One day I’ll fly away … in last week’s blog, I wrote that a change of setting has taken place in my novel, now that my draft has finally (finally!) reached the halfway stage. Up until this point, my central character Ellen has been spending time in the centre of Glasgow: her favourite locations (or the favourite locations I have chosen on her behalf!) include the city’s famous parks and the fictional art gallery of Lavery’s (named after the Glasgow Boy artist John Lavery – check him out!) However, a twist in fate has now driven Ellen to return to the place of her childhood: the Isle of Skye, which lies off the west coast of the Scottish Highlands.
Finding myself here, I was heartened that my novel is (slowly!) starting to take shape, but also surprised by how powerfully I felt the ‘fresh air’ that came along with this new setting. This week I’ve been deliberating how far the places Ellen travels to should be identifiable in real life. Do you prefer novels set in environments we know and love, or in spaces that are the figment of the author’s imagination?
A novel, and indeed any piece of fiction, is a creative work – so would it be wiser to embrace that creativity fully and let it extend to constructing fantasy worlds? In my experience, this is often one of the factors that both children and adults highlight when discussing how much they enjoyed the escapism a book brought them (Harry Potter amongst others comes to mind!) I’ve always enjoyed the tales of Thomas Hardy die-hards (see what I did there?!) going in search of Wessex, the fictional English county where novels like Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Far From the Madding Crowd took place. In fact, Wessex was an ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the south of England, but with that knowledge Hardy constructed what he described as "a merely realistic dream country".
Yet while Hardy created – or perhaps recreated – Wessex within his mind, real life England remains recognisable in his novels to the most powerful effect. The county may be fictional, but the country's social landscapes, sexual politics and the perennial dilemma of progress versus tradition are far from imagined. Would other classics like Les Misérables have had the same resonance if their inhabitants had not been so vividly situated dans la vrai vie France: for that matter, would the modern-day President’s Hat have had the same je ne sais quoi? More generally, we also need to remember that the fantasy world of a writer might not always be the same as that of a reader: while some people love it, others are alienated by the psychedelic twists and turns of books like Alasdair Grey’s Lanark that are set in dystopian lands (creating motion sickness in your readership is a definite no!).
Perhaps it depends on the ‘character’ of setting within the novel: what part is the environment going to play within the story? In Pentimenti, I want setting to be a shortcut to freedom and positivity, but equally it needs to speak to a specific point in time and space. Scotland is a country where life is better than ever, but still harder than it ought to be for many, and where stagnant inequalities ripple across society and within families. At present, I have identified the real-life locations of Glasgow and Skye, but created fictional spaces within them. In fact, choosing names for those imaginary sites has been great fun: a novel version of a baby naming ceremony to create Ceidlow, a fictitious area of Glasgow, and Tarska, an imagined hamlet on Skye. Ceidlow is inspired by ceilidh dancing to make it immediately sound Scottish, but the word tails off to a flatter sound as I try and reflect the greyness that characterises Ellen’s unexciting, overly controlled life in the city. Tarska, on the other hand, aims to have a wild and Gaelic sound, influenced by a crofting village I know well that really does exist on Skye named Tarskavaig (apparently, its name draws heavily from Viking culture!)
Like many ‘novel’ issues, the best resolution I’ve come up with is therefore to try and achieve a sense of balance – I’ll keep you signposted as to how my setting evolves!
Line of the week (my favourite line I’ve written this week - although whether it will make the final cut is a different story!)
Ellen imagines its form like grey granite: level yet strong, stubborn even, like a mountainside. Speaking of Scottish settings, ‘Grey Granite’ here is a little shoutout to the work of Lewis Grassic Gibbon – are there any fans of heroine Chris Guthrie out there?!
Bookmark (what I've been reading when I need a break from writing - otherwise known as often!)
Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight by Naoki Higashida. Thoughtful, moving and luminous with insight: young writer Higashida does not simply reflect on how best to live with autism. He reflects on how best to live. Full stop. This is a wonderful book that I feel wiser for reading.