It’s publication week! Yes, it’s finally launch week for my debut full-length poetry collection, talk to me about when we were perfect. Friday 31st is the day! I’m really thrilled by all the positive feedback I’ve had from the reviewers so far, and the book itself looks beautiful. It’s tough out there for authors, publishers and bookshops at the moment, and poetry is a hard sell, so I know I’m very lucky to get it out in the world. A huge thank you to Consuelo Rivera-Fuentes and all the team at Victorina Press for making it happen.
If you fancy winning a copy of talk to me, or my chapbook, The Collective Nouns For Birds, then head over to Victorina’s Facebook page or Twitter feed, and send us your old photo booth snaps!
I’m currently working on my next book, Each of Us a Petal, which is a collection of short stories set in or inspired by Japan. For those of you who don’t know, I’m an avid Japanophile, and the country and culture have influenced much of my writing. Although I have visited Japan many times, I’ve also read numerous books as part of my research, and I’m learning spoken Japanese. I’ve been totally immersed in Japan for several months now, but my mind is starting to drift elsewhere as I plan my next novella.
VP author, Mike Lewis, recently presented Pembrokeshire Libraries with several copies of his book, If God Will Spare My Life.
“A novel inspired by the true story of the Pembrokeshire farmer’s son who fought at the Battle of the Little Bighorn under General Custer will shortly be available to county readers after author Mike Lewis donated a copy to each library.
Published by Victorina Press, If God Will Spare My Life is a re-imagining of events which led William Batine James, of Dinas Cross, to emigrate to the United States and enlist in the US Seventh Cavalry.
In June 1876 he was the sole Welshman to fight at Custer’s Last Stand when 210 US soldiers were massacred by huge numbers of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors led by Chief Sitting Bull.
The book – shortlisted at the Eyelands International Book Awards – is being adapted into the play ‘Ghost Rider’ which will be performed at Fishguard’s Theatr Gwaun at the town’s On Land’s Edge Festival next September.”
Here is another extract from my short story course, The Heart of the Short Story. This week, we are going to look at the importance of sense of place in fiction.
PUTTING YOUR STORY IN ITS PLACE
When I open a new book I want to be transported to another country or a different landscape. Whether beautiful or bleak, I want to hear it, touch it, taste it, to feel as though I’m actually there. When recalling a favourite story or novel, it is not necessarily the plot or the characters that come to my mind first, it is the sensory overload of the location. The stories that stay with me are always those with evocative and immersive settings, places which live and breathe – such as the desolate moors in Jane Eyre, Leningrad as depicted in The Siege by Helen Dunmore, Muriel Spark’s London, or the American South in Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. More recently I’ve loved the unsettling depiction of Kiev in Judith Heneghan’s Snegurochka and the cold loneliness of a South Koran seaside town in Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin.
We are all formed and moulded by the landscape that surrounds us, affecting our lives and decisions in a myriad of ways, and we should always remember that our fictional characters will be shaped by theirs in the same way. Believable characters don’t exist in a vacuum, and in our writing we need to do more than give a passing nod to the idea or spirit of those places which have influenced their personality and their past or which are informing their present actions. Were they formed by the city or land they originate from, are they alienated by the land they now find themselves in? The more you immerse your reader in the setting the more believable and real your story will be.
As a keen travel writer I have always tried to convey a strong sense of place in my own fiction. The stories in my collections are set in locations as diverse as Russia, Japan and India, Paris and Brooklyn, mid-west America and the north-east coast of England. These different landscapes often dictate the way language is used in the story, whether it reflects the lush, sensory overload of India, the vast, dusty plains of mid-west America or the drab monotony of an English seaside resort in winter. Think about the way you use language to convey the atmosphere of your story’s location.
Sense memory is so strong that is a perfect tool when evoking a strong sense of place. Always place yourself in the scene, imagine what you can see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Be wary of cliches – bustling markets and azure seas, houses nestling in valleys and clinging to hillsides. By all means immerse us in a busy market or show us moonlight on water, but show us it in your own way with your own eyes, ears and nose. Be equally wary of generalisations; readers will engage with your story more quickly if you give them specific details of the place and they can visualise it exactly. However, don’t turn into a guide book by going too far! Nothing jolts you out of a story more than suddenly being given an in-depth textbook description of the history of the castle or cathedral your character is visiting. And don’t be heavy-handed, don’t use the five senses one after the other by rote.
Creating a great sense of place in your stories also helps to deepen point of view. Try to link your characters feelings of exclusion and isolation, of happiness and loss, to places as well as people.
A great way to establish a strong sense of place in your stories is by sending your characters off to live or work in another country – somewhere new and perhaps uncomfortable for them. They are seeing everything there for the first time and we can experience it with them. Think about the ways a new landscape could transform your character and the way they see the world.
For example, in many of my stories set in Japan, the characters lives are examined in the context of a slightly alien environment, reinforcing loss or disconnection. When lonely characters observe the lives of strangers in unfamiliar landscapes they often feel even less connected to the world.
However, locations don’t always have to have an effect on the characters’ decisions or actions during the course of your story, they can also be used symbolically to convey character, such as in the descriptions of the West Country in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day.
“The English landscape at its finest—such as I saw this morning—possesses a quality that the landscapes of other nations, however more superficially dramatic, inevitably fail to possess. It is, I believe, a quality that will mark out the English landscape to any objective observer as the most deeply satisfying in the world, and this quality is probably best summed up by the term ‘greatness.’ … And yet what precisely is this greatness? … I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.”
Stevens is describing himself, praising the landscape for having the defining traits of a great butler, the ability to be discreet, private, and unassuming.
Or location can do everything at once – it can symbolise your main themes, reflect and affect the story and the characters.
Would Jane Eyre have been the same story if she’d become a governess in a bright sunny house on Scarborough’s Esplanade? The depiction of the vast, bleak moorland, the total isolation, the unforgiving weather, all reflect and deepen the story, the characters, the themes of loneliness and desolation.
As I was brought up on the Yorkshire coast there is no landscape that means more to me than the sea and the nearby moors, and consequently much of my work has the sea at its heart: the way it gives and takes, its strength and cruelty, its transformative power, its untameable beauty. Think about where you live – the qualities of the cityscapes and landscapes, the way you can use them in your stories to symbolise the struggles and joys of your characters.
Word of the Week…
We’re heading to Germany for this week’s word.
Backpfeifengesicht is a colloquial word constructed from Backe (cheek), Pfeife (whistle) and Gesicht (face). So the literal translation is ‘cheek whistle face’. Hmmm…sounds a bit bonkers? Well, hear me out. A backpfeife is a slap in the face, and a backpfeifengesicht actually means a face that deserves to be slapped. (Sorry, it’s been one of those weeks!)