One of the most important questions you need to ask yourself when writing fiction, whether prose or poetry, is ‘Where are We?’ The reader needs to know where they are in time and place in order to navigate through the narrative, in whatever form that takes.
Some of the greatest pieces of literature have landscape integral to the story, so much so that it almost becomes another character. Think of Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’.
This is the opening:
‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.’
We are invited into the story even though on the surface this is simply the description of a setting in a dream by a nameless narrator. So many questions are raised that make us want to read on.
Why does the nameless narrator dream about Manderley? What is Manderley? Has it been abandoned? Why can’t she get to it? What has happened?
Du Maurier continues.
‘Nature had come into her own again, and little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long tenacious fingers.’
Here she uses the ‘pathetic fallacy’ to make the landscape a living, breathing thing, to give it human qualities. Manderley is another character. And we experience Manderley through the narrator’s viewpoint. We feel her emotions in relation to it. She has huge emotional investment in this house and what it represents. The suffocating blood-red rhododendrons, the turbulent sea, the grand west wing, and the untouched bedroom reflect the character and the lasting ghostly presence of the first Mrs De Winter. We feel the narrator’s inferiority as the second Mrs de Winter.
And like all du Maurier’s writing, the landscape adds mood and atmosphere. ‘Rebecca’ is not a ghost story as such but it is very creepy with its sense of menace, unease, and isolation.
Isolation is a good place to start for a piece of writing. Short story writer and novelist Paul McVeigh says that writing about a landscape where a character is trapped is a powerful narrative device. For example, in a room, in a car, in a prison. (Manderley, again!) Imagine being trapped with someone you’d rather not be trapped with and all the possibilities this offers a writer in terms of tension and conflict.
Agatha Christie used this device time and again. (An island in ‘And then there were None’, a train in ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, a boat in ‘Death on the Nile’. )Think of the school boys on the island of the ‘Lord of the Flies’. The psychotic fan’s house in Stephen King’s ‘Misery’ and the hotel in ‘The Shining’. And think of the trapped narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.
Writing about landscape means you can add sensual description – smell, sounds, textures etc., which all add to the immediacy and intimacy of a piece. The War poets knew the power of this. In Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, we are placed right in the thick of it, in the trenches. All our senses are on high alert and our emotions heightened as he gives us a first hand account of the horrors these young men faced.
In contrast, in ‘Time of “the Breaking of Nations”’, Thomas Hardy uses a different device. The horrors of warfare are happening offstage. We are placed in quite a different sort of field, in rural England. Not in the mud of the trenches where men are blown to pieces but in the fertile soil of a farm. The horses here are not pulling guns, but a plough. We know that the most horrific of wars is being fought, that maybe the labourer will yet be sent overseas, but whatever happens, this life will go on.
You might think there’s no place for descriptions of setting in a poem, flash, or short story but if your description is doing more than one job – i.e. if it is doing more than being pretty writing – then it can add depth to the whole piece. It can also, strangely, be a short cut when you don’t have time to describe the characters or the atmosphere or the back story in any detail.
Speaking of time. Time is as important as place. When is it happening? What period? What details can you give as a short cut? (e.g. ‘wireless’ for ‘radio’, ‘telephone’ for ‘mobile’.) I’m a little bit obsessed with the 1970s as that was my childhood. I set my first novel ‘The Generation Game’ (a clue in the title) against a backdrop of national events from this time, using references to popular culture, in particular Saturday night television. But what is central to the story is the newsagent’s where my character grows up, a place where all sorts of characters can meet, (like the Rovers Return in ‘Coronation Street’). And sadly, it’s a place that has largely disappeared from the high street.
When writing your piece, think how the landscape can add depth, just as subtext does, the subject of my last blog. Ask yourself: Where are we?
http://paulmcveigh.blogspot.co.uk (a brilliant site for writers)
Sophie Duffy is this year’s Hysteria Writer in Residence. You can find out more about her in the interview she did with us in April.