my head.

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

When I am writing about a time and a place I find evoking colour, smell and the sounds of that place help create mood. I know it’s considered old-fashioned to use landscape to create mood and emotional intensity but I not only love writing which evokes emotion in that way, I also believe there is a strong connection between our identities and the geographic landscapes we inhabit.

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

All those but also I find the light is important. I adore Edward Hopper’s paintings for his use of light and I find writing can experiment in a similar way with light, creating mystery or clarity and deepening character.

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

In the following passage set in 1970, Nellie, who is a very old lady, watches her family as they picnic together by the river that she has known since she was a small child.

SpiltMilkNellie sat in the shade of summer-green willows, watching the procession of men, women and children making their way down to the riverbank, one after the other, their hands drifting through the day’s fragile bloom of field poppies, all the new-born crimson petals falling at their touch.

Slowly, the murmur of voices, the greetings and talk turned to seasons remembered, harvests and ploughing, days long gone. They discussed winters whose legendary harshness were in retrospect to be marvelled at and even doubted a little, particularly this deep in the year when the barley fields were pale gold and in the distance beyond the farm, the village with its church spire shimmered into the vagueness of a heat haze.

Black and white farm dogs lay low, eyeing Tupperware boxes of sandwiches and sausage rolls. The transistor radio announced cricket scores. A tartan rug was spread out by the bulrushes, and a baby in its frilly white knickers and matching bonnet wriggled and laughed while the women cooed over her. Sunburnt men sprawled in the grass with bottled beers, straw hats tipped low across their brows. Oh, heavens, Nellie thought, eyeing the new baby. And how did I get to be so old?

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

A place can inspire a novel but I don’t think it is necessary (at least not for me as a writer) to know a place intimately before I begin a story. It is a starting point and as both my books have been set in the past, my research has also been looking at photographs, old films and reference books.

It feels liberating to be able to know a landscape physically and than allow it to become a place of the imagination. I recently wrote a historical novella for an anthology and spent a day exploring an old World War Two airfield which I then used as the basis for the story. While I stuck very closely to the layout of the airfield in the story, I still had to imagine how it must have been back in the 1940s. As in my novels, the landscape was a starting point for my fiction.

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

Lots! Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence, Toni Morrison, Annie Proulx, Paul Harding, Marilynne Robinson, John Steinbeck, Robert Macfarlene, Tracy Chevalier, Jane Smiley, to name a few.

Author bio and photograph from Amanda’s website

Next month’s Location, Locution:  Jill interviews Andrea Cheung, whose Hungarian/Chinese heritage informs her multicultural prize-winning children’s stories.

 * * *

_(75_of_75)JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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 seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

%d bloggers like this: