Friday, 2 January 2009

Developing locations for a novel.

I am currently in the process of doing some in-depth planning of a crime novel set in the Southampton area. As part of the planning, I need to know the locations that will feature in the story. We only moved to this area fifteen months ago, and I do not know the city as well as I would like. For this reason, I spent a couple of mornings in mid-December travelling around the city looking at the locations that I will be describing. Notes were scribbled down in a notebook, and then when I got back home they were converted into descriptions from the viewpoint of characters within the story.

In the process I visited the place where the protagonist will live, the gym/swimming pool complex that he will exercise in (a major part of his character), and the cafe where an important scene will take place. None were quite as I expected, and all had something that surprised me, even if I had been there before. Unsurprisingly, I seem to notice more when visiting an area 'as a writer'.

At each location I noted down my first impressions, including the sights, smells and general atmosphere. Not all of this - indeed, very little - will be directly used within the novel, but little pieces will. The remainder will not be wasted, it all goes towards creating a background impression of the location, and that will subconsciously set the tone for the writing. Does the reader need to know that there is a corner shop a few yards away from the protagonist's front door? No, but the knowledge allows me to have the protagonist nip out for a pint of milk, knowing that he could be back in five minutes.

In many ways this is more important for myself, the writer, than it will be for the reader; the majority of readers will not care, but those familiar with the local area will readily spot mistakes. As a writer, I care for these people - I do not want to make obvious mistakes. For this reason, such research is paramount. It also gives me a reason, as if I needed one, to go for a walk.

When doing this, I have to take into account the style and tone of the book. If I were to write my own description of a beautiful Scottish hillside, I may detail the flora and fauna, or the names of the nearby mountain peaks. A fifteen-year old describing the same scene may use the words 'bleak, boring', and see little of interest. In fact, they may scarcely observe it at all.

Therefore the perspective of the characters has to alter the way the scene is observed. Here is an example:

A scene from a countrywoman's perspective:
Mounds of rough, hummocky grass stretched away from the black ribbon of tarmac. The road was the only mark civilisation had left on the otherwise glorious landscape. In the distance, snow-capped peaks pierced the grey skies. Enchanting, virgin snow, fresh and white. A solitary path led towards the peaks, weaving around to avoid the roughest, most impenetrable land. The scenery was almost calling her to stop the car, put on her boots, and climb; climb and never come back. After all she had come here to get lost, and there could scarcely be a better place for that.

The same scene from the perspective of a 15-year old:
Mel tried to concentrate on the low background drone of the engine, using it to block out the other voices. For the first three hours of the journey she had listened to her iPod; that was now discarded, the battery dead. Radio 4 blared out of the car's radio; the afternoon play being interrupted by occasional comments from her parents. The view out of the car window was bland, grey-green grass, grey rocks and grey sky. Only the snow that covered the distant mountains offered any variety in the palette. There was no real colour. If there was anywhere that needed some graffiti, this was it. Some reds, blues or yellows to fight the unbearable greyness. Back home, the grey concrete of the tower blocks would be enlivened with riotous walls of colour. Not here. Here she had the biggest canvas of her life.
But it was not to be. They had taken her spray-cans away.

The same scene in action:
Tim fled up the path, paying little heed to the wet, slippery rocks that threatened to send him off-balance at any moment. The mountain in the distance seemed to taunt him; "why didn't you set off earlier?"; "You'll never make it..."; "You should never have come out here."
His heart pounded as he reached the first incline, a slow, lingering climb that led towards the base of the mountain. There, sheltered in a small bothy, lay his goal. Other men were following, struggling along the boggy stretch of path by the road, but he was a few minutes ahead, a few, precious minutes. A mountain hare, fur shock-white, bounded across the path, startled from its hiding place by his approach. It was a glorious sight of life amidst the desolate scenery, and the vision helped him drag the last vestiges of energy out of his tired, cramped muscles. if he did not deliver the medical kit in time there would be two less lives in the valley. His wife and their unborn child would die. Such was the timing of fate: a few minutes late, and they would die. Two lives would drift off into nothingness. Get there in time, and both might - would - survive.

As can be seen, these three scenes describe the same location from the perspective of three different characters. As they are read, the reader will hopefully get an image of the location in their heads, one that has been filtered by each character's viewpoint. Additionally the reader has learnt something about the characters through their reactions to the scenery. The first character takes joy in her surroundings, and the second can see nothing of interest, causing her to want to mould it to her liking. In the final (and, in my opinion, weakest) scene, the location is almost a character, one that challenges the protagonist.

I had absolutely no idea where I was going with any of these when I started writing them; the stories and characters developed as I wrote them. All I had in mind was the location, somewhere I have visited twice. I had it firmly in my mind as I wrote.

Incidentally, I really enjoyed writing them. Sometimes free writing in this manner can be quite fun.

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