Writing #Location as #Character

 

West Pier 1929
Picture courtesy Of Royal Pavilion Museums, Brighton & Hove

In many works of fiction, location is so vital to the heart of the book, it’s essentially another ‘character’. This doesn’t apply to all novels, but in others the author  creates a location, just like a character, that’s incredibly memorable whether real or imaginary. To me this is part of the beauty of reading – I’m transported to Leningrad  in Helen Dunmore’s The Siege, Newfoundland in Annie Proulx’s Shipping News, or to a mythical place  “off the edge of the map” in the sizzling debut novel Snake Ropes, by Jess Richards.

As a writer, I think about the location almost before anything else. To me, that sets the scene, and from there the theme and characters can grow and live and become as three-dimensional as characters in a novel can be.

I currently live in Brighton UK. It’s on the south coast of England and is surrounded by the chalky cliffs of the South Downs. Think ‘White Cliffs of Dover’, and that’s what they look like. There have been a number of novels and films set here, the most famous being Graham Greene’s ‘Brighton Rock’.

The book was written in 1938, and the original film made in 1947 with a very young Richard Attenborough as ‘Pinkie.’

West Pier Brighton 9th Dec. 1973
by Slbs

The underworld of violence and crime is juxtaposed against the perception of Brighton as a fashionable resort only fifty miles away from London.  In the film,   location is key  – Brighton railway station with the beautiful arched ironwork, characteristic Brighton architecture of tall, sweeping  terraces  painted cream, and of course the pier, where many scenes, including the finale are filmed. My most vivid memory from first reading the book as a teenager, was Pinkie pouring vitriol onto the wooden railing of the pier to frighten his girlfriend – what would happen if it was thrown in her face! Scary stuff back then.

English: West Pier on fire, March 28, 2003, Br...

West Pier on fire, March 28, 2003, Brighton, UK. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There used to be two piers in Brighton – the West Pier, and the Palace Pier. The West Pier was closed in 1975, and burnt down in 2003.The remaining Pier is now simply called Brighton Pier. But the West Pier, now the town’s very own metal sculpture, stranded about 50 yards from the shore, has become an icon as well as something of a bird sanctuary. In the winter a murmeration of starlings appears and swirls between the two piers finally coming to land on the West Pier.

In thinking of location as a key part of a novel, as vital as the main protagonist, I thought about the West Pier as that character. Starting as the darling of the Victorian era, coming into her heyday when the British seaside tourist trade gets under way in the 1920’s and 30’s. Eventually, like an aging dowager she starts to get a little tarnished and shunned by everyone. She falls into disrepair, and is closed off. Finally, in mirroring the fate of Miss Faversham in Great Expectations, the West Pier is set alight, and any thought of restoration vanishes .

 

 Brighton West Pier at sunset with a f...

Brighton West Pier at sunset with a murmeration of starlings

Once she’s stripped to a skeletal structure, she takes her place in today’s history as a modern sculpture, a new landmark icon for the city of Brighton.

What a story you could weave around the life and death of the West Pier. Mmmm… maybe for my next novel.

Now it’s your turn. Is location important to you when you read a novel? If you wrote a book set in the place you live, what kind of novel would it be? 

I’d love to hear your ideas.

West Pier, Brighton. Hand-tinted by A.K.Andrew

 

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Comments

  1. Absolutely – location and the vividness of the realm of your story is vital. I argued the same for music recently on my blog capecodscribe.wordpress.com

    Great observation!!! Well done!

  2. Now you have gotten me interested in Brighton. There is a Brighton, MA; it is a neighborhood of Boston. Does not look at all like this.

    I love learning about a new location through a novel. One of my favorite novelists in Aharon Applefeld; he wrote about the Carpathian Mountains, where he lived as a child.
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    • Hi Leora – it’s always bizarre having two places named the same being so completely different – which obviously happens a lot between England and the east coast. Boston in England is a small town in Lincolnshire (http://www.bostonuk.com/ actually there’s a great video in the bottom left corner of that site made in 1951. Lots of people on bicycles & cattle being brought to market).
      I will have to look up Aharon Applefeld – I know little about the area around the Carpathians. Virtual travel – so much easier than hauling luggage! Thanks for your comment.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Writing Location as CharacterMy Profile

  3. The title of my forthcoming novel is Lost Girl Road. That’s an actual name of a road in the woods of northwest Montana’s Bull River Valley. It’s going to be a ghost story. The serenity and also the creepiness of those woods formed such a huge impression on me as a child. For over a decade I wanted to write a book based on the name of that road.

    I love the Shipping News. It’s one of my favorite books. I also love how Wallace Stegner usess setting as an integral part of his writing. Come to think of it, most of my favorite books treat setting almost like a character. I guess that is why my writing tends to do the same.
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    • Hi Jeri – good to see you here. Lost Girl Road was just crying out for someone to write a novel set around it. Do you know the actual history of the name? Sounds creepy like the woods you describe. Totally perfect for a ghost story. Whenever I walk in the woods I always think what it would be like at night and what you’d see. They are naturally frightening, but I wonder how much of that comes from tales we heard as children like Little Red Riding Hood.
      I love location & can’t imagine writing a book where it would be insignificant. I agree with the point you made that as authors, we’re influenced by the style we enjoy reading ourselves.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Writing Location as CharacterMy Profile

      • As of yet, I don’t know the history behind the name. It’s an old dirt road, so I hope I can ask around when I head to Montana in August. Online research has turned up very little. If my grandpa was still around he’d be the best person to ask.
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  4. Peg Cadigan says:

    For me it’s the main character! Landbase is critical and so many things will be happening due to climate choas that it can be the initiating person if seen as responding to the efforts of the other characters.

    • Hi Peg – Thanks so much for the comment. Sounds like a really interesting book you’re writing , if I’m ‘reading’ you correctly – climate chaos is totally going to centre the novel around landscape, or should I say changing landscape. It’s in our lives , so why not include it in fiction. I like the idea of seeing it responding to what others are doing. That in itself emulates character interaction.Thanks for stopping by.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Writing Location as CharacterMy Profile

  5. I combined the town where I grew up, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, with features from the geography of the Puget Sound area of Western Washington where I now live to create a fictional town called Wetside for my novel Reunion at the Westside. The name comes from Washingtonians calling the west side of the state the wet side and the east side the dry side. I had to draw a very detailed map of the town and place every scene where action takes place; the protagonist’s apartment, a bar and a restaurant, a park, and so forth.

    • That sounds fantastic Alec – keep me posted as to when it might come out. You must have had fun mixing the two places. It’s like a 3 dimensional puzzle trying to fit all those pieces together. I think actually drawing the town of Wetside would have made it more real in your mind & therefore to the reader. Good idea. Thanks for the comment and coming by the site.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Writing Location as CharacterMy Profile

  6. I couldn’t agree more about the power of place, though I think I would add time to that. In your own description of the Brighton pier, time moves the story. My birth as an adult writer came one day when I sat down and wrote about an abandonned football stadium in Chicago that was part of our daily walk to and from school. We told stories about the secrets it held and lived for the days when a door would pop open and give us a peek inside. Then the doors at the west end did open more and more often. It was in the middle of WWII, so we made up war stories about Japanese and German spies and war secrets. One day, on the way back to school after lunch we stood transfixed –a squad of soldiers marched back and forth on the empty street in front of the west stands. Behind those doors, we learned three years later, they were pulling the rods on the first atomic pile. We were watching the beginning of the age that would shape our adulthood. Time and place came together with a jolt whose importance I really didn’t discover until I sat down and wrote that essay. It made a writer of me, and for me, place creates stories.

    • What a fantastic story Judy – truly. Not only to prompt your writing career, but also that you were witnessing history in the making. Not to mention as a child, talk about having a ‘secret’ place! I’ll be interested to know if you did include the stadium and what was happening there in any of your adult work. Thank you so much for the comment. Hope to see you again. 🙂
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Writing Location as CharacterMy Profile

  7. We too live in Brighton and it’s an ideal location for a novel as its sense of place is derived from a layering of ‘inhabitants’… families, business people, commuters (mainly to London), holidaymakers and then those that function on the edges of society the city being the site of criminal activity, drugs use etc. True of many cities but bought in to a sharper focus in Brighton – and in Brighton Rock- by the close proximity of joyous holiday making and potential violence and wrong doing. Your question – what kind of novel would I write set in the place that I live- has set me thinking and the response is too long and rambling for a blog response but thank you for engaging my creative mind in to gear early in the morning! I’m now off to explore more of your posts.
    The Bear recently posted..The Lark…..ascendingMy Profile

    • Hi fellow Brightonian! I think you’ve clarified well the layering that is Brighton. I am so glad that I prompted you into creative thought – it’s made my day actually! Thanks for the comment and hope to see you here again. 🙂
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Writing Location as CharacterMy Profile

  8. AK, I would write a book set all over the world predominantly in places I have lived. Would have an international plot, most likely because that’s how I have lived my life.
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  9. Absolutely location is very important. For me it helps make the characters come alive. I am a huge sci-fi fan so locations are typically fictional places. However, some stories are set in real places making them that much more interesting. I think you are spot on that location is like a character itself.
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    • I’m glad you agree, and actually in sci-fi it’s almost more important than real places, as it needs to be completely imagined in the readers mind. I haven’t read a lot of sci-fi, but each time I do I ask myself whyI don’t read more The different reality of the location is one of the main reasons I enjoy it. Thanks so much for the comment.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Writing Location as CharacterMy Profile

  10. Hi Kathy,

    Great observations and ideas here, particularly like the image of the aging west pier. I looked into the history of the pier, years ago, and found out that (if memory serves) Spike Milligan bought it for a pound. It has passed through many hands and been irreparable. There was once also a chain pier, which was destroyed in a storm. And I think in wartime the pier was cut in half, in case the enemy invaded dressed in punch and judy outfits, thus fooling our seafront revelers, presumably.

    And memories of locals with personification of location…

    I remember friends of mine swimming out to the pier, while the scaffolds were up but the bridge part had been removed. This was quite some time before the arson attack. They climbed up and had a barefoot look inside. They came back, telling me she was filled with bird poo and wreckage. They also came back with a piece of her, a small metal chunk that was shaped like a small rib. And given the mass of her skeletal structure, I think she may not miss it. That stolen piece is now in a garden, hidden in a rockery, hidden under bramble. It is only visible in winter. I wonder how many Brightonians may have a bone or two of hers, hidden away.

    Keep blogging Kathy, fab stuff as ever, Jessx

    • Hey! good to see you here Jess. Thanks for the comment, which I found more interesting than my post… I knew about the chain pier, but the image of the Germans invading in Punch & Judy outfits is a new one on me – that has to be included in a story somewhere. It must have been totally awesome to have gone inside the pier before she was burned down. From old pictures I’ve seen, she really was much more dazzling than the Palace Pier ever was. But towns change & as business moved away from that end of town… The arson attack was awful but as renovation had a slim chance at best, at least we’re left with an iconic structure. Where’s your gravatar Jess? They’re very easy to set up. A must for a published author!! x
      ps – posted this right after you posted but didn’t register as a reply to you – computers-mmmm
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Writing Location as CharacterMy Profile

  11. Without question. The location gives me a place to start my imagination. I fill in the parts that aren’t described and I am then off on the journey of reading the novel. All that enriches the experience of the read.

    What would I write if I use my current location? Gosh, about the simple pleasures of everyday life. 🙂
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    • Thanks Susan – good to see you here again. That is part of the pleasure of reading isn’t it – filling in all those blanks. Actually I guess you already are writing about your current location in your blog – half way to a novel already!
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Writing Location as CharacterMy Profile

  12. Yes, I think location is very important and it needs to suit the theme of the book. A romantic setting could well mean a nice walk in your neighbourhood, AK – it sounds divine. That said, the author needs to be very well conversant with the location chosen – should have lived/visited it and must be aware of the culture, the very soul and spirit of that place, or at least must have done adequate research about that location.
    Capturing the spirit of a location can be tough, but it makes for a beautiful book.
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    • Thanks so much for your comment Lubna. I like what you say about the very soul & spirit of the place. When I was writing about Bologna for Radio Echo, I gained so much from going there. By chance I was there for the April 24th Liberation Day celebration and heard a speech by a ma who’s been a member of the Resistance during WW II. I taped it while I was in the crowd. It’s in Italian and although I haven’t been able to translate it accurately it was enough. Very moving. I was also able to buy some books of the damage to the city & life in general that would never have been available to me here. But I also found the custodian in the Jewish Museum very helpful and we exchanged emails afterwards that clarified things for me. I thought I’d already done enough research, but clearly I hadn’t. Thank goodness for the internet, as well as libraries too.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Writing Location as CharacterMy Profile

  13. Location is certainly important to the fiction I *read.* If I’m not somehow drawn into the setting of a novel, odds are I’m not going to find as much pleasure reading about its denizens, for reasons you mention above- “from there the theme and characters can grow and live.”

    In my own writing however, my characters exist and live long before I know where they are. Not sure I can even wrap my head around the how and how of that, lol, but it’s true none the less. I have a huge, widely varied cast of characters in my mind at any given time just waiting for me to create a tangible place for them to inhabit.
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    • Thanks for your comment – it was interesting too to hear the way you work. A lot of writers I know start with character first, others the theme, and others the plot. As long as it all gets there in the end I think it’s important to work in whatever way works for you, despite what the how to” books say. I’ve enjoyed learning the tools of the trade, and did a 2 yr certificate in Creative Writing at the University of Sussex, which was invaluable. I think eventually you have to put your own mark on the way you work. Sounds like you definitely have. Thanks for dropping by.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Writing Location as CharacterMy Profile

  14. Totally agree that location is more than just important, it is in many ways the core. One of my writing heros is John Braine who wrote Room at the Top – location important – you say? In my thriller, A Bridge to Treachery – I found that the location of the story helped to drive the narrative. By setting the central action of the story in the woods and hills surrounding the Bear Mountain Bridge, I had to be true to the actual terrain – how long it would take to traverse? – could fugitives really hide out there? – how could one escape a police dragnet there? etc. The location required me to answer these questions.

    • Thanks for the comment Larry – I’ve also found location driving the narrative. In your case it must have been real interesting trying to work out the scenarios you mention. I wonder if you did that yourself – not knowing the location, not sure how hard that would be. Really like the title of both the novel & the bridge. I will check it out. Thanks for stopping by.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Writing Location as CharacterMy Profile

  15. I always respond to location when I’m reading; I want to have a clear idea in my mind’s eye of the place the characters and action are in. I’ve found I use setting and idiosyncracies of of place in my own work a great deal too as it can add extra flavour to the action and emotion.

    • I find it incredibly important too Rowena – characters and location bounce off each other, but the small details are what really bring it alive. Good to see you here – thanks for your comment. Another time leave your latest blog title with comment luv (below the post) so others can easily see where to find you.)
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Writing Location as CharacterMy Profile

  16. I love the idea of starting with a location that means a lot to you and then developing a
    story around that. I’ve never thought about crafting a story that way before. In a way you could make the location the protagonist…very interesting.
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  17. Location plays an important part for me. For me, the location of the novel affects the personalities of the different characters, from the way that they speak to how they dress and even how they would relate with the other characters.

    If I were going to be using the area where I live as the setting of a novel, it would probably be a novel about the loss of innocence of a young woman. In a sense, that was pretty much what happened to our neighborhood. It used to be a safe and pretty place. Lots of trees. When I got to my college years, however, the local government here decided to commercialize the area. Now it is littered with bar after bar after bar filled with rowdy people every night.
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    • What you’ve told me sounds like life imitating art! Actually it sounds very sad – you want a neighborhood to change for the better not worse, but there’s definitely a story in there waiting to be told. I completely agree that location is vital to the characters too – as you say even down to how they relate to other characters. Thanks so much for your comment. Good to see you here.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Writing Location as CharacterMy Profile

  18. Place and time is so important when I write stories. I think that’s why I’ve had such a hard time writing this book I’m working on. The setting just never felt right to me; I’ve probably gone through three different ones now. Initially the setting was my hometown, then a river town I made up in my head, then a real river town I visited when I was a kid with family. Then I saw an article in the newspaper about a museum my hometown created, and they talked about how my hometown used to run a train depot in the ’40s. Suddenly, I started imagining what my story would be like set in the 40s in my hometown, and something just felt right about it. Although I know absolutely nothing about culture, vernacular, or fashion in the 40s, I thought my hometown’s museum would be a good place to start my research. Unfortunately, it also means I have to learn what the judicial system was like back then. Oi. I’m not sure if this setting will end up being the right one, but I at least have to pursue it. I suppose that’s the only way I’ll find out.
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    • I found your process both fascinating and familiar Lauren. It can take a while before you get the right location, but once you’ve found it you know that’s the story that was waiting to be told. I wouldn’t be put off by the ‘unknowns’ of the era – I think you’ll find people pretty helpful- especially librarians and museums. Actually I think the research is half the fun! Let me know what you do finally decide. Thanks so much for your comment Hope to see you here again.
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