Frederick Forsyth announced last week that, being ‘too old’ to go gadding about foreign parts, he won’t be writing any more political thrillers. Clarifying, he said that whilst he could Google plentiful detail about, say, Somalia, a place’s unique atmosphere is not something to be gleaned from the internet.
The next day, Radio Four’s flagship culture programme, Front Row, remembered an interview they did with me last year about the Falkland Islands and invited me along to debate with historical crime writer, SJ Parris, the necessity – or not – of authors visiting their book locations.
For many, it’s a no-brainer. Of course, the writer owes her readers the most vigorous and painstaking research. The worst service she can do them is to break the spell, to unwittingly include some erroneous detail that jars, pulls the reader out of the story, is just plain wrong. A visit, argued SJ Parris, could convey a sense of a place that all the desk research in the world couldn’t replicate. A visit could point a writer in a new direction entirely, throw up fresh ideas, solve plot problems. All good points.
Atmosphere, claims Freddie, cannot be absorbed from the internet, and who’s going to argue with Forsythe?
Well, me. Because he’s wrong. Or maybe just missing something. Freddie started his career as a journalist, was accustomed to building his work on concrete facts. That’s not to say his books aren’t imaginative, of course they are, exceptionally so, but unlike those who approach their stories from a different direction entirely, he maybe hasn’t appreciated that there is another, easier, and better way.*
Because we are not journalists, we are story-tellers, and whilst it is possible to be both, to start out as one and become the other, the two are not the same.
Creating a powerful sense of place in a novel isn’t about detail. It doesn’t depend upon a street being a hundred yards long or fifty, whether a fence is painted red or green. It’s about the salty tingles on your face as you walk by the ocean on a windy day, the beating of air as a huge flock of birds takes flight, the oily smell of the Thames at low tide and the sloshing sound the water makes as it churns around the tethered boats.
There is no need, physically, to be in a place in order to create this sense of atmosphere. For me, it would almost distract. I’d be unable to see past the colour of the fences and the number of cars in the car park and the style of brickwork. I’d be stuck with the trees, and never see the wood. I’ve written some of my best, most descriptive scenes at my desk, staring at a blank wall.
I’d almost compare the two approaches to photography and painting. The photograph reproduces exactly. The painting conveys an idea. The painting tells you as much about what is going on in the artist’s head as what he’s looking at with his eyes.
Of course the detail plays a part too and getting detail wrong will invariably cause a problem. But there is so much information in our public libraries, on our televisions, and on the internet, that anybody can replicate just about any location in finite detail without leaving their desks. Ordnance survey maps show us every contour of the land, every tiny stream, every copse of trees. Google images, Google earth and Google street fill in the rest. There are coffee table books filled with gorgeous photographs, documentaries and dramas that we can watch. Even works of fiction can be useful.
And when it comes to the hard bit, transporting the reader, making him feel as though he’s actually there? Just close your eyes. Take yourself there. Create your sense of the place and remember that no two people ever have the same response to a location. No one will tell you that your impression of the Falkland Islands, or Shetland, or Northumbria, is wrong. Just different to their own.
This is about neither laziness nor penny pinching. I have visited every one of my book locations apart from the Falkland Islands (practicalities won out on that one) but I usually try to go after I’ve finished the book. My place exists then, it’s fixed on the page, and all I have to do is check the detail.
On a final note, don’t despise the practicalities. Too many assume that once a writer has a book published, he or she is rolling in cash. If only! For many writers, on modest advances and juggling a day job, research trips are prohibitively expensive and time consuming. No one should feel they have short changed their readers because they don’t have the means of the best-selling writers.
Shakespeare never went to Verona!
Top tips if you really can’t visit your location.
- Buy an ordnance survey map, or the local version for an overseas location. You may need more than one. Pin it above your desk.
- Do an Amazon search for the best books about the area and have your local library find them for you.
- Search newspaper and magazine archives.
- Watch lots of documentaries and travel programmes.
- Read other works of fiction set in that same place.
- Find and follow blogs, Facebook posts and Twitter accounts of people who live there.
- Subscribe to the local paper, or access it on line.
- Close your eyes, do what you do best, and picture it. Remember the man who said that imagination is better than knowledge? That would be Albert Einstein. I’m with the genius on this one. We are not writing travel guides, we are creating magic.
The link to the Front Row programme is below. SJ Parris and I are about eight minutes in. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07tqq3s
*Freddie might just fancy a rest, and who can blame him? Let’s hope he changes his mind.
PS: The image accompanying this piece shows the serious flooding in York last Christmas, which I braved, for the sake of research!