Stephen King has said that ‘locale and texture are much more important to the reader’s sense of actually being in the story than any physical description of the players,’ and I’m in his corner on this one. I read so much fiction that often I won’t retain a book’s plot or even any of the characters, but if it is a book that I’ve loved, one that I have managed to completely ‘lose myself’ in, I’ll remember the atmosphere – the sense of time and place that I had while reading it.
The most potent example of atmosphere in classical fiction has to be Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, described by her sister Charlotte as being ‘rustic all through… moorish, and wild, and knotty as a root of heath’. Anyone who has read Bronte’s wonderful novel will find that the title alone is sufficient to conjure up its gothic atmosphere even if they cannot recall the plot in any detail.
Setting is important in fiction. PD James said ‘people react to their environment and are influenced by it’. It contributes to and affects the plot. My novels are set in present day Inishowen, in County Donegal. But Inishowen is not just the setting for my books: it is a character. The cliffs, the deserted forts, the beaches, the wind, all are part of the story. The books simply wouldn’t be the same if they were set in Alabama or Texas. More specifically, each individual mystery has been inspired by a particular place (and it looks as if the third is following a similar path). I visit or imagine a ruined church or a deserted beach and I wonder what might have happened there, and this is what triggers the story. So it’s very important for me to get my setting right.
Here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way, together with some of my own devising:
– I would never write about a location I haven’t visited. Others are sure to disagree with me on this, but I imagine readers will be able to tell that I haven’t been to a location I am writing about; that there will be a lack of authenticity, an artifice there. It is different of course if you are writing a historical novel – you can’t go back in time, but Google can only go so far. Readers need to believe in the place so they can believe in the characters and the story. Emily Bronte was herself ‘a native and nursling of the moors’. So if you are setting your book in a place other than where you live, try to spend some time there. I lived in Inishowen for over ten years, but I also went back there and rented a house for a while when I was writing Death at Whitewater Church and Treacherous Strand. And I intend to do it again now that I am writing book three.
– On the other hand If you are too familiar with the location you are writing about, you may find that you walk around wrapped in what Dorothea Grande described as ‘a cloak of oblivion’ (her book Becoming a Writer was published in 1934 and is still full of great advice). She advises the writer to become ‘a stranger in the streets’. Try to see your location as if you are seeing it for the first time, take note of things you now take for granted and don’t see anymore.
– If you continue to write about a location you have left behind, keep pictures, newspapers, phone books, travel brochures; anything to help to evoke the place, the sounds, the sights, the smells. Use Google street view to help you recall certain detail, but don’t just rely on the internet. I keep Inishowen newspapers with me when I write about Donegal in Dublin. Something as simple as a local newspaper ad reminding me of what a Donegal Creameries milk carton looks like can be enough to trigger a sense of place again if I’ve lost it.
– Use all of your senses to describe a place, not just sight. Think about what the place smells like, sounds like, what surfaces feel like to the touch. Describe the weather. Make sure you get your seasons right. If you’re writing about rural setting, get the wild flowers and the birds right.
– Write your location as it is seen through the eyes of your character. Ask yourself what mood are they in? What kind of personality have they? Are they seeing the place for the first time or are they tired of it?
Finally, Stephen King in his book On Writing advises not to over-describe. A few well-chosen details work better than too many, and these are usually the first things that spring to mind when conjuring up a place in the mind’s eye. Try to choose something unusual, something memorable that will stick in people’s minds. It’s hard to imagine a better description of Wuthering Heights than a place ‘completely removed from the stir of society’.
(c) Andrea Carter
About Treacherous Strand
A woman’s body washes up on a remote beach on the Inishowen peninsula. Partially-clothed, with a strange tattoo on her thigh, she is identified as Marguerite Etienne, a French woman who has been living in the area.
Solicitor Benedicta ‘Ben’ O’Keeffe is consumed by guilt; Marguerite was her client, and for the second time in her life Ben has failed someone who needed her, with tragic consequences. So when local Sergeant Tom Molloy dismisses Marguerite’s death as the suicide of a disturbed and lonely woman, Ben cannot let it lie.
Ben uncovers Marguerite’s strange past as a member of a French doomsday cult, which she escaped twenty years previously but not without leaving her baby daughter behind. Disturbed by what appears to be chilling local indifference to Marguerite’s death, Ben pieces together the last few weeks of the French woman’s life in Inishowen. What she discovers causes her to question the fragile nature of her own position in the area, and she finds herself crossing boundaries both personal and professional to unearth local secrets long buried.
Treacherous Strand is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!