National Trust Hardwick Hall behind a field of yellow flowers

The importance of place in storytelling

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be at the New Writing North Newcastle Writing Conference and attend a fascinating panel event, featuring authors Karen Powell and Tawseef Khan. For both, the settings of their novels are intrinsically bound to the landscape. In Fifteen Wild Decembers, the bond between the wild Yorkshire Moors and Emily Brontë is central. And in Determination, Tawseef described his debut novel about an immigration lawyer as a love-letter to Manchester. Listening to these two fascination authors, it got me thinking – what is the importance of place in storytelling?

How important is the setting to a story?

And like most things I believe the answer is – it depends. Not very helpful right? Okay, let me explain. I think it depends on the genre you’re enjoying. If I want to read a fast-paced thriller I’m more interested in the characters and the action. Yes, you need a certain amount of information to visualise the scene but if the writer includes ‘X peered along the poorly lit, garbage-strewn New York back-alley and shuddered’ you don’t need much else. The Big Apple is a real place, it features in countless books, films, and TV series.

But what about the fantasy genre? Here the writer must work far harder as they build a world for their characters to inhabit, and the reader understands. Think about the rich descriptions of The Shire, Minas Tirith or Rivendell in Lord of the Rings. The whole book centres on the struggle of good versus evil and the battle to save Middle Earth. If J.R.R. Tolkien hadn’t convey the importance of the characters love of the landscape as well, would readers care as much if the fictitious world was saved or perished?

A sense of place in space and time

And then we turn to historical fiction, here it is vital to describe the place. What if your reader has no knowledge of that time. How do you expect then to connect to your story. Sure, you can do that through character dialogue and their clothing but why not introduce specific landscape features e.g. deeply rutted cart tracks if cars are yet to be invented. The author Rachel Hore is extremely adept at pulling off this feat and as her novels often jump between time periods it becomes even more important. A Week in Paris and The Memory Garden are two such examples.

The importance of place in my storytelling

The importance of place in my storytelling is vital and I is almost a character in its own right. The Apokeri Bay trilogy hinges on a young woman falling in love with the Greek island of Lefkada and a fictitious fishing village nestled at the bottom of a steep, switchback road. There is such a strong connection to the place that she forsakes her life in the UK to start again. And all events built on this love of place and its people.

If my writing fails to transport the reader to this quaint enclave full of secrets the connection between the reader and the action weakens. Who is going to love the story more, someone who has a vague understanding that the story is set on a Greek island or the reader who can almost smell the freshly baked bread, hear the sea lapping against the shore, taste the sweet and flaky baklava or touch the rough stonework of the higgledy-piggledy village houses. And it goes without saying you must have a captivating story and fascinating three-dimensional characters. If not, what’s the point?

Inspiring landscapes help the writing process

The importance of place at National Trust Clumber Park

This week I went on a two-day National Trust adventure. It has grown to be somewhat of an annual tradition to flick through the handbook and select fascinating properties and landscapes to explore. This year it was the turn of Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire and discover a spectacular 16th century house and the formidable Bess of Hardwick who built it. She must have been extremely tenacious to become one of the most powerful women under the reign of Elizabeth I.  Unsurprisingly, this fascinating woman is the focus of many books.

Our second property was Clumber Park, Notts with its magnificent lake, beautiful walled garden, peaceful gothic chapel and vibrant rhododendrons in full bloom. Strolling around places steeped in history is utterly captivating to me as it fires my creativity. Are you like me and invest stories about those who’ve gone before? Do you imagine stepping into their shoes and wondering how you’d cope with their daily lives? And by studying the landscape do you decide how to capture the atmosphere or describe dramatic features in the landscape? Do not underestimate the importance of place in storytelling. Every place has a story to tell. You only need to pay attention.