HOW TO WRITE THE BREAKOUT NOVEL: Part 5 – A Vivid Setting

June 20, 2010

If these walls could speak, what would they say?
They would say, ‘We see King Henry, still fit and dashing, ride up on his fine horse, all arrogance and certainty. We hear the crunch of the stones, the flash of an emerald ring, and the young Princess Elizabeth escaping her keepers as she runs towards her father. We hear the tears of Mary, already sad and angry, as she watches everything from the balcony above. And we see the King look up, catch Mary’s eye and bow ironically before grabbing her red-haired little stepsister and throwing her, giggling, into the soft sky.

These walls felt the glory of the Tudor age, the fearfulness of Henry VIII, and the dreadful, life-long anguish of Mary who lost her mother, her father and her place in the world. But best of all they knew Elizabeth who grew up here – a child of hope and destiny, who also lost her mother but who, in the gardens around these walls, received the message that she was to be queen.

There is a whole world contained within the bricks of the old palace at Hatfield House, in Hertfordshire, England. I have leaned against the ancient stone, seen the facsimiles of the letters Elizabeth wrote from this then country house, and even the pair of silk stockings she wore, still virtually intact. And when I turn a corner in the gardens I imagine her and the large-brimmed hat she wore as she strolled outside. How do I know about the hat? Because I’ve seen it.

At Hatfield, past and present merge in the most vivid of settings, and the dramas that played out here are replayed in one’s imagination with only the tiniest of nudges.

If the walls in YOUR story could speak, what would they say? How strongly and effectively does your setting carry and enhance the action that plays out against its backdrop?

In our series on Writing the Breakout Novel we have so far looked at four aspects of a great work of fiction: An inspired concept; larger-than-life characters; a high-stakes story and a deeply felt theme. Today it’s Part 5 – A Vivid Setting.

Not every story can – or should – be set around a palace or some other location of supreme geographical or historical significance. But every story does need a setting that is imbued with emotion and such a strong sense of place that your setting really becomes a character in its own right.

Did you catch that?

A vivid setting is one that is IMBUED WITH EMOTION AND SUCH A STRONG SENSE OF PLACE THAT YOUR SETTING BECOMES A CHARACTER IN ITS OWN RIGHT.

Have you ever thought about Place like this?

Think about Harper Lee’s depiction of rural Alabama in TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD. Or the town of Naomi, Florida, where India Opal Buloni first meetsWinn-Dixie in Kate DiCamillo’s famous novel. Then leap forward a little and consider how Philip Pullman uses the town of Oxford in THE GOLDEN COMPASS (NORTHERN LIGHTS in the UK), or how Carl Hiaasen brings the ecology of Florida to life in his children’s novels. Can you imagine any of these with DIFFERENT settings? How could you possibly separate story from setting in any of these works?

This integral, captivating use of Place can be spotted in MANY Greenhouse novels too. Think how Sarwat Chadda’s London, its topography and history, are the catalyst for the action in DEVIL’S KISS, and how Sarwat’s first-hand knowledge of Russia transforms his second book, DARK GODDESS (publishing July in the UK and January in the US). Jon Mayhew’s MORTLOCK also brings London to life – albeit the grim, dark London of the Victorian period.

Or what about how the sumptuous beauty of the Dutch Antilles conceals a wholly unexpected ugliness in Val Patterson’s THE OTHER SIDE OF BLUE? And just wait till Tricia Springstubb’s WHAT HAPPENED ON FOX STREET is available (Sept 1, US only) – the sense of place in THAT beautiful novel is extraordinary, despite the fact that most of the action happens in just one street.

And this brings me to one of my favourite big quotes! Are you ready?

STORY IS CREATED BY THE REVELATION OF THE INTERNAL AND THE EXTERNAL.

Wow?

Wow!

STORY IS CREATED BY THE REVELATION OF THE INTERNAL AND THE EXTERNAL.

Sorry, but it’s so darn good I just had to say it again.

Hatfield House. A world of human dramas haunts those walls; I feel them, I live them as I draw close and enter its grip.

As I enter your novel what will its setting tell me? Can you imbue it with emotion? Can you make me feel like I am walking its streets and breathing its air? If you can, you are for sure one step closer to writing a great – a really great – novel.

Happy writing, everyone!

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