Rosanne Dingli

Rosanne Dingli

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Inspiring locations

Authors are often asked on interviews where they find their inspiration. Some find that question hard to answer, since seasoned writers can find triggers in almost everything: nature, real life situations, observation of behaviours, and more. In fact, anything to do with the human condition can get a seasoned author thinking creatively.

Overlooking Grand Harbour, Malta
I have often said that words themselves can drive me to write: a great sentence read in a newspaper article, a long-lost proverb, a line out of a play or song, or something as prosaic as a billboard can form the basis of a whole chapter or short story.

But nothing inspires me in the same way as a good location. More than the visual aspects alone, I can be captivated by what more imaginative people sometimes call the 'spirit of a place'. My pragmatic nature shies from words such as 'spirit', but I do hold that places are much more than what one can see in them.

A visit to a location sets off a series of questions in my writer's mind, and they are to do with history, origin, and the various footsteps that tramped that place through the years; the eyes that saw it, and the various stories that might have taken place in the very spot where one stands with one's camera.

Take this picture on the right. I stood right there in 2004, and waited until dusk bathed Grand Harbour, in Valletta with a veil of darkness, which was suddenly transformed by golden floodlights that turned the whole magnificent inlet into quite another place. The battlements and bastions were turned upside down in the water, and even the plainly practical port structures such as cranes looked romantic and meaningful. I had to use that scene - but more than just a scene: I had to use that feeling.

I gave the sentiment to a protagonist in a novel that will be released soon: I made him stand right in that spot, taking photos and feeling the enormous shunt the sheer history of a place can give a person. It's like a kick in the derriere that puts one little life into perspective. In the face and presence of some locations - and the essence packed into them - everything is pushed willy-nilly into perspective.

When the characters in my fiction have a problem, I send them to some magnificent place. I make them stand in some location where many before them have experienced drama: politics, romance, religion, ethics, the personal drama of relationships. All these are dwarved by the magnificence and meaningfulness of place. Place outlives them all, yet absorbs them all, and becomes imbued with their essence.

We could all make lists of locations that seem to embody history and drama. Yet there is not one square mile in any country that could be said to be free of history, politics, religion, personal drama and romance.

Pic courtesy
My forthcoming novel Camera Obscura (click to read Chapter One) is more than any other of my works of fiction, perhaps, concerned with the magic of locations. Scenes take place in  medieval places such as Mdina, where ancient portals can mystify the traveller, and Le Havre, in France (left), where constant change is just as intriguing and engaging. Compare this little photo with the big painting on top - yes, it's the same place, but what a difference! The same person, the same artist, the same novelist, can experience different feelings, even when visiting the same place on different occasions, or with a different companion, or with another camera.

Novels would be nothing without the places in which they take place. Whether these are real ones the reader can visit, or totally fabricated by some very imaginative author, the place must contain the story and magnify it. The importance of this cannot be emphasized too much.

How do locations in books affect you, as a reader?

If you are an author, how much time do you spend researching a good place in which to anchor your story?

Leave a comment - a discussion about locations would be fascinating.
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  1. Writers and locations become associated with one another. Think Grahame Greene and seedy outposts of the British Empire; Somerset Maugham and the Pacific; John Galsworthy and the Britain of class and upper crust; while Michener built his prolific career on specific countries. I could not have set my story 'Dark Places, Deep Regions' anywhere except Papua New Guinea just prior to Independence. Setting was an intrinsic part of the theme. Writers help broaden our knowledge of places we never knew, allowing vicarious travel from the comfort of home.

  2. Goodness, yes, Margaret - that is such a good observation. And when I think of Virginia Woolf and how she felt about her various houses, John Steinbeck and the Salinas Valley, and Thomas Mann and how he gave us Death in Venice... there is a another blog in this. Or perhaps a book!

  3. Hi Rossanne, I agree entirely about being so affected by a place and its history. I collect enormous amounts of pamphlets and booklets when I travel so I have good references to the places I remember. I can remember what I see and how it made me feel, but then I need the facts of the place too. Haven't yet used many of these in my books, but there is no "used-by" date on anything for a writer.

  4. Venice was such a character in According to Luke. I felt the feelings I felt when we visited there some years back. Lst night husband and I were watching The book Show- an old one we hadn't got around to watching and they were talking about this sense of place being a character in Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca.I could visualise that house and atmosphere again and it is years since I read that book.
    People have commented too that I obviously knew the area of the Central West where Streets on a Map is set very well, even though the town of Astley itself is fictional.

  5. Shirley, sounds like you will soon come up with a well-located novel to me!

    Dale - Streets on a Map certainly has that atmosphere. I have lived in country towns in NSW and did feel it. Writers can only come up with that 'sense of place' if they are experienced and understand how to weave atmosphere into event.

  6. I wonder if the Grand Harbour influences you more because it is part of your origins? I fully agree that associations formed with a place, be they positive or negative, can give any author the fuel for creativity. It's a good thing this happens, otherwise books could get incredibly boring. As an author one is, after all, trying to share ideas, feelings, likes, dislikes and so on every bit as much as conveying a plot, atmosphere and things about people. How much less possible that would be if all the associations that we use as triggers to write were removed. There wouldn't be much left to write about.
    Imagine ATL without any churches, canals, bells, narrow alleys, piazas, laboratories, libraries and so on.
    No, on second thoughts don't imagine that; it spoils a beautiful tale exquisitely told. Carry on loving your locations and sharing them in the full colour of your words.

  7. You're right about the impact of locations, Rosanne. Lots of places I've visited have appeared in my stories and novels. I tend to have a snapshot picture in my head and in it goes with a few tweaks from my imagination. Given I mostly write fantasy and science fiction tweaks are usually required. The other things I find inspiring are nature documentaries - the high quality ones like David Attenborough's. It's partly the location again but it's also the intensity of the detail of the natural world they bring out.

  8. I always try and showcase Aussie settings in my novels. Just a taste of what this beautiful country offers to those who haven't been and wish they could be here. I've covered the "bush/outback", the Gippsland lakes in Victoria, Melbourne, the pastoral Western District of Victoria, the Great Barrier Reef and am about to set a trilogy around Beechworth in Victoria's north east hilly gold country.
    I also love to read and learn about other places and countries through novels which is why I so enjoyed your Death In Malta, Rosanne. It gave such a true flavour of the season and the village and its people. Deeply engaging and almost a character in itself. So, yes, setting is important to me both as a reader and a writer.