This weekend I’ve been splashing around in cold seas, scoffing ice-cream and scrambling over rocks. There might have been some shopping involved too but that’s a different story…
There has been a purpose to all this frivolity, however. I’ve been researching locations for the last book in the Sky Song trilogy, Not of Our Sky. More accurately, one very important location that’s integral to the climax. Every writer has a slightly different approach to using locations in their stories according to their needs. As a fantasy writer, my sense of place (a bit like my writing in general) lies somewhere in between real and made up. Quite often I’ll take an actual place and modify it. Sometimes I just won’t tell you where that place is. There is quite a lot of that in Sky Song, for example, I don’t tell you where the boating lake is, but it is a real location.
*As an aside, the only clue you’ll get from the entire three books of the park’s location in the physical world is this line from The Young Moon:
Jacob was hit by a rush of conflicting emotions as he entered the dolphin-embossed gates and the glittering waters of the lake stretched out before him, beyond which the hazy blue rim of the sea cut across the horizon.
Anyone recognise it now?*
The reason I don’t always tell you the name of the real place is that the story needs me to alter it in some way, and I don’t want everyone shouting at me that the details aren’t right. The boating lake is in a real park, but I take details of an annual event in another, nearby park and add them to my boating lake park, then I chuck in some buildings that don’t exist in the real park either because they have a vital part to play in the final confrontation of the book. In my upcoming standalone novel Runners, I do tell you the real name of every location, but the action is set in the future so that you can accept that the landscape or buildings may have changed. The climax of Not of Our Sky, however, needs a real place and it needs to be accurate because the whole book has been foreshadowing the events there in such a way that it has to be named. The action takes place in a contemporary time too so it has to look in the book how the real place looks now. And despite the fact that I have researched the location extensively from afar, actually visiting it this weekend has revealed just how little of the details I actually got right! Physically seeing the landscape has also suggested new ideas to weave into that final scene that would never have occurred to me had I not been there, ideas that I’m sure will improve it.
Of course, it’s not always possible to visit your locations. In the second book of the trilogy, The Young Moon, there is an equally important, really existing location. Sadly, however, that place is one I travelled to many years ago and as I don’t have the money to go back there, I’ve had to rely on my ageing memory and let Google fill in the gaps!
But why not simply set the books in the place I live? Wouldn’t that be easier?
Having been born in Dorset but brought up in Stoke-on-Trent, I do actually use both places frequently as a source of inspiration. The story dictates the setting. And the stories I’m working on now need the Dorset and Hampshire landscapes to work. There is something epic about the terrain there, something quite mystical. Hardy saw it and wove it into the fabric of his novels like a character. But there are other stories I write that Stoke is a perfect backdrop for. Most of my short stories are set there, particularly the ones with more of a realist feel. For me, Stoke, as a city, is incredibly real; the people have a natural grounding and no-nonsense self-deprecation that seems to suit those stories better.
I know some writers who can set a story in a place they’ve never visited by simply researching it for a sense of location and some who only ever set things in the place they live. Some spend pages describing intimately their locations and some throw in titbits to give you only a flavour. And, obviously, there are some whose places don’t exist anywhere except in their books. Their methods work for them as writers and their stories. It’s a fascinating process and one that, for me, is almost as important as characters and plot. Location can do so much to shape a story.