Friday, April 1, 2011

Can you know a place by reading about it in a travel guide?

Can you know a place by reading about it in a travel guide or watching a documentary?

Some of my students think they can. They earnestly tell me they know all there is to know about the country, city, district in which they have set their novel. But they often struggle to answer questions like - how often does it rain? And what sort of rain is it? Does it pelt or drizzle?

On a wet day one winter on the west coast of Ireland my landlady said it was 'a soft day'. How apt for the Irish rain but I ask my students if it would be applicable to the rain their characters would be experiencing in the setting they have chosen.

I have many more questions for my students. All cities have much publicized attributes which are included in the travel guides, but they also have characteristics which rarely get a mention, usually the less favourable ones which relate to the smell, noise, or other discomforts. The same applies to the rural landscape.

I personally could not write about a place I have not seen. I need to go where my novel is set, to walk around, to peer into buildings, up lanes and around corners. I need to listen to the locals talking to one another in the street, in cafes and the pub. If they have one, I need to read the local paper, find out what stresses the population, what excites them. I have to imagine my own characters in their midst, engaging with them in all sorts of ways. Only then will I know if the setting is right for my story.

Of course this means travelling. And what better excuse is there for getting on a plane or a train. Unfortunately of often need to return to a place several times before I am satisfied. There were two trips to Norfolk Island before my first novel was written, and five in total to Ireland, although my novel Brigid was with the publisher by the time I made the fifth one. For my third novel The Liberator's Birthday I moved from Sydney to Ballarat so I would be living in the same place as my characters. More recently I have been in London, spending as much time as I could in Westminster Abbey so that my little character Abbie's encounter with the ghost of Edward V would work as I wanted it to. The next stop will be Paris when I save up the money to pay for the airfare.
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