07 February 2019

How to choose the right setting for your novel

Gytha Lodge, author
by Gytha Lodge How To ..., Writing Tips

Gytha Lodge is a writer and multi-award-winning playwright who lives in Cambridge. After studying creative writing at UEA, she was shortlisted for the Yeovil Literary Prize and the Arts’ Council England fiction awards. Gytha is represented by Curtis Brown agent Felicity Blunt and her debut novel, She Lies in Wait will be published by Michael Joseph (PRH) in March 2019.

Choosing the backdrop to any book is one of the most important decisions a writer can make. That, at least, is the conclusion I’ve come to after years of reading. The books that have stayed with me are those where the setting is not only described with such skill that you feel as though you’re sinking into it, but where it is interwoven with the story to the point that one is unimaginable without the other. I can’t imagine Far from the Madding Crowd having a story without the landscape of the south-west. Greats such as The Road and All the Pretty Horses seem to have the landscape burned into every twist of the plot.

There was no question that I needed to get the setting right in She Lies in Wait. The story of a group of teenagers going camping (and drinking, and dancing, and more) needed to bridge two different worlds: a nostalgic, childhood world of hot summers and tins of beer; and the dark world they suddenly found themselves in the next morning, when they realised that the youngest girl, Aurora, was missing.

That sense of a world suddenly lost was key. That one night inevitably changed all of them, driving them to cling to and protect each other. And a second harsh reality was to be discovered much later on, once they were all adults. Because Aurora’s remains were discovered in a place only those six other teenagers knew about.

Without a backdrop that could evoke not only the heady newness of teenage parties, but also the loss of them, I knew that the story would fall flat. So I went looking for somewhere that represented a step back in time. I wanted to feel that the team investigating could almost enter the past. As if the world had somehow been frozen the moment that Aurora vanished.

The New Forest, I realised, suited it perfectly, and not least because I know it well and felt I could do it justice. Its areas of perfect preservation – its thatched cottages and village greens – also summed up that idyllic childhood. But there is something a little sad, for me, in every visit. It’s hard to put a finger on, but I think it’s connected with knowing that the world beyond it has changed a great deal. It’s only a short drive to Southampton, where life is urban, and busy, and where poverty sits alongside affluence. In the New Forest, you are visiting what is essentially a forgotten time, with only a few intrusions from modern life.

Time is, of course, the second major character in a story like this. I wanted these children to have grown up and become adults by the time these events were revealed. I also wanted adult readers to remember their own teenage years, too, and to see themselves in that group of kids. The natural choice for those events became the eighties, which many of us remember. It was a time when music was becoming more rebellious, and crystal meth and dexedrine were on the scene. When kids were washing dip-dabs and refreshers down with beer and vodka (or at least, that’s what I think they were doing).

I chose the long, hot summer of 1983 in the end. It seemed perfect. This was the year before 1984, when in Orwell’s vision, everything had gone really, terribly wrong. It seemed absolutely appropriate for this to be the setting for a fallen idyll.

Of course, the story of She Lies in Wait doesn’t finish in 1983. So much of it happens during the investigation. I structured the book as two strands. The first is told from the missing girl’s perspective on that one night, and the second is through the eyes of the Detective Chief Inspector who has to unpick all the lies that were told about what happened. He has to find the killer lurking in a group of friends, while all of them begin to realise just what they’ve spent thirty years hiding.

I wanted Jonah, the investigating DCI, to be moving back and forth in time, too. He had been at school with this group briefly. He’d been part of the search parties, and had never really stopped looking for Aurora. Those events changed him quite profoundly, too. So part of our access to the past happens through him, and his memories.

Once I began to write my story in this time and place, story and setting became inextricably linked in my mind. That’s the way with stories, I think. They grow and fuse and expand in ways that make them a thing of their own. I couldn’t have changed the backdrop, once I’d begun, even if I’d wanted to. It was too much a part of the story. Which is why I’ve given just as much consideration to the setting of my second book, and in fact made an early change in order to be sure that the story really worked. After all, as the great Eudora Welty said, “Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else… Fiction depends for its life on place.”

If I turned that into some advice for other writers, based on my own experiences, I would say three things:

1) Choose a place and time that you know. In terms of place, one you can not only visualise strongly, but also know the sounds and aromas and feel of. Be prepared to look at photographs and maps, as this will help you remind or anchor yourself. In terms of time, look up key dates if you aren’t sure and familiarise yourself with what was going on politically, socially, and in music and film. You’ll write convincingly if you know your stuff.

2) Be rich in your descriptions. There’s little as disconcerting for a reader, I think, than not being able to place a scene somewhere firmly. It leaves you feeling rootless and like you aren’t standing on anything. Conversely, there’s nothing so satisfying as a feeling of being absolutely surrounded by a scene, whether it’s a comfortable one or a terrifying one…

3) Let the setting influence the story. If there is a river bank and a shallow sand bar, think about whether the characters would swim. If the wind drives mercilessly over an open plain in your scene, consider that they would swathe themselves against it, and choose places of shelter, which could change everything. And if it’s 1989 and the Berlin wall has just come down, the characters will very likely be talking about it instead of other things. Use it as inspiration, and enjoy it as much as the reader will.

She Lies in Wait is published through Michael Joseph and will be released in the UK on 21st March.

If you’re writing a novel, check out the creative-writing courses – online or in London – currently open for applications or enrolment at Curtis Brown Creative.

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