Setting the Scene

If you are an author who writes fantasy – talking bears, flying witches adept at airborne archery, you know the sort of thing – then setting scenes accurately is unlikely to concern you much. If nothing else is realistic, why would your locations be?

Moving on to those of us at ground level, decisions must be made. Starting with historical novelists, the approach will surely be researching what your chosen locations were like at the time your book is set. What was Naples like in1640 when your heroine, Artemisia, was active with oil on canvas? Not like the Naples we meet in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan books, we can be sure of that. Recourse to libraries in person or online will be called for. I am not a historical novelist, but I’m sure they cover their bases as well as they can and if they make the occasional mistake it won’t be for want of trying to get it right.

For authors whose work is set in present times, or near enough, there are two ways to go. Knowing that you’re writing a work of fiction, you think to yourself I might as well make up the settings as well with an occasional nod to actuality. In Paris, a reference to the Eiffel Tower, in Edinburgh to the Castle, or Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags. Yes, that should cover it. But not everyone will  be comfortable with that approach and here I can only speak for myself.

Three of my novels are set in Edinburgh, where I have lived for many years. Although I know the city well, I visited the sites which would figure in each book and took many photographs as an aid to memory. For example, Interleaved Lives.

Scenes set in Dublin and Traquair are  supported by photographs. One location within the city is a disused church.

The references to this building are detailed and accurate, though changes may have occurred since I finished writing it.

But the fourth book, The Ears of a Cat, never comes near my native city, and instead visits Berlin, Los Angeles, Hokkaido and Charmouth (a coastal town in the English county of Dorset). Of these places, I have only ever set foot in Charmouth, so where does that leave me in search of accuracy?

Were it not for the internet, it would leave me up the creek without a paddle. Now, though, I can travel far and wide without leaving the house. A major aid here is Street View, which not only enables the armchair traveler to visit a given street on the map, it also enables that traveler to see all its buildings.  And as if that were not enough, travelers who have actually been there are often kind enough to post photographs of their visit, a further source of reference. Without these aids, I could not have written the Berlin chapters of Ears. In one there is a reference to Leise Park and a gravestone there. The gravestone exists and the reference to the inscription is accurate. How amazing that such a thing is possible? When I was younger than I am today, it was not.

Click on the image for a tour of Leise Park.

LEISE PARK | quiet park

(I felt the first edition of the Ears of a Cat was unsatisfactory in some respects. A revised edition will be published early in 2023).

 

Setting the Scene in Fiction

Is it important to be accurate when setting a scene? Opinions will vary. Writers of fantasy, sci-fi and the like cannot be expected to be accurate, though they should be consistent. If the planet Zog has five moons in chapter one, it should still have five in chapter 9 – unless, of course, four have been vapourised by the evil Kung Fu Manchu – last seen signing off at the end of the eighth reel with the dread words I shall return.

But if you’re writing in a more realistic genre, then a different approach would be more appropriate. A crime novel set in Seattle should accurately reflect that city, likewise a literary novel involving Vienna (and I am not referring here to Rigsby’s cat) should portray that city with an accuracy which reflects the time in which the events are set. The Vienna of Mozart was very different from that of Robert Musil.

I can’t deny being a bit inflexible when it comes to this aspect of the writer’s craft. I have published four novels. Three of them are set in my town of Edinburgh. But the third, The Ears of a Cat, is set in various places including Berlin, Los Angeles and Charmouth, a town in Dorset in the south of England. And while I’ve been to Charmouth, a favoured location for fossil hunters (and I myself am now more of a fossil than a hunter}, I have never set foot in Berlin or Los Angeles.

In the past, I might have gone to the library and taken copious notes from travel guides. But now, thanks to the web, I can visit these places with such immediacy that I can travel down streets, check out the buildings, and supplement what I see on Google Maps by referring to photographs taken at the various locations by helpful travellers who have actually been there.

But for my most recent paperback, Interleaved Lives, I have reverted to my usual practice of visiting locations and documenting them with photographs – for reference only and not for inclusion in the book. And I have done this even though I know most of them well.

This is the house where our hero, Douglas Hunter occupies the upper floor.

And here is the back garden of his house, where a workman investigating a blocked drain makes a troublesome discovery.

Next to Hunter’s house is the disused church where significant action takes place.

And here is a grille which gets an honourable mention.

While casing the joint, Hunter notices new pipework strangely at odds with the rest of the building, with its noticeable outbreaks of moss.

And here is the side door through which Hunter and co enter the church.

Some might say What does it matter: if the story is fiction why not the settings too? I’m not sure why, but to me a degree of accuracy matters.Which is why the pictures shown here are only a selection from a much larger group.

mybook.to/InterleavedLives