Choosing a location for your story is part of the writing process. Today, author Georgia Hill shares her technique on selecting a setting and shows us why locale is more than just a postal code.
Welcome to RU, Georgia!
Hi everyone. Huge thanks for inviting me on. I’m thrilled to be here.
I’d like to get you thinking about how experiencing your chosen location can be vital to your writing. And by experiencing I mean using all of your senses and emotions. For my latest book, While I Was Waiting, the location informed the story in many ways. I think it almost became a character in itself!
Let me explain…
Nowadays, I live in a tiny village in the English countryside. Think Miss Marple but update the cars and fashions a few decades, or Midsomer Murders and you’ll get some idea. Strange how quaint English villages are often the settings for brutal murders … but I digress!
As I write this, the clouds are misting over the hills that I can see from my study and the light is beginning to fade. When I took the dogs out earlier, it was an incandescent autumn morning. Herefordshire is a sparsely populated, farming county. It’s a very traditional place and I love it. It’s stunning in spring when the apple blossom blooms but it’s in autumn when this rural shire really comes into its own. It’s the gentle pleasures I enjoy: the sight of a freshly ploughed field, with the sun gleaming on the rolling clay furrows, the sweet and all-pervading smell of apples in the cider orchards and the feel of frost on a reddened leaf. All of these things I note down as I live them.
This autumn we’ve basked in clear, dry sunshine and it’s been absolutely gorgeous. It attracts quite a few tourists who come for the walking, unspoilt and peaceful countryside and great food! Not to mention the picturesque half-timbered villages with their black and white houses, a flourishing arts scene, a 13th century Gothic cathedral, a chained library and a unique medieval map of the world. Scratch at the soil in Herefordshire and you’ll come across history – it’s never far away.
Like my heroine in While I Was Waiting, I came here from London. Rachel moved in an attempt to answer the big questions in her life, I moved because of a job relocation – not quite so romantic! Like Rachel, I fell in love with the peace and beauty of my surroundings. However we both learned, by living through the worst agricultural crisis in recent history – the foot and mouth epidemic – that the countryside is first and foremost a working environment: beautiful certainly but challenging and harsh at times. On a lonely, rain-spattered drive home, I came across the burning pyre of animal carcasses and knew I had to include the sights and sounds in the book. It was a truly apocalyptic experience.
I use changes in the rural setting to mirror Rachel’s feelings – and her emotional journey. She falls in love during a gorgeously hot country summer (I’m afraid this really is a work of fiction, summers are rarely like that in England!) and along with the rain and mud of the winter comes the break-up of her relationship, her ensuing loneliness and time to analyse who she is and what she really wants.
It’s a commonly used technique, to use weather to reflect emotion but a useful one. And trust me; you’re very aware of the weather in the countryside. It’s sometimes hard for city dwellers to realise how isolating a rural winter can make you feel. Snow and mud can make roads impassable. No handy bus or tube to get you to your friends, no corner shop to pop into. I never really noticed the changing seasons when living in London – some winters in Herefordshire I vow I’ll never feel warm again! It’s the damp which seeps into the bones and the chill stiffening the fingertips. Brrr!
The location is also used in the parallel story in While I Was Waiting: that of Henrietta Trenchard-Lewis. This is where the history of where I live becomes important. Hetty, as she is nicknamed, goes to stay with distant relatives in Delamere House, a large country house, in the years immediately before the Great War. Think of the early episodes of Downton Abbey and you’ll get the picture. Except Delamere House is nothing like as grand as Downton. It’s struggling. The house is semi-derelict and there’s no money left to keep it running. It scrapes by with a bare minimum of staff. When World War 1 breaks out in 1914, the few housemaids leave go to work in munitions factories and the men go to war. This is all historically accurate and based on what happened to a big country house not far from where I live – Berrington Hall. There was an agricultural depression in the late nineteenth century in England and some country estates never recovered. The changes these enormous houses had to go through fascinates me – I’ve been glued the last series of Downton Abbey which examines the some of the same issues. Some houses fell into complete disrepair and were abandoned, many were sold, a few soldiered on to become visitor attractions or wildlife parks. In While I Was Waiting, half of Delamere is knocked down and the remainder becomes a hotel and spa. I wonder what Downton Abbey’s fate will be?
Berrington Hall belongs to the National Trust, a UK charity that saves important historic buildings and allows tourists to visit. As it’s my nearest National Trust property, I go often. It’s a Jane Austen sort of a house, with a pleasing Georgian symmetry. I always imagine it’s exactly the type of house Mr Bingley in Pride and Prejudice would rent! One of its last owners was a self-made man who invented an indigo dye. With the cult of mourning reaching epic proportions in Victorian England, his fortune and a baronetcy was secure. The family name was Cawley, strangely close to the Crawley name in Downton Abbey! Although Lord Cawley had a title, a beautiful home and a growing family, tragedy was to strike when three of his sons went to fight in World War 1, never to return.
I absorbed all this history when visiting for research and used it to inform the background to Delamere House. More usefully, I was able to spend time in an ‘Experience Room.’ This was a drawing room set up as it would have been during World War 1. It was poignant and eerie. Almost as if the ghosts of the dead boys were hovering at the threshold, waiting to be invited in. It certainly brought home how it felt as a woman having to sit and wait for loved ones to return from war. Hetty is almost always left behind in While I Was Waiting and I think her character and storyline evolved from those hours at Berrington Hall. Certainly, I was able to record the crackling from the fire, the smell of apple-wood smoke and the peculiar hissing sound of the gas lights.
Of course, with the internet, it is entirely possible to write locations without having experienced them. Without having been there. Streetview is an amazingly useful tool! However, I believe actually going to the location you want to use and, even better, living in it and experiencing it with all your senses, makes your writing richer and more profound.
But don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself. Choose an inspiring location. Sit for a while. Listen to the sounds. Watch what’s happening. Smell the aromas. Touch what you can. Concentrate on how it makes you feel. How it changes you. What comes to you.
I’ve chosen to set my next book in Jane Austen’s Lyme Regis, on the Jurassic Coast. A very different place to rural Herefordshire. I’ll certainly be doing a lot of sitting and absorbing the location. What a great excuse for a visit to the seaside!
Happy location writing!
What location has made your senses come alive?
WHILE I WAS WAITING [HarperImpulse]
Tired of her life in London, freelance illustrator Rachel buys the beautiful but dilapidated Clematis Cottage and sets about creating the home of her dreams. But tucked away behind the water tank in the attic, left to gather dust for decades, is an old biscuit tin containing letters, postcards and a diary. So much more than old scraps of paper, these are the precious memories that tell the story of Henrietta Trenchard-Lewis, a love lost in the Great War and the girl who was left behind.
Bio: I used to live in London, where I worked in the theatre. Then I got the bizarre job of teaching road safety to the U.S. navy – in Marble Arch!
A few years ago, I did an ‘Escape to the Country’. I now live in a tiny Herefordshire village, where I scandalise the neighbours by not keeping ‘country hours’ and being unable to make a decent pot of plum jam. Home is a converted oast house, which I share with my two beloved spaniels, husband (also beloved) and a ghost called Zoe.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel widely, though prefer to set my novels closer to home. Perhaps more research is needed? I’ve always wanted to base a book in the Caribbean!
I am addicted to Belgian chocolate, Jane Austen and, most of all, Strictly Come Dancing. Keep dancing, everyone!
- Setting – The First, Most Crucial Choice for your Career AND your Character – Blythe Gifford
- Settings and the Romantic Novel by Ella Carey
- Journeys with Loucinda McGary
- Setting as Character: An Interactive Approach