Wednesday 20 April 2016

Location, location, location

I’ve just started writing a new book, and I’ve planned it in pretty minute detail (which you’ll know if you’ve been paying attention), and I’ve reached the stage when I’m actually writing the scenes and realised there’s something I’ve forgotten. Something vital.

I don’t know where any of it happens.

Now in theory, that’s not a problem. I’m a writer. I make up stories. I make up people. I must be able to make up places.

The trouble is, it’s hard to write fictional places that are convincing. Theoretically, all your reader needs to know is where the characters are, so all you need to do is sketch this in with a few words, focusing in on a couple of specific details to make it particular rather than general. But for me, unless I can see the place, that’s always going to be too general. Not that I have to write it in enormous detail – when I do I end up deleting great chunks of description – but you can be pretty sure that if you read that my characters are in a particular place, I can picture it just as though I’d been there.

So there I was pondering about locations for my new book when I heard a movie location scout talking on the radio, and it came to me that the way I go about finding locations is a lot like his job (though without so much driving because the majority of my scouting goes on in my head).

My favourite French writing retreat
The easiest book locations to write are real places. I set my book How Do You Say Gooseberry in French? in an area of France I’ve been to many, many times, and most of the locations are real places that I can close my eyes and picture. I have to admit to indulging in more scenic description in this book than I usually allow myself. 

I love the market, love it. The main part is in a cobbled square with rows of shops around it and a massive church taking up most of one side. A white marble Jesus on an elaborate metal cross looks down on the food and the people, just a bit bigger than life-size and oddly cheerful. There’s a roofed-over passageway separating the square from the shops that looks like it’s just for pedestrians until a couple of little vans start to inch their way through the crowd. On the church steps, two children are trying to sell a boxful of kittens. There are loads of people like them, making money from a bit of this or that, crates of French beans or tomatoes or buckets of flowers or herbs. Most of the market stalls are bigger though, with vegetables and fruit, bread, cakes, dried sausage and cheese, everything you could possibly want to eat, and flowers and plants too. Under the Jesus statue, there are a couple of old women with rabbits and chickens in cages. Do they kill them for you there and then, or do you have to carry them home, wriggling or pecking in your basket? 

Léa and me squeeze through the crowd behind Laurence as she picks things up, smells and squeezes and snaps them and moves on in search of the perfect peach or bean or whatever. There are masses and masses of people. It takes forever just to move a few metres along the street. You push forward into any space that opens up and the crowd closes behind you.

The market stretches beyond the square, down narrow streets and onto the bigger road that leads out of town. It’s not just food. There’s everything you could imagine that anyone could put in a van and sell: clothes and shoes, CDs and DVDs, toys, electrical goods, tools. When we get to the clothes and jewellery, Léa finally cheers up.

Not all real locations are as obvious as this though. There’s a particular section of the M6 south of Carlisle which always struck me as incredibly isolated, so I’ve put it in my futuristic novel Reivers (which is yet to be published).

Across the hill she ran, away from the house, anywhere but there, sending the sheep scurrying in alarm to form a noisy huddle. What if she didn’t stop? What if she ran far, far away, somewhere they could never find her? Would they even care? She was tiring now, each ragged breath not quite enough to keep up the pace. One more burst to the top of the bank and then, there beyond was the wide, flat ribbon of the Motor Way, curving gently north and south around the hills, away from here. The fence wasn’t high. Enough to keep the sheep in, that was all that mattered. The post wobbled as Emmy climbed over. Wind whipped at her hair and clothes, stung her damp cheeks. Down she went, headlong down the bank, stumbling, falling, and flung herself onto the Motor Way.

And there she lay, among the stunted weeds growing through the cracked surface. At the edges of the road and in the centre, the plants had won, just brambles and grasses mostly, but, in places, stands of trees, birches and rowans, and others she couldn’t name, ones you didn’t see up in the hills where the sheep and the wind kept most of the land free of anything but grass and heather. How long would it take before the whole Motor Way became a strip of forest? All that was left now were two flat, parallel tracks, strips of sparser grass from a distance, but close-to you could see the material that had once been the road’s surface. Emmy had seen pictures, but it was hard to imagine: the smooth, black road, the roar and whoosh of vehicles; six lanes of cars and lorries and buses carrying people through this spot from one place to another, as if this were a place that did not really exist at all.

There are times when you have to stick two actual locations together to come up with something that does all the jobs it needs to do. It’s very common in movies, according to the bloke on the radio. You have to be sure of what you’re doing though. In What They Don’t Tell You About Love in the Movies my main character’s father’s house is based on a house I lived in once, but later in the book the house gains some rooms from another place I lived, and I have an uncomfortable feeling that they don’t all fit, though I doubt if any reader has given it a thought.

I am rather pleased with one of my portmanteaus. What They Don’t features a whole lots of different cinemas, based on actual cinemas I’ve been to. With the one in this extract though, the exterior is a cinema in a small town in the south of England and the interior is in New England!

You might not even realise there was a cinema here if you weren’t looking. There’s no big front, just a little door between a couple of shops. You don’t even see the film posters until you’re inside.

“But you’ve heard of it, you must have?” Simon says, looking back at me over his shoulder as we join the queue on the narrow stairs up to the box office.

“Yeah. There was that thing about cutting the council funding last year.”

“That’s right, no one knew if it was going to stay open without the funding. Not that it’s the council that owns it. It’s this bloke, Mr Ahmed …”

Kate puts her arm on Simon’s and he stops talking, lets her take over. “He told us to call him Mr Ahmed, but I think his name’s actually Ahmed something. He owns a local business, plumbing or building or furniture, something like that, but he’s totally in love with cinema. You see him here all the time, selling tickets and making sure everyone’s having a good time.”

She pauses for breath and Simon starts again. “He bought the place fifteen or twenty years ago, to save it from being demolished. At the time the council agreed to subsidise the running costs because they wanted it to keep going too, but they cut the funding year on year and then last year they scrapped it altogether.”

“So he’s running it at a loss now, Mr Ahmed?” I say.

“He must be,” Simon says. “But he told the local paper he’ll keep it going whatever happens.”

There’s a middle-aged bloke in a Pulp Fiction T-shirt behind the window at the box office. Kate nudges me as Simon says, “Hey, Mr Ahmed. We were just talking about you.”

“All good, I hope,” Mr Ahmed says, with the kind of smile that makes you feel like he’s personally invited you here and is thrilled you’ve come.

Kate beams back at him. “Of course,” she says. “This is my favourite cinema in the whole world.”
“I’m very happy to hear that,” Mr Ahmed says. “I was beginning to think you’d found another cinema to love, it’s been so long since I’ve seen you both.”

Kate leans on the little counter. “Never,” she declares. “I will be coming for as long as the Palace is here. And look, I’ve brought you a new customer. This is my friend Joe.”

Mr Ahmed scrutinises me. “Another film fan?”

“Oh yes,” Kate says at the same time as I say, “Absolutely.”

Mr Ahmed smiles his welcoming smile again. “Well, enjoy the film,” he says. “And I hope to see you all back again very soon.”

It’s down some steps to get to the cinema itself. Weird geography, this building. Halfway down, Kate whispers just loud enough for us both to hear, “Mr Ahmed is totally my hero. Imagine getting rich and then spending all your money on a cinema. And he only shows films he wants to see.”

The cinema’s not much bigger than the screening room at college, but instead of tip-up cinema seats, there are sofas, all sorts of sofas, like the leftovers from a closing-down sale at a furniture shop, arranged in rows. There’s not much space left now, but we find two two-seaters over by the far wall. Kate hesitates, but Simon organises us, me and Kate on one sofa, him next to her on the next one.

“Kate in the middle,” he says to me. “Then we can both tell her to shut up when she starts asking questions in the middle of the film.”

The third approach, if you can’t wiggle your story into somewhere you actually know is to build it bespoke. This isn’t as straightforward as you’d think, because you may find yourself needing to add in extra bits to the location as you write. Much of my book, Is She a Cupcake Kind of Girl? (due out this summer) is set in a tearoom. I started with generic cutesy tearoom in my head –pastel gingham and mismatched china – but as I wrote I needed to work out where the toilets were and whether you could see into the kitchen and if it had a back entrance and whether there was a bell on the door, and when I’d added in each necessary detail, I had to go back and make sure it didn’t contradict anything else I’d written. It’s much easier to write a familiar location.

None of the locations in Cupcake are based on real places, but it’s set in the same imaginary town as What They Don’t so I started with these locations already existing in my head and expanded out.
In Cupcake, Lily’s decided that she can’t start going out with someone new because everyone she knows is about to go away to university. But Simon agrees that the two of them will think up the most romantic dates they can to go on together, no strings attached. Thinking up those dates was the best fun, but sooo hard – for me and the characters! Here are the (imaginary) settings of two of the dates:

No wonder this place isn’t common knowledge. The entrance is down a weedy gravel road at the top of West Street, a metal bar gate in a high wall.

“Is this right?” Lily says. “It looks like we’re going into someone’s garden.”

“It’s fine. It’s the back of a B&B, they told me to come in this way.”

It’s a fairy-tale garden: a cloud of butterflies over lavender hedges, rose trees on spindly stalks, a green, green lawn and trees that must have been here for at least a hundred years.

Lily stares, big-eyed, “How can all this be hidden away in the middle of the town?”

I leave her on a bench amongst the roses while I go and find the woman I spoke to earlier on the phone. When Lily spots us coming back, I see her shrink slightly, tauten. I’d like to take her hand, but I’m cradling four wooden balls.

“Right,” the woman says to Lily. “You take these.”

I know this is the right date the moment Lily takes the two wooden mallets. She looks at them as they pass from the woman’s hands to hers and then she looks up at me and says, “Croquet!” in the kind of breathless voice you expect when someone’s won the lottery or something.

“So, you know the rules?” the woman’s saying as we follow her to the croquet lawn. It’s a sunken rectangle surrounded by mown grass slopes and a set of stone steps leading down to it with urns on either side. Honestly, if you ever wanted anything to yell ‘romance’ at you, this is it.

“Go through the hoops, one, two, three, four, five, six ...” The woman points out the sequence of hoops, but neither of us is really listening. I’ve dropped the balls on the ground and Lily’s handed me a mallet and we’re both trying to swing the mallet at the balls.

“No, not like that,” the woman says. “Here, watch.” She takes my mallet and demonstrates, standing feet apart and swinging the mallet between her legs rather than across the body, golf-style. Lily copies her, and thwacks the ball right to the far side of the lawn.

“That’s it, you’ve got it.” The woman hands back my mallet and says, “I’ll leave you to it. There’s a set of simple rules in the box. One of you takes black and blue, and the other red and yellow. …Or make up your own rules. Have fun!”

“You like?” I say to Lily when the woman’s gone.

“Can’t you tell?” she says.

“Yeah, I can tell.” I kiss her nose.

“I’m so going to beat you.”

“You think?”

“I know.”

Why don’t people play croquet all the time? I mean it sounds all la-di-dah old-fashioned and posh (which is what makes it a perfect romantic date activity) but actually it’s a fantastically good game: really easy to pick up the basics but properly competitive. Lily turns out to be a bit of a croquet genius, much to her surprise.

“I’m useless at this sort of stuff normally,” she says, apologetically, after she’s managed to knock one of my balls out of the way and then gone through two hoops at once.

I knew Simon’d get the churchyard as a date destination. Well, I thought I knew, but I suppose it was a kind of test too. I’d never have brought Peter here. He’d have thought it was creepy and boring. But then Peter once took me to a football match and I’m pretty sure Simon wouldn’t be that stupid.
Simon never even looks surprised. 

“Hmm,” he goes. “Good choice. Better than the big cemetery because—?”

We’re walking, hand in hand, along the wide path that leads around the church. There are gravestones everywhere: the narrow strip between the path and the church wall is full of them, and others spread across the grassy hill around us, standing, fallen, broken, whole, grey and white and black and covered with yellow and rusty blotches.

I shrug. “Prettier? And all the people died a long time ago.”

“So not so … real?”

“I suppose. These are more like stories. New graves, ones that people are still putting flowers on, that’s still raw for someone. Looking at those’d be like staring at an accident or something.”

Simon knows how to do graves.

We read dates and sigh at how short people’s lives were – especially women’s.

We do reading the names:

“Who’d call their baby Theophilus?”

“Why are all the women called Mary or Margaret or Elizabeth?”

“No, look: here’s an Arabella.”

“Arabella Margaret.”

“And she called her daughter Margaret Arabella.”

“Must be a bit awkward when everyone in your family and all your friends only have three names between them.”

“Maybe they called each other Margaret P and Margaret M, like they used to do in primary school when people had the same name. I had to be Lily H on year when another Lily came to our school. I used to really loathe her.”

“Not me. Not a lot of people calling their kids Simon when I was born.”

We pick our favourites: mine’s a tiny one with a skull and crossbones on it and Simon’s is the biggest in the whole place, a grey stone box surrounded by metal railings, right by the gate back down to the high street.

“No one’s going to forget you with a thing like that,” I tell him.

“Isn’t that the point?” Simon says.

“I don’t know. I kind of thought it was a religious thing rather than just about people remembering you. In those days anyway. Aren’t all the graves supposed to open and people who believe in God rise again at the end of the world or something?”

There’s a moment before he answers and this terrible thought pops into my head, like what if he’s actually religious and I’m assuming he’s as ignorant-slash-atheist as me and pretty much everyone else I know and I’ve said something really offensive. I mean, I’m pretty sure he’s not, but—

“Really?” he says, in that way that means that he also knows pretty much nothing about God.

I shrug. “I read that somewhere.”

So then we sit on this bench googling it under this huge dark green tree – it’s yew according to the Wikipedia article, good for making longbows but poisonous to cattle. We find out about what the stones are made of, what’s growing on them, what happens to graves when they want to turn the churchyard into a carpark.

“We’re good at this date thing, aren’t we?” Simon goes, once we’ve come to the end of our questions and he’s put his phone away and leaned back with his arm along the back of the bench behind me.

Right now for my new book, I’m trying to create a health food shop that’s run by someone who’s secretly a witch. I’m thinking of starting with the crystals in the window…


Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction 
for children and young adults. 
Her latest YA novel is How Do You Say GOOSEBERRY in French?

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