On Saturday November 5th I attended Queer Company 2, an event for authors and readers organised by the lovely ladies of Manifold Press. Thank you Fiona Pickles, Morgan Cheshire and Julie Bozza – and everyone else involved in the organising – you did us proud.
It was a BRILLIANT day with tea and cake and fabulous people to talk to, a new anthology to launch and exciting talks that I found hugely inspiring. Many thanks to Farah Mendelsohn, K J Charles, Chris Quinton, Julie Bozza, Ellie Musgrove, JL Merrow, Alex Beecroft, Charlie Cochrane, Sandra Lindsey and Anna Butler. Aleksandr Voinov was the MC and kept us gently in check when we got rowdy.
The last panel of the day was about ‘a sense of place’ – how it can add a lot to a story if the characters seem really at home – or completely uncomfortable – in their situation. I was listed to deliver this with Sandra Lindsey, who writes terrific historicals, and Anna Butler, whose sci fi and fantasy is out of this world. I had good intentions beforehand and had made loads of bullet point notes to try to cover, but in the hurly burly I got nervous, gabbled a lot and strayed completely off the point.
Here then are some of the things that I would have said if my brain had been working. And HERE is a similar write up by Anna Butler which is very well worth reading.
A Sense of Place
Let’s start with a definition. This one is from the Geography Dictionary:
Either the intrinsic character of a place, or the meaning people give to it, but, more often, a mixture of both. Some places are distinctive through their physical appearance, like the Old Man of Hoy; others are distinctive, but have value attached to them, like the white cliffs of Dover.
Less striking places have meaning and value attached to them because they are “home,” and it is argued that attachment to a place increases with the distinctiveness of that place. Planners use this argument by consciously creating or preserving memorable and singular structures to make a space distinctively different. The Cardiff Bay Development scheme has done this, first by preserving the best of the old buildings, and even relocating one — the Norwegian church. All this is done to encourage in the residents an attachment to that place.
A final element is our own experience of that place; if you had been desperately unhappy in central London, it might be that the sight of Trafalgar Square would reawaken a sense of misery in you.
And another much more concise one from cultural geographer J.B. Jackson, in Discovering the Vernacular Landscape:
It is place, permanent position in both the social and topographical sense, that gives us our identity.
I think that it is the latter quote that is most important to us as authors. Where a character originates has a profound effect on his appearance, his accent, his vocabulary, and his patterns of thought. He may behave differently when in his own environment from how he behaves when he is far away where different rules prevail. He may revel in the freedom, or be crushed by the differences – both reactions excellent ways to develop conflict. But we need to show the differences and to do that we need to use description.
Here is a description of the Fens from Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayer:
Spring and Easter came late together that year to Fenchurch St Paul. In its own limited, austere and almost grudging fashion, the Fen acknowledged the return of the sun. The floods withdrew from the pastures; the wheat lifted its pale green spears from the black soil; the stiff thorns bordering dyke and grass verge budded into a softer outline; on the willows the yellow catkins danced like little bellrope sallies and the silvery pussies plumped themselves for the children to carry to church on Palm Sunday; wherever the grim banks were hedge-sheltered, the shivering dog-violets huddled from the wind.
Not only does this passage get over the appearance of the place but also the chilly feel of it. Look at the words used – austere, limited, grudging, stiff, grim, shivering. A man from such a background is probably going to have a very different mind set to one raised on the sunlit lavender fields of Provence. A man from Provence placed in that environment, especially if under-dressed for the climate, is going to be like the dog-violet, shivering and longing for shelter. He may feel alien, off-balance, a fish out of water – horrible for him but fantastic stuff for plot.
I also think it’s a pity that such a description – this is just one paragraph of it – is unlikely to be acceptable to a modern reader or editor. Description, in it’s fullest and most delicious sense, is out of fashion despite the common instructions to show and not tell.
But that’s more than enough for today. I’ll post a bit on description and some more examples tomorrow.