Monday, 17 December 2012

 How Important is Setting?

This is the ghoulish entrance to the graveyard of St Olave’s, one of the smallest in the City and one of only a handful of medieval City churches that escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666.  The skulls commemorate the 300 plus victims of The Great Plague who are buried in the churchyard, including the woman who was widely blamed for bringing the disease to the capital. Charles Dickens was so taken with the entrance that he included the place in an article he wrote for his journal "All the Year Round" calling it ‘My best beloved churchyard’, and renaming it ‘Saint Ghastly Grim’.

I’ve just done a Dickens walk in the City of London and it didn’t take much imagination to think myself back to that era. All Dickens’ books are pervaded by their time and their setting - the hope and despair of Victorian London, the wealth and the squalor, the comfort of home and the  menace of the streets. He knew those streets inside out, he felt them through every one of his senses, and it set me wondering how important it is for any writer to feel as well as to know their setting.

When I thought about my own books I could see that feeling the setting has become increasingly important to me. The first two Regency novels I wrote took place in London and Bath. I know both cities reasonably well, though not in the same depth as I know my own county of Sussex. The third book was set in Brighton and in Lewes, my home town, and writing it felt different. I could experience my characters and their surroundings more sharply: the shape of the Downs, the sound of the sea, the calling of the gulls. The latest Regency is set in Rye to the east of the county. I’ve never lived in the town but I’ve visited a good deal and something of its atmosphere - the river and the sea and above all, the surrounding marshland - has seeped into my consciousness. Writing this novel, I still had to take an imaginative leap (and some writerly liberties) because I found few early 19th century maps of the area and its topography has changed considerably over the years. The river now follows a different course, for instance, and the sea is more distant. The imaginative leap was even greater for Walking Through Glass, set in the mid Victorian era, where I had only accounts of the destroyed Crystal Palace to go on, although an abundance of vivid images.

So is it important to have a deep sense of the place you write about? Is it important even to have visited? Or can you write just as convincingly out of your imagination? Hearing Ian Rankin talk recently, I was struck by the fact that he felt it necessary to drive the length of the A9 in Scotland, the road along which the missing girls in his novel had disappeared, in order to ‘feel’ the landscape. Very strangely, the place where he had imagined the first body would be found was exactly how he had written it! So what does that say about authenticity and the writer’s imagination?