One of the things with writing contemporary fiction is that the setting will almost certainly be a place that is familiar to the reader. Maybe not the exact spot, but the general surroundings will hold something they will recognise. In a sense, this makes life easier. There’s none of the research and fact checking needed to place the action in a convincing mediaeval world, for instance, or the depth of consideration that’s essential to build an entirely new world in a sci-fi epic fantasy. We contemporary writers can place the little touches so necessary for three-dimensional writing by sitting and looking out of the window, or going for a walk, or taking a bus ride. I’ve often been out and noticed, say, a poster on the wall of a building or a couple arguing in a cafe and thought, ‘yes, that would work in the part of my book when…’ and a whole chunk of the plot will have fallen into place.
Sometimes, of course, we want things to happen in a specific place, somewhere that we may never have been. This is not impossible. Google and Wikipedia are the writer’s friend when we need to explore a town virtually, or pick up details about local amenities, significant beauty spots, even something as prosaic as bus times. My second novel, still currently ‘in progress’, starts in Thailand. I’ve never been there, but with some crossover experience of travelling in other parts of the world, including Singapore, some shameless stealing of my ex-husband’s stories of the trip he took there as a teenager (a writer never wastes information!), the detailed bus routes and ferry timetables I found online, and numerous travel blogs, I reckon I’ve built up a pretty good picture.
Having said that, I had an experience lately that reminded me how very valuable it is to go to the place you’re writing about. After my heroine leaves Thailand, she ends up on a canal boat. Her journey takes from Macclesfield down towards Stone, and it’s her first experience of being on a narrowboat. I’ve lived on my boat for over ten years now, but I don’t do a lot of actual boating. The boat is a place that I live in rather than something that I do. You need to set aside quite a lot of time to travel on the canal and, with kids who need to be at ballet or karate or Duke of Edinburgh expeditions or swimming club in the endless cycle of these things, that’s never been something I’ve managed to do.
I have a diary somewhere which chronicles the first few months of the boat, which included sailing from Runcorn – where the boat was launched – along the Bridgewater and Leeds/Liverpool canals to the place where I now moor. This diary holds invaluable memories about the experience of being a new boater: the propeller becoming clogged with plastic bags, the first attempt at reversing, of pumping out the toilet tank, of meeting another boat in a tight stretch of the waterway. Unfortunately, I’ve still not been able to find it… Luckily a friend – herself an experienced boater – has recently had a new boat built, and invited me along to be one of the first crew members. Even more fortuitously, her planned route was to take us along the Macclesfield canal.
My initial draft of the chapters where my character sails along the Macc. were okay. I had a lot of the flavour of canal travel. I do, after all, know a lot about the canal bank. But the specifics were missing. I’d forgotten what it was like to be at the tiller when the boat sinks down into a lock. I’d forgotten that moment when the lockgates open and a picture of the world beyond is framed by those vast wooden gates. Being the exact spot I wanted to write about, I was taking notes frantically. A fallen tree trunk here, an unusual balance-weight lifting bridge there. The sound of the engine, the smell of the water. As so often, I’d forgotten to bring along my notebook, but I did have my phone. The advantage of this being that they sync with my computer.
Something I want my plot to include is a canal boat chase, which is something of a contradiction in terms and therefore a challenge to write. This didn’t, of course, happen on my Macclesfield trip. But you can’t have everything, and sometimes a writer just has to use her imagination. I’ll let you know how the chase scene goes when I get round to writing it!
This post is brought to you by Sarah Jasmon.