Following the recent royal wedding, the Teahouse Theatre Cafe was still in a celebratory mood last Monday with red, white and blue bunting strung across the ceiling while early evening sunshine streamed through the windows. Running a monthly event here, I really notice the way the seasons imbue the cafe with an ever changing atmosphere. It’s snug in winter, all twinkling fairy lights and a crackling fire, then come summer, airy and light with vases of flowers in abundance. I’m happy to say cake is a constant, no matter the time of year. Which leads me meandering back to the topic of Monday’s salon, The Power of Place, with our guest, novelist, short story writer and playwright, Courttia Newland. The cafe hummed with a house full of expectant writers ready to explore the dynamics of place in fiction and once we all settled in, drinks ordered and pens in hand, we began.
How can a writer use place to bring depth and complexity to a story? Place is not just scenery or description. Courttia used a car analogy to exemplify the relationship between place, character and emotion. Think of your characters as the vehicle, emotions as the fuel and place as the landscape. Each works in unison with the other. Landscape is a way to show your character’s emotional journey. It also reinforces the mood, intent and themes of the story. This is where craft comes in - anyone can write a pretty sentence. How your characters view the landscape is filtered through the emotions they feel. What you choose to show the reader depends on what your character is going through. Don’t fall back on cynical pathetic fallacy. Look for connections. Use your instinct. Feel your way through. Explore questions and different answers.
What do you do when you’re bogged down by research? Go back to character. Return to where the characters are in the story: what does this mean to them? Courttia recalled the extensive research he did about guns for his first novel, The Scholar. Much of the research went on the page, overwhelming the story and had to be cut. He learned to be ruthless and throw out research. Go with what feels right for the story and the character. Failure is part of the process. In his new collection of speculative fiction he wrote a couple of stories that failed. He couldn’t see where he was. You need a sense of moving through a fictional world.
Courttia often begins a first draft for a story with an intention rather than design. The process can vary depending on the project. Courttia mentioned the novelist Rupert Thompson, who does the first few drafts without any research at all. Thompson writes what he wants to find the story but then might do 14 drafts before he has the shape. If you are not that patient, write an outline! Do as much research as you can to start but also write the bits you can. Write other stuff. Write around it. Take notes. Work on your story. Research is a necessary part of the process. It counts as writing time. Research the things you need to fix the plot. Emma talked about a writer who discovered that a broken leg takes twice as long to mend than the author originally thought - throwing out the novel’s time sequence and resulting in a major re-write.
When writing about an unfamiliar place - try and visit if you can. Walk around and ask what do I get here? When writing about real characters - knowing too much about them might not be helpful. Think about your intention and theme. Go with your gut and stay in service to your underlying themes.
How do you take a familiar setting and make it new? In these days of google earth and street view, we can find a location half way around the globe. Seek out and zoom in on the detail. Focus on the character’s way of looking at things. Be particular. Be alert to the place and time. Think about unexpected things that can happen to affect the depiction of place. Courttia spoke about a visit he’d made the pyramids. He took a photo of the pyramids and then turned the camera around to capture the opposite view, a Pizza Hut. He was then hustled by young boy who attempted (and failed) to mug him. Take the unexpected detail and make something as iconic as the pyramids your own. Borrow settings from places you know. Adapt and make them fit your purpose. Depending on your character, pick particular details in your setting and make it specific to your character. You are allowed a little bit of artifice! Heightened description can work - imagine being a seventeen year old character, in love for the first time, taking note of everything.
One question from the audience threw up the dilemma of writing in the first person, specifically from the point of view of a teenager, glued to their phone. How do you depict a landscape in someone’s head? Courttia’s suggestion was to not make assumptions. Remember that young people notice different things. Ask: what’s important to them? When writing about a different perspective, question where your character is placed in the world. Where are they in the room? Or place them in a wider context. Take a step back and write about an outsider. Sometimes a connection to place is notable by its absence. Fiction is filled with the motif of the stranger coming to town and thereby making the place fresh for the reader. Employ the senses and remember to include the body, balance, temperature. Place can be an antagonist too and often is. Character in conflict with place creates drama on the page.
While not a believer in writer’s block, Courttia suggested that when stuck try changing the setting or the mood. Alter your character’s perspective or just change their name. Find the right way to tell the story. Retrace steps. Try different approaches. Understand that sometimes stuff just doesn’t work.
We touched on cultural appropriation: Just because we can write about anything doesn’t mean that we should. It can be done but with care. It’s a question of craft. If you’re going to attempt it - do it well. Be respectful. Get feedback from those who understand the culture or world that you are attempting to write about. There’s so many ways to slip up, (food, music, language and more). Decide what point of view you can take and check with insiders. Courttia was recently commissioned to write a story for an anthology about the UK’s tradition of protest from the 1300’s to the anti-Iraq demonstrations. Even paired with an academic to help with the research he felt nervous about attempting to write about the Battle of Cable Street. He felt it too iconic and important to people to do it proper justice, especially when other writers such as Arnold Wesker had done it so well. Instead he chose to write about the Poll Tax riots by drawing on his own experience of the Brixton riots during the 1980’s.
Emotion fuels story. It’s all down to craft and technique. Pay attention to people through observation, the nuances of the way people behave. Study how people act in certain situations. Most of all know yourself. The best thing you can do as a writer is ask, how am I feeling? We are emotional beings. There’s a universality about this. We do a lot of stuff to cover up how we’re really feeling. In many ways we are always writing about ourselves. Get to know yourself and find that corresponding thing to feed into your fiction.
With thanks to Courttia for his candour, insight and sharing his writing process with us. It was kind of him to stay on and chat with everyone too.
Next up on Monday 4th June we’ll be talking to best selling author, Julie Cohen, about Writing Relationships: Love & Other Bruises. Julie’s most recent novel, Together, has been chosen as a Richard & Julie summer read! It’s going to be a fun. We also have a couple of spaces left on our Craft of Revising workshop led by Andrew Wille with special guest, Virago Press chair, Lennie Goodings. Come and join us!
Hope to see you soon
References & Links:
- Protest: Stories of Resistance, edited by Ra Page
- Talk of The Town by Jacob Polley
- I Am In Love, a film featuring Tilda Swinton.
- Novelist, Rupert Thompson
- The Battle of Cable Street
- Arnold Wesker
- Lionel Shriver on Cultural Appropriation: Fiction and Identity Politics
- Emma Darwin: Are There Multicultural Boundaries We Must Not cross In Historical Fiction? Historia Magazine