Writing a Setting

Writing_a_Setting

Whether it’s the country in which your whole story takes place, or a small boat where just one conversation occurs, I’ve learned that the setting can make all the difference.

Love Boat

There are lots of options open to authors of fiction, even more for those of science fiction or fantasy, and yet when I’m enthusiastically scribbling down a first draft I still have to remind myself not to always necessarily go with my first idea. When coming up with a scene I now ask myself:

Does this scene (for example, an argument between two characters) have to have to occur on the living room sofa?

If so – fine, but what if they were actually on an aeroplane, or a remote mountain top, or in a shop selling lingerie? Would that make the scene more interesting/dramatic/awkward?

Mountain topAs Ra’s al Ghul says to Bruce Wayne in the film Batman Begins:

Always mind your surroundings.

As a starting point it is generally easier to write about places I’ve been to, or have experience of. Three of my books are set in Wildham, a fictional town somewhere north of London, but the town of my imagination is based on bits and pieces of real places – the market square, pubs and coffee shops – that I know well. Similarly Southwood’s Garden Centre, which features in Safe With Me, is fictional, but based on personal experience. My aunt and uncle built up their own successful nursery and garden centre from nothing, and I worked part-time in a garden centre for several years. I know first-hand the relaxed satisfaction of planting up hanging baskets; the tedium of dead-heading endless trays full of bedding plants, and the hours spent watering pots in the heat of the summer.

Dahlias

But for me the most exciting aspect of choosing a setting, is the opportunity to introduce somewhere I’ve always wanted to experience myself – it gives me the perfect excuse to go there. The roof-top garden cafe that appears in Safe With Me, was based on my visit to the Queen Elizabeth Hall Roof Garden Bar & Cafe at the Southbank Centre in London. I wanted to find a little oasis in the city; a metaphorical bridge between the greasy spoon that Rina has spent years working in, and James’s plans for a semi-rural idyll in Wildham. By going to the location myself I could soak up the atmosphere; make notes on the way it looked, smelled and sounded, and take photos to aid my memory. I could also sit there and mentally conjure up my characters; imagine what they might think or say, and picture how their body language might betray their feelings. I fear I must look a little crazy at times, when I’m focusing inwards and listening to my imaginary friends – ahem, I mean characters – but I try not to let it stop me.

Rural Dining

Of course much of this ‘research’ doesn’t feature in the finished book, but hopefully it informs the writing and makes the world I create, more immersive for the reader. What do you think? Do you agree? Do let me know. And if you get the chance to visit London in summer, I would highly recommend the Southbank.

NB – This post was first published exactly a year ago by the wonderful Sharon of Shaz’s Book Blog – thank you Sharon!! The original post can be viewed here: http://shazsbookblog.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/the-write-stuff-with-grace-lowrie.html

My Chelsea Flower Show 2017

I was in two minds about attending Chelsea Flower Show on Tuesday – partly because of the devastating terrorist attack, which had happened the night before in Manchester and left me feeling shaken and emotional, and partly because I usually visit the show with my mother. This year she was unable to accompany me due to ill health, but she insisted I go without her.

And I’m glad I did. It was a wonderful spectacle of colour, sunshine and positivity. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to take as many photos as I intended because of problems with my camera phone (gotta love modern technology) but the few I did take I thought I’d share with you.

Chelsea Flower Show 2017

For me Kate Gould’s City Living garden was a particular highlight, as was Kazuyuki Ishihara’s Gosho No Niwa – No Wall, No War. The gardens are perfect illustrations of how even the smallest of spaces can be greened up – something becoming increasingly important in our cities where human population growth is exerting so much pressure. Pictures and details of all the show gardens can be found here:
https://www.rhs.org.uk/shows-events/rhs-chelsea-flower-show/Gardens

Rogue PrimulaOne of my favourite pieces of planting was the woodland area of Chris Beardshaw’s Morgan Stanley garden – where a rogue, red primula utterly outraged a woman next to me in the crowd. The deliberately placed bloom, with its quietly clashing audacity, made me smile and, in my opinion, lifted the whole planting scheme. What do you think?

Where to Write?

I am lucky enough to have a dedicated space in which to write – a desk by a window where I can gaze out at the sky and idly watch the birds in the trees while I juggle (or wrestle) with words in my mind. Inspiring objects and images clutter the windowsill; I have a laptop-stand to raise my screen to an appropriate height; and my chair, although not fancy or ergonomic, is relatively comfortable. When time is short, as it usually is, my desk is a suitable, convenient and efficient place to write.

Girl WritingAnd yet, some days, the urge to sit there is oddly lacking.

On these occasions a change of scenery is called for, and even a small one can make all the difference. In colder months I might only stumble as far as the living room sofa, and on really dark, wet days you’ll find me snuggled up in bed in a nest of cushions and blankets with my laptop propped on my knees. But when the sun is shining my favourite place to write is my back door step. Leaving modern technology behind I will take a notebook, a pen and a hot cup of coffee and perch in a patch of sunshine – scribbling down notes to the ambient sound of birds, trains and lawn mowers.

Writing in Bed

If this doesn’t work and the ideas are still not flowing, it’s time to go for a walk. It may only be a quick zip to the postbox and back, or a stroll through the park, but if time allows I really enjoy a wander through my local nature reserve; absorbing the green tranquillity of the woods and the calm of the water, while fictional characters hold conversations in my head. Before long I have to find somewhere to sit – a bench or log – and get pen onto paper, while the words are fresh in my mind. Many planned, extended walks have been curtailed by the urge to write.

Al Fresco Writing

In general I prefer quiet in which to work – to better hear the inner voices – but if it’s fresh human inspiration I need; coffee shops, libraries, art galleries and train stations are great places to people watch. I tend to get too distracted to achieve much actual writing, but I know many writers who thrive on the buzz of such social spaces.

Art Gallery

One of the perks of writing fiction is that I can pick a setting that I’ve always wanted to go to, and actually go there – write in situ, as it were. It’s a real kick, if a little weird, going somewhere and imagining my characters right there with me. I’m able to incorporate the details of the place – the way it smells, sounds, tastes – directly into my story, which hopefully lends some authenticity. So far I haven’t used my writing as an excuse to visit an exotic, far-flung country, but I fully intend to one day.

Girl on Swing

Writing’s often a solitary practice and if you’re anywhere near as introverted as me, I’d recommend using your writer status to get yourself out and about in the world. You don’t necessarily have to start conversations with strangers, but write anywhere you can and don’t forget to enjoy it.

Where do you write? Where would you recommend? I’d love to know.

Amsterdam in June

I recently spent a week in Amsterdam…Sketched scene AmsterdamIt was my first visit to the city, and indeed the Netherlands as a whole, and I’m delighted to say that it exceeded my expectations in the very best of ways. So much so in fact, that it has taken me a fortnight of mental digesting to be able to put my experience into words.
Forgive my general ignorance and naivety, but before this trip my impressions of Amsterdam were, to a large extent, from tales of rowdy stag parties visiting strip clubs and getting stoned. Yes, an array of scantily clad women line the streets of the red light district of an evening and yes, marijuana is readily available in the coffeeshops, but there is so much more to the city than that.

Amsterdam in June

Rijksmuseum Research Library
Rijksmuseum Research Library

First let me explain that I took this holiday with my mother, and though she is young-at-heart, open-minded and at ease in a city with a studenty vibe, visiting a brothel was never going to be top of her to-do list. For us it was the lure of museums, art galleries, a diverse range of restaurants, and the antique, flea and flower markets.
The hotel we were lucky enough to stay in, was extravagantly-decorated, welcoming and a joy to return to each evening, and every person we spoke to was kind, friendly and helpful – even after the shock news of Britain’s vote to leave the EU.
For the most part we enjoyed sunshine, missed the worst rain, and, having hastily got to grips with the rules of the cycle lane network, successfully managed to avoid causing any accidents. But this isn’t a holiday review where I recount our itinerary and rate each place – I’m not a travel writer and I’d rather leave that sort of thing to those who are – I simply have an urge to express my love for some of the beautiful places I discovered.
Canal houseIt seems much of Amsterdam’s aesthetic charm can be enjoyed by simply wandering about:
the canals which loop and lace their way through an endless network of curvy cobbled bridges, lending an air of casual serenity to an otherwise bustling city; the rows of narrow houses leaning into each other with regal grace; the intricate brick pavements where parking spaces nestle between flowering potted plants, beneath tall trees; the alfresco corner cafés by the water, which invite you to sit and relax and stay all day; and the bicycles, the endless tangles of bicycles, everywhere, in a kaleidoscope of colours and decorated with fake blooms.

Amsterdam places1And then there are the places you can actively seek out: the tiny courtyard gardens tucked between the buildings and crammed with hydrangeas; the rooms of the Rijksmuseum containing seventeenth century treasures, such as Artus Quellinus’ model of Atlas, Petronella Dunois’ dolls’ house and delicate hand-cut collages by persons unknown; the tranquil parks with their live music, fountains and ponds; and the wonderful array of restaurants providing everything from traditional Dutch home-cooking to Parisian art nouveau ambience.

Amsterdam places2

But as with any holiday, it is perhaps those little, unexpected moments that will stay with me the most: being moved to tears in Anne Frank’s house upon hearing a recording of her father speaking; watching a heron gracefully alight right next to a girl practising yoga in a park; listening to a talented accordionist play Vivaldi in a busy tunnel; stumbling upon an intimate wedding ceremony in the garden of the Museum Van Loon; and the lively street festival that sprang up around our hotel on our penultimate day.
I thoroughly enjoyed Amsterdam and I am keen to return one day, but even if I don’t hopefully I can use my experiences in a book; rediscover it through my characters. For me that’s half the fun of being a writer. Does anyone else feel the same?
Do you have any special memories from Amsterdam you’d care to share? I’d love to hear them.

Evening sunlit canal houses