Thursday, 4 January 2018

Creating a Sense of Place: Guest Post by Kathy Shuker.

Today my special guest is Kathy Shuker, a Devon based author who writes intriguing mysteries with an evocative sense of place. Welcome to the Scribbling SeaSerpent, Kathy.

I’ve been writing novels now for around fifteen years. Most of the early ones never saw the light of day (fortunately) but three have been published and many readers have commented on their strong sense of place. It’s been a long learning curve and here I’ll try to share what I’ve learnt and how I approach the setting for a story - and why I think it’s important.

Writing a novel, I quickly found out, involves endless decision-making - there are so many different ways to tell a story. If you’re indecisive like me, it can slow you down; you become literally spoilt by the choice. And it’s all too easy to get wrapped up thinking of exciting plot details or complex characters and neglect the all-important background information. Along with the time period, the setting is fundamental to the atmosphere of the work. For example, if you want to tell a story that’s hard and fast and clean-edged, brisk with people and the insistent thrust of modern life, you would probably set it in a big city. If you want a moodier story with a haunting backdrop, you might choose something rural and remote. Again, there are many options. Whatever you choose, the setting is like another character in the story, something that has an essence of its own and, if it’s to play its full part, needs to be respected as such.

I write mysteries which are character-driven, stories that revolve around small communities, families with untold back stories, groups of old friends whose relationships have grown or stretched out of shape or have even broken down. I feel they suit intimate and sparsely populated settings. There’s time for the characters to interact; there’s space for the unusual, the surprising, the unspoken, all of which add to the mystery. I have spent most of my adult life living in rural areas so my choice of settings is not surprising: I know how small communities work; I breathe more easily in the countryside. And I think that’s an important factor in choosing a setting for a novel: you need to know and understand where the story takes place. It’s going to be a long writing journey and that setting is going to hold it all together. As the story unfolds, it will keep throwing questions at you - points of detail which, if you get them right, can help to make the story credible. If you get them wrong, the reader may pick up on the inconsistencies and be pulled out of the story.

So, what do you need to know about this place you have created? I use real settings but subtly alter them to suit my story and I use fictional names. Wherever you choose to set the book, you need to research it as you would the other characters. You may not use all that information but you need to know it. Firstly, you need to know what the place looks like - how it’s laid out; what the architecture is like; what the buildings are made of. If it’s rural, you should find out the species of trees and flowers that grow in the area. Is it barren or fertile? What is the climate like? And you may need to know the times of sunrise and sunset. I always keep a diary to hand for that. And, since a previous book and the one I’m currently working on are both set by the sea in the UK, I have to know the tide times for the period I’m writing about too. Though you don’t have to live in the place the book is set, it does help if you have at least visited it. A lot of really useful information can be found in books and on the internet but there’s no substitute for first-hand experience.  My second novel is set in Provence. I’d been lucky enough to have visited the area several times before writing it which enabled me to remember the piercing brightness of the sunshine, the oppressiveness of the mid-summer heat and the way storms can develop and pass quickly leaving the ground suddenly washed and sparkling again. Information like this can give the story more depth and life.

But looks aren’t everything. It’s important to describe sounds too, and smells - very emotive - and the feel of something to the touch. Every little nudge of information can help to produce a more rounded and three-dimensional image. And do it slowly. As a reader, I know how easy it is to switch off if too much information is presented in one go. When I’m writing, I give a brief overall description initially then drop more crumbs of detail in as I go along. Sometimes a single adjective, well-placed, can be more effective than a whole paragraph. And don’t forget to leave some leeway for the reader’s imagination; that’s part of the pleasure of reading. ‘Less is more’ is a mantra I often say to myself!

Above all I think you should enjoy your setting, have fun with it, inhabit it for the duration. If you can believe in it yourself, your readers will too.

Kathy trained as a physiotherapist but a back injury forced her to change career. She studied design and worked as a freelance artist, painting in oils and watercolours, exhibiting and teaching, before starting to write. She now writes full-time. As well as a continued love of reading, Kathy is a keen amateur musician, singing in a local choir and playing guitar, piano and fiddle. Art, the natural world and conservation are also particular interests. She lives with her husband in Devon, UK.

Kathy’s books are available in digital and print format on multiple platforms.

Kathy's Wesite
Kathy's Amazon Page
Kathy's Facebook Page

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