World Building: Bringing Characters and Places Alive with Claire Scobie

Last Monday was one of those days...Worried about being on time for our salon with Claire Scobie, I'd barrelled home after a drawn out appointment, gathered up my stuff and slapped on some lipstick without the aid of a mirror (always a mistake). Rain coat on, I cantered to the bus stop and flagged down a bus just as the heavens cracked open. Half way to Vauxhall I realised I'd left behind my laptop, brolly and current read. Not only that I was operating one hour ahead of the rest of the population while wearing my rain coat inside out. I arrived at the Tea House - at least I was in the right place - to find Maggie the Teahouse cat snoozing in one of the comfy chairs. Two chaps played chess while classical music tinkled in the background. Some of our regular Word Away-ers were already there feasting on plump chunks of cake. I decided to join Maggie by the window to calm down with a cup of tea and watch the world go by. 

Maggie at work

Maggie at work

By the time Claire arrived, my compsure was restored and it was great to meet her at last. Claire’s back in the UK from her adoptive home of Sydney to launch her novel, The Pagoda Tree. She's also co-authored a recently launched memoir, A Baboon in The Bedroom, with her mum, Patricia. Emma and I were delighted she could join us.

Emma, Claire and me, Kellie

Emma, Claire and me, Kellie

I was heartened that the horrific events of the last two weeks didn't deter people from coming along. We all settled in to talk about the skills of making character and place vivid in fiction and non-fiction. One way to begin, suggested Claire, is to pick rich primary material to allow yourself scope and room to explore. Think particularly about when to set your story. Claire knew when developing her recent novel that she wanted to write about the temple courtesans of Tanjore in India. By setting the story in the eighteenth century, a time of flux and uncertainty, she discovered fertile cross-cultural relationships with a potential for maximum conflict. If you find your story is stuck, consider shifting your time frame even by a few hours, days or months which can alter things dramatically. Think about changing the seasons or even the setting. Changing the ‘world’ of your story can help you shake up your choices and clarify the major dramatic question at work. Highlight what's essential in your story i.e. what to bring to the foreground. Think of the various theatre and film adaptions of Shakespeare or Chekhov classics, where the story remains the same but a change of setting liberates context. All I could think of at this point was, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies

If all else fails put a zombie in it.

If all else fails put a zombie in it.

Claire’s way of approaching character and setting is inspired by the physical world. She experiences ‘history with my feet’, by visiting places, walking where her characters walked and ‘feeling it bodily’. The Pagoda Tree grew out of a marriage between Clair’s physical response to the setting and archival research at the British Library and in India. Vividness comes with revising. Claire spoke of a sense of relaxation in the narrative that usually arrives with the third draft. Her ‘inner devining rod’ is triggered by ‘telling details’. Take time out to experiment with your material. Write your way into character and place. Experiment off the page, use mind maps, different pens, be playful. I loved Claire’s suggestion to interview your characters; ask questions with the right hand and answer with the left hand (or if left handed, visa versa). The idea being that by using the left hand, thought bypasses the rational thinking part of the brain and imagination comes into play. At this stage of the process Claire likes to pull herself out of the narrative to see it ‘from above’ and gain perspective, then go ‘back into the woods’ to work closely again.

Words Away in action

Words Away in action

We touched on ‘filtering’ language ( ‘he said', ‘it seemed’).  Emma’s written a great post (link below) about how to clean up your narrative for unnecessary or superfluous writing.  Make everything in the narrative work hard for you, suggested Claire, give language a double purpose. Lumps of description from the first draft, static on the page, need to be seived through point of view; 'fiction via a consciousness'. Think of your pen as a camera, focus in and out, look at the big picture. Place is not reportage! Another exercise to develop a sense of place: Close your eyes. Remember a place as a snap shot.  Close your eyes again, go back to the place and this time use your five senses. This works to drop you into a place between memory and imagination and hopefully open up the dynamic between the inner and outer world.

Claire's top three suggestions:

1.  If at all possible visit the place you're writing about. Immerse yourself in it. Improvise! You may not be able to go to Nasa but you may be able to spend a day with a physics professor in a university or similar. An evocative sense of place often comes from an intimate relationship between the author and subject, as in Kate Greville’s, The Secret River or Isabel Allende's, Aphrodite: A Memoir of The Senses. Saying that, it's possible to evoke a cracking sense of place without ever stepping foot in your setting, (try reading Stef Penney's, The Tenderness of Wolves or Graham Swift's, Waterand )

2. Write first and research later. Separate research and writing time. See Emma blog* below.

3. Create your own research system. Naturalise the research and make it your own. Have a folder on say customs and culture, populate it with your own descriptions. When it comes to writing a scene about a meal it’s already your own description of the food not recycled research.


Finally as we went to questions this last tip came up. Around the third draft Claire suggests reading through your manuscript looking for the ‘buried scenes’. Ask yourself, what are you avoiding writing? Tackle this to release energy and propel forward momentum!

Thank you Claire for giving us much to take away. Thanks also to everyone who came along to make it a wonderful evening. Next month, on Monday 3rd July, Emma and I will be joined by novelist, writing coach and publisher Jacqui Lofthouse for an evening of how to Be Your Own Writing Coach. It’s our last salon before we break up for the summer and hopefully will provide fuel and inspiration for your writing projects until we meet again in September.


PS Our Autumn/Winter season of salons at The Tea House Theatre Cafe is looking very exciting. Dates and details coming soon.

Links that came up from Emma's Itch of Writing blog:

Psychic Distance 


Showing and Telling 

Dangling Modifiers 

Yours to Remember, Mine to Forget including Tremain quote*