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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Living in France, English writer Harriet Springbett isn’t afraid to go out on a limb and produce first novel


Tracey Warr is back with her latest interview guest, Harriet Springbett, an Englishwoman who is now rooted in south-western France and has seen her creative life blossom as a result.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers. My guest this month is Harriet Springbett, an English writer who lives in the Poitou-Charentes region of France with her French husband and their dual-nationality teenage daughters.

Harriet grew up in West Dorset. She qualified as a manufacturing engineer before discovering she preferred people to machines and words to numbers. It was the mid-1990s, and she thought about applying for an MA in creative writing, a degree that was rare at the time, but her boyfriend was French and she ended up moving to France to study French for a year at the Université de Pau. As she writes in one of her blog posts: “I finally opted for love in an exotic setting.” She settled down in France, and in addition to having a family has worked as a project manager, a freelance feature writer, a translator and an English teacher—while writing fiction in her spare time.

Now in her forties, Harriet has produced her debut novel, Tree Magic. Released this year in January by Impress Books, it’s a coming-of-age story about a 13-year-old girl named Rainbow, who has secret powers over trees: she can help them grow and heal. Reflecting Harriet’s own experience, Rainbow travels from England to France, but in Rainbow’s case the quest is to discover whether her ability to communicate with trees is a gift or a curse.

Harriet writes every morning and also maintains an author site, Harriet Springbett’s playground: Words and Thoughts about writing in France, where she covers writing, life in France, and French cultural events. Several of her short stories (e.g., “Quark Soup,” “Shingle and Sand,”Ami Entends-tu?” and “Big Bones”) have been placed and shortlisted in competitions or published in magazines such as The French Literary Review.

* * *

Welcome, Harriet, to Location, Locution. My first question to you is: how has being “displaced” affected your writing? Has it affected what you write, how you write, that you write at all, or had some other effect?

Over the years I’ve realised that I write to keep in touch with my English origins. When I go back to England and see bookshops stuffed with books, or blogs featuring new books every day, I feel intimidated. Writing stories suddenly seems rather pointless and I wonder what I can possibly add to the overloaded bookshelves. Then I come home to France and it feels rare and right once more. France is my cocoon. If I lived in England, I’m not sure I’d be a writer. Living in France also means that I’m now uncomfortable writing about English settings because I lack familiarity with today’s England. This means that most of my work is set in France or in pre-1999 England.

Which comes first for you, story or location?

Actually, character comes first for my novels, but the location is usually attached to the character. I was fascinated to hear displaced novelist and academic author Patricia Duncker say that the location is often the part of a story that remains with the reader for longest—well after you’ve forgotten the characters and the plot. This is true for me as a reader, and as a writer I need to be able to visualize and sense the setting very clearly. The location grounds the story. At the moment I am writing a story set in the Pyrenees mountains, a place I love, so it’s a real pleasure for me to spend imagination time there.

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

I write more easily about countryside locations than cities, maybe because I find that cities feel calculated whereas nature is full of coincidental oddities. When I describe places, I try to use all five senses, though not in a list, of course. Sometimes I will associate a smell or a sound with a place, so that when different characters are in the place they will experience the same sense, but colour it with their own perception according to their character or mood. In this way the reader learns about the character as well as the place. Other times I search for a metaphor or simile that describes the place as a whole and leave it to the reader to imagine the details.

Can you give us some examples of features create a sense of location: landscape, culture, food…?

That’s really difficult to pin down. All of these are important, along with language, and, of course, the light: some places have a dark, brooding light, while others have a brightness that bleaches them almost into two dimensions. But the most evocative features are often those you don’t expect. It’s important to spot little details that say a lot, and I love going out and about alone because this is when I play at putting words to what’s around me. On the subject of detail, I remember listening to Beatrice Colin talk about how to make historical fiction authentic: she said you don’t need to describe everything, just a few places—but you must do this in detail.

Can you give us an example from your novel, Tree Magic?

Here is a passage from the beginning of Chapter Two, when Rainbow is out selling tomatoes and arrives at the so-called Drunken House, on the outskirts of the village where she lives.

The Drunken House was the local horror spot, the place you had to go into alone if you lost at Forfeits. She’d only lost once, but the memory of invisible eyes watching her as she’d stood in the hall and counted to ten had been burnt into her mind forever. She’d stopped playing Forfeits with the village kids after that.

The house lurked on the inside of a bend in the dank lane and had been empty for years. Ivy-clad trees grew on the steep bank opposite, and its cold brick walls huddled in their shade. There weren’t any neighbouring houses. It crouched alone, full of ghosts who were just waiting for her to run home alone on a dark night so they could reach out and grab her.

Rainbow hurried past, clutching her bucket. She could feel the house’s dampness creeping out to her. It willed her to push open the rotting door and sacrifice her warm body to its hunger.

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

I don’t need to know it well but I do need to have a strong sense of it. I often have a real place in my mind as a starting point, which I then adapt to suit the needs of the story. This is the case with The Drunken House extract above: I know the place I mean, but it has changed in my mind to become this new place, which is part real, part fiction. The Chinese novelist and Nobel Laureate Mo Yan mentions this mix of real and imagined locations in his collection of essays Dépasser Le Pays Natal (roughly translated as “Surpassing Your Native Land”). He talks about how, when he returned to his childhood home after several decades of absence, he was surprised to find it different to the childhood home he’d remembered and described in his fiction. I can identify with this.

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

I tend to find that most books I enjoy have evocative settings. Two authors come to mind immediately: in Philippe Claudel’s novel Brodeck’s Report, a kind of adult fairy tale, I am in those mountains alongside Brodeck. His skill in creating convincing locations is such that the French cartoonist Manu Larcenet was able to create a graphic novel based on this book, and its images, although somewhat darker, are very close to the pictures in my head. The other writer is Donna Tartt—particularly, The Little Friend, whose hot, sticky, Mississippi setting actually made me sweat. She’s the queen of sensory detail and I think this is why I inhabit her books so easily. And if she’s the queen, then British novelist Jon McGregor has to be the king (I hope they don’t mind me marrying them off like this!).

Harriet Springbeck’s picks for contemporary writers who have mastered the art of writing about (and in one case, illustrating!) place

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

* * *

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

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Harriet Springbett and her creative output, I suggest you visit her “playground”. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Harriet! Harriet, I can relate to the idea that you initially went to France as a love-pat, and although you thought it might mean relinquishing your writing career as you have expressed in this post, it seems you are now finding your way. Not only that but your displaced life has fed your creative urges. Kudos! —ML Awanohara

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo and photos of West Dorset and French countryside via Pixabay. Other tree photos, including the one in the background of Springbett’s book cover, also via Pixabay.

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DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: A summer of unwinding, recharging & charging ahead

Diary of an Expat Writer
American expat in Hong Kong Shannon Young has been updating us on her quest to become a full-time writer since her first post in October 2014, nearly three years ago. As her summer 2017 update shows, she’s come a very long way!

Dear Displaced Diary,

It’s a bright, sunny day in Hong Kong, and summer is in full swing. This is the time of year when even the tourists are hesitant to go out and brave the muggy weather here in the sub-tropics. I’m already back at work in my usual Starbucks after my own summer travels.

Since my last update in the spring, I’ve been busy finishing the fifth and final book in my young adult fantasy adventure series, Steel & Fire. Night of Flame launched on May 20th, wrapping up my second major series under my Jordan Rivet pen name. (The first is the Seabound trilogy.)

I think it’s safe to say that the Jordan Rivet name is here to stay.

The end of May also marked the first full year in which my writing income matched or exceeded what I earned in my previous day job.

It seemed like a good time to go on holiday!

JUNE: Something of a writing break

In June, I spent four weeks with my family in Arizona. My fellow members of the Displaced Nation know what this entails: catching up on a year’s worth of quality time, eating at all your favorite places, and noticing all your home country’s idiosyncrasies.

One thing that always surprises me when I go home is the sheer number of choices in the grocery stores. You can buy anything you want in Hong Kong, but in the United States there seem to be infinite variations of each thing. (For example: I counted eleven different types of M&Ms in a single convenience store.) I also notice how much strangers make small talk. There’s usually an adjustment period where I stare blankly at cashiers who ask about my day. I can no longer tell how much people actually want to know when they strike up a conversation.

Since I’d just wrapped up my fantasy series, I decided not to set any serious writing goals for this summer. I made a few final edits to the side project I wrote while working on Night of Flame. This book, a post-apocalyptic story in a different vein than my Seabound series, is my tenth Jordan Rivet novel, and I think it’s the best yet. I’m currently exploring the possibility of going hybrid with it (i.e., finding a traditional publisher for some books while continuing to self-publish others). I’ll keep you posted on how it goes, Diary.

Of course, I can’t stay away from writing completely. My mom and my 15-year-old sister both enjoy writing, and we had a few great work sessions at cafés around Arizona. I even got to read the first chapter of my sister’s novel-in-progress (it’s awesome). Being an expat means it’s especially noticeable when younger family members grow up in leaps and bounds while you’re away. I’m coming up on my seven-year anniversary in Hong Kong, and it’s nice that my youngest sister and I have started connecting over this shared passion.

During those sessions with my family, I worked on the worldbuilding and outlines for my shiny new fantasy series. This trilogy will be set in a different world than my Steel & Fire series, which means I get to invent a new magic system and figure out new hierarchies and political systems.

My goal for this series is to appeal to the same readers who enjoyed Steel & Fire while also being able to try all kinds of different things. The books will follow a single point-of-view character, and I’m going for a tight, tense plot rather than something sweeping and epic.

I ended up outlining all three books for the new trilogy while I was in Arizona, though I’m sure the details will change as I get into it.

JULY: Indie author reunion in London & a week in Iceland

From Arizona I flew to London to meet up with my husband, who was finishing up a business trip. While there, I met with a group of indie authors who have been a huge part of my writing life over the past two years. We are all members of the same Facebook group, and these writers have taught me many of the strategies that have contributed to my self-publishing success.

Though nervous about meeting Internet friends in real life, I found it even better than expected. The author life can be lonely, and it’s good to talk shop with people who are building their careers in the same way I am. All of us are trying to figure things out, often through trial and error. It’s been wonderful to share the journey.

From London, my husband and I flew to Iceland for a week-long trip we’d been talking about taking since we met, almost ten years ago. I know it’s a trendy place to visit right now—and it completely lives up to the hype!

Iceland also proved the perfect place to visit while the worldbuilding for my new series was kicking around in my head. Many of the places in that world aren’t set in stone yet, and I ended up adding a bit of Icelandic flavor to my mental images.

END-JULY TO AUGUST: Glad to be back in the writing saddle!

By the time I returned to Hong Kong, I was chomping at the bit to get started on the new series. After a day to recover from jet lag, I hit the ground running on the first book. After thinking about it all summer I had a pretty clear idea of how it was going to turn out. Of course, there are always surprises in the writing process, and this book was no exception.

Though the beginning went slower than anticipated as I got to know the new characters and started filling out their world, I finished the rough draft in just under three weeks. As always, I’m sure it’s going to need a lot more work. Coming in at less than 60,000 words, I think it’s missing a few chapters that will help bring the world to life.

I’ve printed out the draft, and it’s burning a hole in my bag right now, just waiting for me to open it up and start reading.

Even though summer is not yet officially over, I’m happy to be back to work. It’s always nice to get out of Hong Kong, but it’s good to be home, too.

I first started writing when I moved to Hong Kong, and this is still where I do it best. In a few weeks, I will be able to apply for permanent residency, another step along the road to establishing a lasting place for myself here.

I think I’ll always feel like an expat, a little displaced, a little homesick. But the baristas at my Starbucks seem happy to see me, and for now at least, this is home.

As always, Displaced Diary, thank you for listening.

Yours,

Shannon Young
AKA Jordan Rivet
www.shannonyoungwriter.com
www.jordanrivet.com

* * *

Shannon, I can still remember clearly when you started this column. You weren’t at all sure you could make this full-time writing gig work. And now look at where you are. Amazing! And you’re even applying to become a permanent full-time resident of Hong Kong? Wow! The displaced writer’s life clearly suits you. Keep on keeping on, that’s all I can say! ~ML

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Author photo and book covers supplied.
Strawberry peanut butter M&Ms?! What?! by Heather via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
Iceland photo via Pixabay.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: France-based English writer Jacqueline Yallop recommends a life of “being on the move”


Tracey Warr is back with her latest interview guest, the lyrical writer Jacqueline Yallop, who says she’s a believer in writers being “on the move.” Hm, let’s see what she means by that…

Greetings, Displaced Nationers. My guest this month is British writer Jacqueline Yallop, who has been living in South-West France for more than ten years while also spending time in the UK.

Before moving countries, Jacqueline studied English Literature at Lincoln College, Oxford. She went on to obtain a PhD at the University of Sheffield, with a thesis exploring literature, objects, collecting and museums in the 19th century.

Jacqueline’s first career was as a museum curator. She worked with a variety of collections including the Wordsworth Trust collection and archive, at Dove Cottage in the Lake District, and the Ruskin collection, at Museums Sheffield.

She has since moved on to a career in creative writing and is the author of three novels:

  • Marlford (2015), set in a dilapidated manor house in England in 1969.
  • Obedience (2011), set mostly in a convent in 1940s occupied France; and
  • Kissing Alice (2010), set in 1920s and 1930s England (shortlisted for the 2010 McKitterick Prize).

She has two non-fiction works as well:

  1. Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves: How the Victorians Collected the World (2012), which tells the stories of some of the 19th-century’s most intriguing collectors following their perilous journeys across the globe in the hunt for rare and beautiful objects; and
  2. Dreamstreets: A Journey Through Britain’s Village Utopias (2015), exploring a network of “ideal” villages which sprang up across Britain during the 18th and 19th centuries. A Guardian critic praised its “sharp and tangible” descriptions of place, surface and mood.

Jacqueline’s most recent work, out this month, is the memoir Big Pig Little Pig: A Tale of Two Pigs in France, about why she quit city life to move to France to rear pigs.

In addition to her own creative endeavors, Jacqueline teaches creative writing at the University of Aberystwyth and mentors emerging writers.

* * *

Welcome, Jacqueline, to Location, Locution. My first question to you is: how has being “displaced” affected your writing? Has it affected what you write, how you write, that you write at all, or had some other effect?

I don’t really consider myself displaced so much, as “on the move”! Being on the move is helpful as a writer, because I find that it’s often when you first arrive somewhere that you see the place most clearly, with the curiosity and detachment of a newcomer. My second novel, Obedience, for example, was very much inspired by stories I’d heard from neighbours when I first moved to France—stories which struck me at the time as strange and moving and worthy of attention.

But how about nowadays? You’ve been living in France for a while.

True. My memoir, Big Pig Little Pig, is absolutely rooted in my growing attachment to a particular place: it aims to capture the moment when you stop feeling displaced and begin to feel as though you belong. That’s an important—and ambiguous—moment for me.

Which comes first for you, story or location?

The two are so tangled together that I couldn’t say. When I begin to imagine a new story, I always see it in a particular place and begin to people it with characters that act in the ways they do because of the locations that have helped form them. But then when I start to think about locations, I’m immediately inspired by the character stories that help to define place.

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

I don’t think there’s a secret to this: it’s about finding those little details that say a lot without words; it’s about trying to nail down where the past meets the present, and the crossover between the physical environment—townscapes, landscapes—and its less tangible “spirit”.

Can you give us some examples of what you mean by little details: landscape, culture, food?

All of these, I would say, as well as other things: what do people look like in this place? What do they wear? How do they speak? What work do they do? In the end, of course, most places look very similar to somewhere else, one way or another—but there will be a combination of people, things, events, nature etc. that end up making a place unique.

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

Here’s a paragraph from Big Pig Little Pig, which, I hope, captures something of the joy and intimacy of being close to the land:

“One of the pigs’ new favourite games is pear chase. I stand at the top of the slope with a bucket of windfall pears from the tree in our garden. The fruit are too small and grainy for us, but the pigs love them, and in particular love foraging for them, so I hurl them one at a time as hard and as far as I can. The pears bounce off in all directions, ricocheting from trunks, rolling down the terraces, splatting hard against stones; the pigs follow after, galloping down the hill, slipping and sliding, stopping to find a pear, hearing another one fall close by and setting off after it, barging and wrangling, snuffling through the dug earth after the scent of fruit. When I’ve emptied the bucket I watch them for a while and then leave them to their search; they’ll be at it a long time.”

I love the way the passage takes us right into the scene. It seems that you feel you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

All my books have been set in places I know very well—I’ve either lived in the place or have family connections there. Some of the students I teach manage to create a completely fictional place from scratch—perhaps a fantasy setting, or a dystopian city—but I struggle to do this. I prefer to have my ideas rooted in sights, sounds and smells I’ve experienced.

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

Jacqueline Yallop’s picks for contemporary novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

This is an impossible question! I admire all sorts. Lots of the “classic” novels use location to great effect: Dickens’s London, Hardy’s Wessex, Joyce’s Dublin, Emily Brontë’s moorland… But of course, contemporary writers are strong on this, too. There’s a lovely short novel by the Catalan writer Maria Barbal, known in English as Stone in a Landslide, which evokes the Pyrenean landscapes and communities very movingly; I also very much enjoy the way Marilynne Robinson captures the American Mid-West.

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

* * *

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

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

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Jacqueline! I have to say, I absolutely love the passage from Jacqueline’s memoir! This is in part because I am an auntie to a miniature pot-bellied pig (who lives in Manhattan) but mostly because, although I’ve never been to that part of France, I now feel as though I’ve visited the exact place where the pigs were playing the pear game. Just delightful! —ML Awanohara

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

NOTE: If you happen to be anywhere near Carew Castle (Pembrokeshire coast, west Wales) on Sunday, Tracey Warr will be speaking about the history behind her fiction. She’ll be answering the question: which castle was Welsh Princess Nest kidnapped from? Sunday, July 30, 2017, 13:00-14:00.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo and photos of French countryside, supplied; photo of Sheffield via Pixabay.
Second visual: Photo of author’s house in France (supplied).
Third visual: Omppu-possu vauhdissa! by samerika! via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Last visual: Book cover art.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her other fictional writings include:

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Looking for your sweetheart, are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

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

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

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

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

Related posts:

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

All other visuals are from Pixabay.

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


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

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Your main characters are English expats?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

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

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

Related posts:

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

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

DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: How to generate more writing ideas than you can handle (expats, you have an advantage!)

Diary of an Expat Writer
It’s been much too long since we’ve heard from Shannon Young, an American expat in Hong Kong who recently achieved her dream of becoming a full-time writerThose who have been following her diary from the beginning won’t be surprised to learn that she’s been extremely productive in the interim. About to finish her five-book fantasy adventure series and begin the next, she shares some proven methods of generating story ideas.

Dear Displaced Diary,

Forgive me for letting so much time pass since my last entry. As you can probably guess from my previous entries, I’ve been busy! Nearly a year ago—on April 1, 2016—I published the first book, Duel of Fire, in my second fantasy series, called Steel and Fire. It’s a five-book series, whereas my first series, Seabound. was a trilogy. As the title suggests, I’ve been writing an adventure series; the Seabound books are dystopian fantasy. Also, from the start, the Steel and Fire novels have done much better than my first set, which I hope can be taken as a measure of my success as a budding writer.

The last time I wrote you, I was about to finish Book Three in Steel and Fire. I’d also set myself the goal of launching Book Four by the end of 2016: achieved! Then in January I wrote the rough draft of the fifth and final Steel and Fire novel.

As I wrap up this series and gear up for the next, I thought it might be an opportune moment to tell you about how I get my writing ideas—something we haven’t really gone over before.

Here are my four main techniques for generating story lines:

1) Draw on life experience to build a new world.

As a science fiction and fantasy author, I am challenged over and over again to build a world that is different to everyday reality.

Expats like you and me have a serious advantage. We have literally transplanted ourselves into a new world already. Viewing people, customs, vocabulary, clothing, and architecture as a newcomer or outsider already puts us in the mindset for developing a compelling world for our stories.

The more you work with a world, the more you can push the boundaries beyond what you already know about it. It’s not so much creating a world as it is excavating one—an idea I lifted directly from Stephen King’s On Writing. As King says, it’s easier to expand upon and discover ideas than to think them up cold. Build outward from an initial concept, and the ideas almost write themselves.

In my dystopian Seabound series, for example, I chose a post-apocalyptic ocean setting and developed my ideas from there. I gave the characters entire vocabularies that revolve around nautical terms. All of my similes had to be relatable for people who have lived on the ocean for sixteen years. “Salt” and “rust” became swear words. I created an oil rig that is a central meeting place, versus a market.

2) Don’t forget about the story—and the power of contrast in telling it.

As anyone who’s written fantasy will know, it’s easy to get so bogged down in the details of a world that you forget about the actual story. Travel writers know this, too: it’s not enough to describe a cool place. You have to take your readers on a journey through it.

One way to come up with a story idea is to set up an inherent contrast. Two characters from different social classes fall in love. A by-the-book detective has to work with a rogue. A normal girl teams up with a paranormal being/secret agent/feisty old woman to defeat a bad guy. Use the built-in tension of contrasting characters to help figure out what your conflict should be. Again, starting with the seed of an idea and building outward is easier than thinking up a whole story from scratch.

3) Read other books for inspiration.

Another way to think up story ideas is to seek inspiration in other books. You shouldn’t copy another author’s ideas, but reading an engaging story can be a great way to get the juices flowing in your own mind. For example, you might be sitting by the fire enjoying the school antics of Harry Potter when—BAM!—you think to yourself: what would it be like if the whole thing took place at a boarding school in space? There’s your idea. Bonus points if you can bring an old idea into a new setting— think Firefly’s country western in space or iZombie’s murder mystery series with a zombie sleuth.

You can also get fiction ideas from reading non-fiction. You might be enjoying the latest expat memoir about your soon-to-be adopted home when it occurs to you things could get really interesting if someone got murdered or an EMP destroyed the electrical grid in the middle of the expat author’s adventures. Don’t be afraid to take someone else’s plot and add a new twist. Just run with it!

4) Live with a cold idea for a while, until it heats up.

I come up with my very best ideas while I’m working on other projects; but what happens when you have a general idea of what you want to write about, and you’re not sure how to move forward? How do you get more specific ideas on which to build a story? My favorite method is to walk around with the idea for a while. It helps if you can give yourself some parameters, such as “I want to write about a murder in the city where I live.” Don’t think too hard about it; just go about your daily life occasionally remembering that you’re looking for a particular story line. You may find that you see or overhear something that connects with the question in your head and hits you straight between the eyes with a great story idea!

This method works for problems within stories as well. Often the necessary solutions will come to you when you least expect them, but only after you give yourself an initial question to mull over. (This is why getting ideas in the shower is common among writers.) Don’t forget to keep a notebook handy so you can capture those ideas the moment they arrive.

Okay, your turn!

In closing, I’d like to pose a question to the readers of this diary entry. What are your tried-and-true methods of coming up with story ideas? Do you usually start out knowing what you’re going to write or discover it along the way?

Happy writing in either case!

And thank you, Displaced Diary, for your continuing encouragement!

Yours,

Shannon Young
AKA Jordan Rivet
www.shannonyoungwriter.com
www.jordanrivet.com

* * *

Shannon, it’s great to have you back at the Displaced Nation, and once again, I’m impressed by your ability to convey so many helpful ideas for the rest of us would-be book writers. You are what the Japanese side of myself would call a sensei, a compliment rarely bestowed on one so young! ~ML

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


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

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following six have won high accolades:

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

Mawer has also written two nonfiction books:

* * *

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

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

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

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

the-glass-room-collage-w-quote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

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

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

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

Moreover, England did not make a good first impression:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Tea Planter’s Wife:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

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

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

Related posts:

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

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

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

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

charles-lambert-oeuvre-525x
He also recently produced a fictionalized memoir, With a Zero at Its Heart, capturing moments from his life in a unique, experimental format.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Any Human Face (Picador, 2010):

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

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

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

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

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

a-few-of-cls-fave-books

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

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

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

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

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

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

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

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