Precision detail in a novel – not just any place, but this place

I’ve been asked to share how I capture a sense of place in my novel. For example, what research do I do, how do I take notes, are photographs involved, and so on. So here goes…

SINGLED OUT is set on a singles holiday on Turkey’s beautiful Lycian Coast. I’ve visited this area many times over the last 20 years and I love its striking landscape and laid-back, exotic atmosphere. Whilst my story is essentially a dark psychological one, I wanted the sense of place to be very strong; my intention is for the reader to feel as if they’re on the holiday with my characters.

This writer's notepad - illegible scrawl from Turkey, May 2013
This writer’s notepad: illegible scrawl, Turkey, May 2013

Last year after a gap of 6 years I returned to Turkey specifically to gather that sensory detail for my novel. Memories fade over the years, especially the minuscule details of sight, sound and smell which are essential to anchoring the setting or a scene in a novel precisely and bringing it to life for readers. I wanted to fill a notepad with images and sensory detail to inject into my story. I got more than I could possibly have expected from the experience, as I first wrote about in my post It Makes Sense:

I realised as I filled its pages, how inert ones memories of a place can become. It’s easy enough to pick up an old photograph and see what a raggedy coastline looks like, or a market, or an ancient ruin. But when you’re there, you smell the pine and the citrus, the sweat and cigarettes; you see the gnarly knuckles and the stained aprons; you hear the wail of the muezzin’s prayer and watch the sun radiate from the golden dome of a mosque; you feel the sting of perspiration as it trickles into your eye and savour sweet green peppers and succulent tomatoes under a canopy of twisted vines. Oh, I could go on… and on…

I don’t want you imagining my story is awash with descriptive detail at the expense of plot and character. But there are one or two places where I’ve gone to town a bit on the setting, using my photographs and notes to develop a strong sense of place. Of course these may all go, if and when a real editor gets to work on the draft. But for the time being, I’m getting away with it.

Ephesus

My characters take a trip to Ephesus, so I did too. I’d last been there 20 years ago and I imagined that whilst two thousand year old ruins are two thousand year old ruins, the tourist business of Ephesus and its surroundings must have changed over the years – and I was right.

I was fortunate to have a guide all to myself for the day and I explained to her the main purpose of my visit. I was able to wander at will, ask endless questions and take dozens of photographs. Knowing why I was there, she didn’t question that I photographed odd things; the stalls outside the entrance, the entrance barriers, other groups of tourists, odd rocks and stones, cats and trees, pavements and signposts, as well as those breathtaking ancient ruins.

Stalls at the entrance to Ephesus
Stalls at the entrance to Ephesus
The only shade there is at Ephesus
The only shade at Ephesus
Warm bodies and a cloudless sky at Ephesus
Warm bodies and a cloudless sky at Ephesus

I couldn’t easily take notes as we walked around the site, but I caught up as soon as we stopped for lunch; a combination of my guide’s historical knowledge, my sense of the place and how I’d felt as I walked its streets.  You think you’ll remember these things, but let me tell you, you won’t.  Notepads are a vital tool – however illegible (as mine often are), their pages will take you right back to a precise place or moment, months or even years later.

But I had to keep reminding myself, SINGLED OUT is a novel not a travel book. An earlier draft contained far too much historical detail from that Ephesus trip and much of it has since come out. It’s enough to have done the research and deployed elements of detail where they’re needed to enrich; but there’s no need to show off how much you know.

So you can see how it worked for me, here’s a paragraph from that fictional trip to Ephesus:

Around them tour guides spoke in English, French, German, Swedish and Japanese to visitors unbalanced by loaded backpacks, while others brandished sticks to aid their movement or umbrellas to shield them from the sun. They stopped randomly and without warning for photographs. At every point where Fatima drew the group close, James and Veronica listened with rapt attention – and Brenda rummaged in her bag for water, a fan, a facial spritz or a wad of tissues. All the while, the heat came at them not only from above, but from beneath their feet and all around. It rose in waves from the flagstone avenues and radiated off the columns and walls. Brenda was slow-roasting in the Ephesus noonday oven.

Market Day

Two of my characters browse a local market together one day. I’d gone to markets in Turkey before and had some lovely old photographs (from the days before digital). Then I went to the market in Fethiye on my trip last year, armed with my trusty notepad – and my eyes and nose. Here’s an excerpt which uses my recollections and notes from all those Turkish markets combined.

The area where the weekly market took place lay behind the shopping street and away from the beach. It would be generous to call it a marketplace, since for six days a week this area of gravel and clay lay fallow; carved here and there by tyre tracks from the few trucks that needed somewhere to turn around before speeding away.

On the seventh day, it teemed with life from before dawn until late afternoon. Farmers came from the villages and hamlets in the hills, their pick-ups laden with fresh produce of all shapes and mis-shapes, a riot of colour and a testament to the industry and enterprise out of sight of the tourist coastline. Traders moved from town to town, market day to market day, bringing truckloads of goods to sell; t-shirts and trousers, bags and belts, pashminas and pendants, sandals and sunhats all manufactured in anonymous factories far away from the coast or most likely in China. Packets of candy, nuts and aromatic spices sat alongside jars of glistening local honey and blocks of cheese; everything was available to buy from dusty trestle tables and rails, all under cover of flapping white awnings – giving the impression the whole market was a trading ship about to set sail.

The two women passed an enjoyable couple of hours wandering the length and breadth of the market. They flirted with the crusty, moustachioed farmers behind their piles of wooden boxes laden with curly runner beans, torpedo aubergines, red and white onions, peppers and courgettes, oranges, lemons, strawberries and giant watermelons; they breathed in the aromas of citronella and cinnamon, fruit teas and fresh herbs, beaten leather, crushed straw, workaday sweat and cigarettes; they bartered with stall-holders over beaded necklaces, embroidered purses and gaudily embellished flip-flops; they cooed over a pile of crates crammed with baby chicks, their fluffy down every shade from creamy gold-top through honey roast to dark chocolate brown, and they sympathised with a brace of rabbits whose fate was obvious and more immediate. Brenda stocked up on candied fruits and sugared almonds and Siobhan found a fake henna kit she couldn’t live without. Then, with carrier bags brimming with tourist trinkets, they made for the line of beachfront bars and the yellow awning, for lunch.

The Gulet Trip

Turkish Gulet - a fine sight, even without its sails
Turkish Gulet

My characters take an overnight trip on one of Turkey’s ubiquitous gulets. I’ve spent weeks at a time on gulets before – it’s a blissful experience, to bob about on the ocean for a few days with no shoes on and nothing to do but sunbathe and read books. This time I took a day trip to refresh my memories of the sights, sounds and odours. I took photographs of the coastline and odd corners of the boat. I noted the way the motion affected my balance, the sounds of the boat and the water, the smells coming up from the sea – and the kitchen; I registered what the sunlight did to the chrome, the woodwork and the sails. Here’s a snapshot of my impressions which made it into the story:

The deck-hands unrolled the jib over the bow and the sail on the second mast and high above them squally gusts took hold. The trio of sails ballooned with the strengthening wind of open water; they fought and whipped about, tugging at their fastenings, lifting and plunging the boat forward, cutting into the water and venting fine salty spray into the air and across the deck. The restaurant on the beach became a speck against a panorama of grey-green scrub and rocky slopes, the bay zoomed away into the distance. The industrial grinding of the diesel engine was replaced by a sublime, organic symphony; a blustery flapping of sails, the steady swish-swash of waves, the metallic pounding of the rigging and the cawing of a seabird. Breathless and eyes wide, Henry lay on his back staring up towards the tip of the mast and beyond into the cloudless sky. Surely life couldn’t get better than this.

Most of the detail from my scruffy notepads made it into the story one way or another – a few words here, a sentence there – which is mostly all you need. It’s only when you want to anchor the reader more specifically in a given place or moment, that it’s perhaps permissible to layer the detail a little more. But that’s just my feeling, and, as a novice and yet-to-be-published writer, I may find my layers of sights, sounds and smells are pared down in the final edit. So please don’t take my word for it that this is the right approach. It’s just the thing I did – whether it adds substance to my story, or gets in the way of the plot, someone with more experience than I may yet be the judge of this.

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Author: Jools

Abundant, Bold, Confident, Determined, Empathetic, Forthright, Grumpy, Healthier, Individual, Just me, Kind, Loving, Mellifluous, Natural, Optimistic, imPatient, Quirky, Real-world, Single-minded, unTreatable, Unwound, Verbal, Wilful, eXtraordinary, Young and old, Zero-tolerance.

5 thoughts on “Precision detail in a novel – not just any place, but this place”

  1. It was my master’s degree in landscape archaeology that really made me look at landscape differently. I also feel that it had a positive influence on my fiction writing as I started to see landscapes not merely as background, but as a living, breathing functional entity.

    I have written a couple of lengthy posts on my blog if you want to take a look (one is on urban landscapes, the other on rural landscapes) – it’ll be good to get your feedback. I won’t spam you with them but if you want to see, just say the word!

    1. Thank you – i already follow your blog and I will go and take a look at your posts – but please feel free to post the link here under a comment as I imagine others might be interested too.. For me the issue of place is as much about the other senses as it is about sight – and it’s using ‘all the senses’ that brings a place alive.

  2. I agree Jools. Giving a sense of place through sight, sound, smell and taste are essential to a novel, particularly to one set on holiday in such a lovely location as yours. As you say, what seems vivid at the time can fade and the notebook is essential for rekindling those all-important details. I filled a whole notebook too on my recent trip to Colombia – some of it useful for my current novel, which is partially set in Colombia, and some for future projects. Internet research can take you so far, but you cannot beat being in a place to capture all the little details, though granted that is not always possible for reasons of security etc.

    1. It’s not just that being there allows you to capture the details, but that your notepad of recollections can, months and years later, take you right back to the same place and time. It’s amazing to me how effective it can be to gather those few thoughts and impressions and commit them to a notepad. Invariably amongs the obvious, are many odd notes on things which would otherwise pass straight through your mind and out the other side in moments. And they are caught forever in the pages of a notepad. I’m sure you’ll be going back to your Columbia Diaries and Notepads for years to come.

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