Sunday, September 4, 2011

Being There

One of the wonderful things about writing is that there are really no rules, and we all do it differently. What works for one person might be of no help at all to another, and each of us has our own habits, our own individual process.

Part of my process is seeing the settings I'm going to write about; physically being there, even if all I can manage is one or two days on location. From the first, when I was working as waitress, I would plan and save to take those all-important trips, not because I couldn't imagine the setting without seeing it, but because I knew that seeing it would help me make it real in ways I couldn't have imagined.

I could, for example, have probably hunted down photos of Ieper's main square, even fudged my way through a generic outdoor cafe scene in that square based on other cafe's that I'd eaten in elsewhere, but if I hadn't gone in person I'd have missed the neon splendour of the carnival set up there, with its dragon-headed roller coaster. Nor would I have known the way the wind felt, or the way the floor bounced underneath the table when the serving staff walked by, and I would have never met the little black-and-white cat who will doubtless work her way into the current book somehow.

Invariably, when I'm on location like this, I'll stumble over some small place or thing that grabs my interest and becomes the basis for a scene that I would otherwise have never thought to write.

For instance, walking past these Georgian houses each day on my recent trip to Edinburgh created an entirely new subplot in my novel that will influence the ending in a way I hadn't planned.

And stopping overnight in Eyemouth, a setting I'd used years ago for The Shadowy Horses, gave me time for a walk on the middle pier, letting me test out a couple of sightlines, which ended up making me choose a new setting for one vital scene in the current book.

I used to think that my wanting to be on-site had more to do with my needing the sensory details: the smells and the sounds and the feel of things. But it goes deeper than that. It's a part of my process, the way that I work. I don't think I could write what I write without being there.

What about you? If you write, what's the key to your process? And if you're a reader, is setting important to you, or do you focus more on the story and characters?

Oh, and just because Brigid, in ending her Thursday post, brought up the subject of our little meeting in London last month, here's a photo that shows one more reason why I love my research trips.. :-) (And of course, Brigid, I'll never divulge just how much wine we actually drank!)

Come back Thursday for Julie's next post (if she's not being hit by a hurricane...)


  1. That's one of the things I've always loved about your books, Susanna -- the authenticity of the settings. I completely understand the need to actually "walk the walk," because I'm much the same way.

    Since we as writers need constant stimulus to feed the "what-if?" parts of our brains, it makes complete sense to be in the location as much as possible. Breathing the air there breathes life into the work.

  2. I totally agree that it helps so much to actually go to the locations. Although you can imagine places by reading other people's descriptions of them or seeing photos, it's never going to be the same. And it's funny how those little extra scenes are so often triggered by something you see there - that happens to me too! Right now, I'm saving up for my next trip too ...

  3. Thankfully I'm writing about Cornwall and the part of it I know yet...I need to walk the walk, smell the sea, feel the rain and as you say it bring many thing things not just the concrete details of the setting.


    ps great pic :-)

  4. I am beginning to realise that I write better when I have been to the location and walked the walk. Smells and sounds you don't get unless you have actually been there.


    That was the only glass we had... and we only held it. Never drank a drop. Honest guv. Straight up.

  5. I really, really want to set a book in Haworth, Yorkshire. Google Streetview can only go so far. (sigh)