Before I wrote my first book, I never quite understood the importance of settings in novels. I think when I read books, I took the location and setting for granted, focusing instead on the characters and the story. But this naïve view I’d always taken was soon squashed when I sat down and wrote my first book – I realised setting and place is just as important as any other part of the story, in fact I would go so far as saying, they are characters in their own right, with a clear voice distinctive voice.
Maybe it’s stating the obvious but there is certainly more to setting and place than just buildings and trees. I think the best examples are when settings have a value, a purpose and make an impact on the course of events or emotions of the characters as well as evoking a response from readers. And of course one of the wonderful things about settings in books is how it opens up a new world to us, helping us to experience and visualise everything from ancient Egypt, to war torn countries, exotic lands, underwater lost cities or even somewhere we’ve always wanted to go to.
My first two books, Taken and Trapped were set entirely in Soho, mainly because I wanted to set the stories in a place where there was a sense of community, intimacy as well as a sense of claustrophobia layered against the sprawl of London. I wanted the characters to feel the confinements of the one square mile of Soho mixed with the isolation of being alone and desperate in a large city.
With my next books, Dishonour and Betrayed, although they were partly set in London, I took the characters further afield. In Dishonour the character Laila – an English born Muslim girl brought up in Bradford – finds herself living on the outskirts of Islamabad when she is forced into marrying an older man.
It had crossed my mind to set the book in England but when I really sat down and thought about it, I could see how going to an unfamiliar country at 16 yrs old, where no-one speaks English, and there isn’t the gender equality that we have in Britain, could act as a character. The country and unfamiliarity of place acts as another oppressor to Laila. She is in a battle not only with the people who took her there, but also the place itself. The stifling heat, language and cultural barriers as well as the barren landscapes are as much a tyrannical presence to Laila as her new husband is.
If I hadn’t set the book in the remote countryside of Pakistan, I would have left out left out a vital character in the story which impacts on Laila’s emotional journey – without it, her challenges would have been lessened and her strengths untested.
A substantial part of Betrayed is set in Marbella. It needed to find a place that was glamourous and hot, where there was a mix of old traditions and uber modern. The landscape also needed to be part of the story; a place where people could hide out and become invisible, yet a landscape where it was also easy to survive, and of course where better than the Costa Del Sol and the Sierra Blanca Hills. And this takes me on to my latest book, Avenged, which is set partly in Ireland in the 1970’s and partly in Soho, present day.
It was vital that the first part of my novel, which is set in Ireland, spoke loudly to the reader, taking them on an emotional and highly charged journey. The story touches very much on industrial schools, forbidden love and the Catholic Church so it was essential the setting had a voice as loud as any of the characters.
The setting needed to reflect the turbulence of the story, and this is the first time I have used weather in a leading role, entwining it with the story. I needed the readers to feel the tight knit village community in rural Kerry in the bleakness of the cold and rain. I wanted to mirror the harshness of the storyline with the harshness of the weather, feeling an icy chill both emotionally and physically.
For me as a writer, making a setting or place as emotional, powerful or as beautiful as any character within the story makes the connection between story and self even greater, and much more of a magical experience.
(c) Jacqui Rose