Friday, 27 June 2014

Time and Place

Triskele writers share their passion for time and place, plus some favourite books which have all three.

Barbara Scott Emmett

Why Rimbaud and the journey of his missing manuscript? Why there and why then?

Two French poets – mad, drunk, scruffy and wild – how could anyone resist them? I fell in love with Rimbaud the first time I saw a picture of him in a display about his time in Camden Town with his lover Paul Verlaine. When they fled to London they left behind both Verlaine’s young wife and Rimbaud’s long poem La Chasse Spirituelle. According to Verlaine it was the best thing Rimbe ever wrote. Sadly, as it’s been missing for over a hundred years, that can’t be verified.

But what if someone found it? My speculations about this possibility suggested the main idea for Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion.

I first visited Rimbaud’s home town in 1993 and have visited several times since. Charleville-Mézières is an ordinary medium sized town in Northern France, pretty without being spectacular, neat and bourgeois and full of civic pride. Rimbaud hated it – and said so (often scatalogically) in his letters. The idea of setting the main part of my novel there was irresistible. I loved the idea of the bizarre goings-on and hallucinatory experiences of the narrator, Andrea, being set against this formal and slightly conservative backdrop. Most of the places Andrea visits do really exist – the quiet river Meuse, the cobbled main square, the public gardens near the station – and in every one of them something strange happens. I set the novel in 2004 because that was the last time I went there and the town was starting to become more modern, more generic. I wanted to pin Charleville-Mézières in place before it changed any further though, inevitably, imagination and distorted dreams will have transformed the town into my own version of it.

Which book from your shelf do you feel demonstrates a strong sense of time/place?

The 18th century Venice of Scherzo by Jim Williams is quite possibly not at all like the real thing but it is a wonderful version of it. Hallucinatory and filled with intrigue, La Serenissima hides in the mists and miasmas that hover over her canals and seep into her alleyways; her citizens creep through her streets cloaked and masked. Dark deeds are performed by hidden hands and mystery abounds. Scherzo is ostensibly the story of a murder and its investigation but it is so much more; it is the evocation of a particular time and a particular place brought to life in more fascinating detail than mere brute reality could provide.

Catriona Troth

Is heritage and ancestry an important theme for you?

Maybe because I had such a peripatetic childhood, I always have a sneaking suspicion that people with deep connections to their roots have something that I’m missing. It would certainly explain why I identify so strongly with my Welsh heritage, even though I am only half Welsh, have never lived in Wales and don’t really speak the language. My grandmother (my ‘nain’) lived with us when I was growing up, so I heard Welsh being spoken all the time and could follow the gist of a conversation. I grew up with Welsh stories and the poetry of Dylan Thomas – and above all, with the (sloe black, Bible black) Welsh humour ringing in my ears.

So, yes, to actually answer the question, I do like to explore how characters connect with – or kick against, or try to rediscover – their various backgrounds.

Which book from your shelf do you feel demonstrates a strong sense of time/place?

A sense of time and place is something that I really connect with when I am reading a book. But I am going to pick one that maybe not so many people have heard of – and I choose it, not least because the author, like me, became a Canadian immigrant. It’s The Cowards by Josef Škvorecký.

The Cowards is set in a little town on the border between Slovakia and Germany, in the dying weeks of the Second World War. It perfectly captures what it’s like to be a teenager - self-obsessed, image conscious, writhing with hormones and muddled ideals. When all that comes hard up against the brutal realities of war, it’s as if Holden Caulfield has walked into the pages of Catch 22. It’s a book that deserves to be much, much better known.

Gillian Hamer

Is there any particular reason you choose to set your novels around North Wales and the island of Anglesey?

My dad has always loved North Wales. We think it's in the genes as his family are supposed to be from there originally. We ventured onto Anglesey when I was about ten. The first holiday I got mumps and it rained every day. Not the best start. But with good weather, nowhere in this country can beat the island. I adore the sea. It has echoes of Cornwall, the most stunning scenery, and an immense amount of history and legend which appeals to me as a writer. I find it so much easier to relax and write up there. Besides, it's a better option than writing about Birmingham!

Which book from your shelf do you feel demonstrates a strong sense of time/place?

I'm going to go with Sarah Waters - The Little Stranger. She is maybe not an obvious choice and it's not a particularly strong locale. I do like books that make you ache to visit a location, equally I like writing that burrows into a time and place and examines it so minutely that it brings it to life in your head. And in The Little Stranger not only is there an intense atmosphere throughout but the period and the landscape and in particular that house are so vivid and real. It stays with me. Brilliant writing.

JD Smith

Why did you choose to re-tell the story of Tristan & Iseult? What attracted you to their story?

All legends appeal to me, particularly those of which we know so little. The story of Tristan and Iseult (or Isolde) first appeared for me in Bernard Cornwell’s Arthurian trilogy. He interwove their tale so believably into a unique take on the history of Briton that I looked them up and discovered the various different accounts of the tale. Then when the film Tristan and Isolde, produced by Ridley Scott, hit the big screen, my interest in the tale was revived. I began writing my version shortly after I began writing the second in my Warrior Queen series, (Overlord, The Rise of Zenobia) which is based on third century Palymrene Queen Zenobia. I was hankering after writing something closer to home, about the wet and windy wild that is Britain.

Which book from your shelf do you feel demonstrates a strong sense of time/place?

Just one? Bernard Cornwell’s The Winter King plus so many more …

JJ Marsh

Which comes first, story or location? And which particular features create a sense of place?

Story, always. Or at least the bare bones of the plot. Then I audition various places before beginning to write. I have to know the setting, even before populating the novel with characters. The place IS a character.

I start with the senses. We notice sights, sounds and smells first, and add to our impressions with tastes and textures, all the while comparing them to our expectations. Food and drink are essential, as they reveal something of the region but also much about the characters. Cultural differences have to be treated with great care in fiction. Lumpen great dumps of information are poison to pace. But subtle observations can be woven into the story, provided they are relevant. I’ve just abandoned a book set in Rome which was clumsily pasted chunks of guidebook against a sub-par Eat, Pray, Love plot. The reader wants to be immersed in the storyworld, not subjected to the author’s holiday snaps.

Which book from your shelf do you feel demonstrates a strong sense of time/place?

Place: The White Woman on a Green Bicycle, by Monique Roffey. I know no other location which assumes its rightful place in a list of characters than Trinidad in this book.

Time: The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck. Superb depiction of circumstances and their effects of human nature.

Liza Perrat

How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?

My novels are set in the French rural area in which I live, which makes it much easier to evoke atmosphere. I take loads of photos of the countryside, the people and the buildings, during each different season. The local historical association has lots of sketches and documents on what it looked like through the ages. As I walk the dog, I jot down descriptions of sunrises, sunsets, stormy light, fruit on the trees, snow on the hills, flowers in spring and the icy river in winter.

Landscape, culture and food, certainly. But most of all, for me, it is the people who create a sense of location. Often, the people are the place. Also language, especially expressions, plays a part. Architecture too, gives a feel for a place.

Which favourite book on your shelf demonstrates a real sense of time and place?

Ooh, that’s a hard one; that goes for so many of my favourite books. But what comes first to mind is Kate Grenville’s Sarah Thornhill and The Secret River. I really felt I was back in early 19th century colonial Australia.


  1. Interesting. I'm surprised no one mentioned Gerald Durrell - My Family and Other Animals. I was crazy to go to Corfu after I read that and begged my parents, but my mother wouldn't eat 'foreign muck'. Then it turned into a party island and it was too late. Ah well.

  2. Thanks, Sue, that sounds like another to add to the TBR pile!

  3. Sue, I loved Gerald Durrell and credit him with much of my love for creatures. I still call magpies Magenpies and admire dung beetles. He really does take you into the heart of the island, the family and himself. Good call!