In this article, first published in 2013, Lois Elsden discusses writing about place, and setting stories and novels in a realistic and believable (even if imaginary) landscape.
I have to confess that although in my head my characters are moving through a rich, varied and consistent landscape, I find it really difficult to get it onto the page without there being clunking chunks of description. I always feel as if, as I’m editing my novels I’m either putting in places and settings, or toning down paragraphs which could be subtitled ‘where they are now’, ‘what they can see‘ ‘where they are going‘. The only novel I have set in a real place is my latest, ‘Flipside’ and although I have created some extra streets, pubs, a mill and a school, the town of Lees does exist, it is set on the edge of the actual Saddleworth Moors and it does run into the real Pennine town of Oldham.
Writing about Oldham was both liberating and constricting. It was liberating in that I just had to remember what the places looked like, what direction the roads took and where places were in relation to each other. It was constricting because I had to bear in mind how long it would take to drive from say, Grotton to Dobcross, or Springhead to the centre of Oldham. I had also set the story in the 1990’s and like most places, Oldham has changed, so I couldn’t always actually check out details, because they may have vanished under new building and re-routing of roads. I was also very conscious that people living there might read my book, they would immediately see any mistakes – in an imaginary landscape I have total control, and if in doubt, I can make something up to explain an apparent mistake!!
My imaginary setting is along a coastline which has cliffs and beaches, small holiday towns such as Easthope, and bigger cities with shopping malls and a university and a big teaching hospital such as Strand. There are deserted beaches and lonely boatyards and a place of significance in many of my stories is Camel Wood, a vast ancient forest. There are smaller villages set back from the coast, and a rather sad post-industrial town which my characters only visit reluctantly. All these places are totally fictional and not based on any place I know, although the coastline is very similar to the beautiful Causeway Coat of County Antrim. I have been inspired by several buildings though, in Easthope there is a terrace of coastguard cottages… we have such a terrace in our village of Uphill, and there is a similar one in Portballintrae in Antrim. There is an actual house called Saltpans, also in Portballintrae, but I have only ever been past it, never been inside it!
I have been reading the ‘Fire and Ice’ books by Michael Ridpath; I have read Where The Shadows Lie, and 66° North , and I’m on the third, Meltwater,. They are set in Iceland (oh how I would love to go back there) and the main character is an Icelandic policeman who was brought up in the USA; this gives him the advantage of being both a native and an outsider. Michael himself is British, so he was writing about a country that is not his own, with a character who has a complicated history, but the setting has to be not only correct but vivid to the reader as part of the storyline depends on the geography and the scenery. I am on the third in the series of books, and really enjoying them, and if you are interested in how Michael came to write them, have a look here:
Since this was written Lois has written more books set in her imaginary towns of Easthope and Strand which you can find here: