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