Tuesday, July 15, 2008

RNA conference notes part two: Saturday mid-morning

Following on from Saturday morning's sessions, after coffee and the first of many compliments on my shoes

Anna Scamans: A Sense of Place

Anna (writing as Anna Louise Lucia) gave a brilliant interactive workshop on how to use setting in your books. She began by reading the opening of a Mary Stewart book (can anyone remember which one? I’m not hugely well-read on MS and only have one on my shelves--which isn't it!). The passage described the landscape in terms that foreshadow what’s to come: “a sound like rain” (which I think described the susurrus of wind on long grass or crops) hinting there’s a storm ahead in the story.

The passage was long, and as Anna said, unlikely to be picked up by a publisher today as a way of opening a book. Be wary of putting too much description together in your book—consider the pacing.

Anna asked us to partner up and describe a place that we had a personal connection to.
Mine was the fields where I walk the Demon Puppy—although she’s just over a year old, I’ve been walking there since, well, I was old enough to! My first dog, Jenny, was an ancient terrier cross who joined the family ten years before I did, and died when I was five, so our field walks were short. However, for five years after that we continued to walk in the fields on bank holidays and weekends when the weather was good.

I remember the gleam of wheat in sunshine, the movement of crops like waves in water. The smell of rain on a sunny day. The cool of the shade under the trees in the little wood and the stink of stagnant water in one of the overflow ponds up in the small nature reserve.

Those ponds became a bathing pool for Honey, who was my dog from age 10 to 24. She was long-haired (Retriever/Sheltie cross) and on hot days I used to walk her to the far side of the fields, through the nature reserve, to the ponds, where she’d just wade in and stand there, steaming, but never getting her face wet, like a lady with a hairdo. Now the Demon Puppy (short-haired black Lab/Collie cross) launches herself in, belly-flop style, and paddles around after sticks. This dog ain’t no lady.

Those fields and woods remind me of my childhood and of my dogs. I quite often stand there and, as Neil Finn put it, “breathe in the view” (from the song Part Of Me, Part Of You, which even starts with the words “Over these green hills, blue electric light, always in my blood, forever in my eyes”—yes, the setting even brings music to mind!). I’ve always been very glad they’re so close and always felt at home and quite safe there—although this could be to do with the hefty weight of the brass buckle on the end of the dog lead!

As Anna said when these places were described (not quite as lengthily as mine!), there is always a reaction to a space—whether you’re safe, happy, uncomfortable, scared, disgusted, whatever. What you know about a place is as important as what we see. Think of those poppy fields in northern France and Belgium: they look very pretty and peaceful, but we know the horrors that went on there, and it affects how we feel about them.

Your relationship with a space makes you who you are. I described a rural setting, but my partner described an urban one (again, it reminded her of her childhood) in which she felt happy. Having lived in a semi-rural setting all my life, I’m much happier with some space and greenery around me, but I’ve had city-dwelling friends who feel unsafe in the countryside (you know, all those pitchfork-wielding yokels. Too much League of Gentlemen if you ask me).

Make the setting significant to the characters. Anna’s example was the film Gladiator: we first see Maximus on a dark, muddy, bloody battlefield where he seems to be completely at home; but when he closes his eyes he dreams of golden fields, because that’s where his home really is.

When you’re researching a setting, don’t just look for geographical details. Try looking at blogs and travel journals to see how other people have connected with a place.

Anna put up four photographs, of a city street, a green valley, a beach at sunset and her office (complete with cats), and asked us to pick one and write about a character who felt comfortable there, interacting with the surroundings. Then to take the same character and put him/her in a setting that was uncomfortable. Taking a character out of their element can say as much about them as putting them somewhere they’re comfortable.

Use the five senses—although admittedly Taste is a tough one in a lot of settings! If your setting is somewhere that includes food or drink then it’s easier. Don’t just describe how a place looks but how it sounds and smells, and what sort of textures your character encounters.

When Anna came into the room she said it reminded her of being back at school—perhaps because of the desk and chairs and OHP, but the thing that got me about it was the smell. My primary school had the infants class next to the office and staff room. Whenever the connecting door opened, I smelled paper, ink and coffee. It still takes me back twenty-one years to Mrs Wood’s class, even when I smell it in my own office now.

Finally, Anna reminded us that a physical journey can often symbolise an emotional journey. Just don’t be too obvious with it!


  1. Oh, I missed that session, so those are great notes, thank you!

  2. It was Mary Stewart's, "The Ivy Tree", Kate! :-)

    Great write up, thank you! I'm glad you found it interesting.

    Great example with the poppy fields - my insides twisted just picturing them. I'm going to have to use that one... ;-)

  3. Thanks for this as I missed all of Saturday's sessions except Jill's. I am revising at the mo and I can see how this could strengthen the wip :-)