On Writing: the importance of setting

Once a week, on a Wednesday, I appear on a community radio show, ‘CakEhole with Julie Mullen,’ and we talk about all things to do with novels and writing for fifteen minutes. It is one of the highlights of my week as Julie is so much fun to chat with. Based on our conversations, I thought I’d blog a little about the craft of writing.

I’ve belonged to several writing groups over the years and for me, it’s important to be part of a collaborative group that shares both the process and the end product of writing. During the MA, I realised how much better a writer I might become by working with other skilful, creative people. At that time, five years ago, I was lucky enough to know a group of writers that included performance poets and artists. I made great friends and was truly inspired at the same time. 

Then I moved house and sought out a new group to share ideas with. I fell on my feet when I discovered a local group, all keen, talented, and super-supportive. They write in a variety of styles and genres, which gives me much to think about and learn. They astound me every time I hear their work, helping me to consider the impact of my own writing and to constantly strive to make progress. At the moment we can’t meet regularly, but we post our writing on a Facebook page to each other once a month.

Recently I joined a Zoom writing group and that has been a really useful opportunity. Led by an experienced author, we share our work each week and we encourage each other to develop and learn. At the moment, we are discussing the importance of how writers use setting in novels and I’ve enjoyed listening to the many viewpoints. A book of our shared work will be published imminently.

One person in the group said she loved stories about locations she knew well: she found it satisfying to read about a familiar place, one that she’d visited herself. Someone else suggested that a completely new setting might be more interesting, dicovering a different place, a fresh experience. Then people considered fantasy settings, exotic settings and, of course, in this lockdown time, places where we dreamed of being.

Our discussion moved to how a setting can tell us something about the inhabitant, and we attempted the fun exercise of creating any setting we wished, then we would choose someone else’s location and create the character who might exist there. It was really interesting to read everyone’s ideas.

I selected another writer’s choice of a garden, where a hungry visitor had come to forage. It was, probably intended to be the home of an animal such as a fox or hedgehog, so I created a completely different character who was standing at the edge of this grassland, looking for food to feed her or his young.

Here is my response to the above stimulus:

He tugged the blanket around his shoulders as a blast of icy wind sliced through the thin fabric. The woollen hat warmed his scalp but his eyes watered and he still shivered. His skin was leathery now; the days in the camps, the exposure to wind and rain, then harsh sunlight, had made him tougher, leaner, and deprivation had brought a strange gleam to his eyes.

At least there was grass here in the garden. Back at the camp, it was just mud, tents and heaped rubble, little to eat, meagre shelter from the rain. Mahmoud and Amira needed food, they cried during the night and here, at the edge of a farm, there might be pickings. He was desperate; the raw, aching hunger in his belly was constant now.

He gazed down at his legs, thin as poles in torn jeans and, as he passed a hand across the roughness of his face, he recalled that back in Damascus he had filled his clothes well: he had taken pride in his trimmed beard and glossy hair. Even without a mirror, he knew that the itchy bristles beneath the hat held dirt, his cheekbones were sharp: a front tooth was missing: he rarely smiled now. But, even worse, pride, dignity had slunk from his shoulders, and a hunched man begging for food stood in his place at the edge of a desolate farm in Calais. Farid held himself stiffly against the cutting wind with no idea of what he would do next.

The reason I love working with this writing group so much is that we can examine the importance of elements of writing, like setting. We considered how much location influences us as writers, then we considered the impact of what we’d written on readers. We honed our own skills, shared our work and developed understanding of how setting can influence the readers’ experience or enjoyment of a novel.

A strong setting can transport a reader to a place where new and exciting experiences may readily happen: a setting may inspire dread or delight. Creating an interesting and appropriate location is part of a writer’s toolbox, to fire the reader’s imagination. In my latest novel, Chasing the Sun, setting is all-important: in these times where travel abroad is limited, a story where the central character has adventures in Spain and Mexico can transport readers to a sun-soaked destination where the sights, the food and the culture are absorbing.

As a writer, it’s really good fun to try and evoke different places, then the next step is to consider the characters who might inhabit them……

‘Chasing the Sun’: travelling to two gorgeous locations and finding fabulous festivals, fun and food.

As the worst of lockdown is over, despite wide predictions of another possible ‘wave’, we are all looking forward to the summer and the chance to travel again, whether it is to the nearest beach, or to see much-missed friends, or to somewhere distant but safe. It will be lovely to spend time in the summer warmth after a cold, socially distant winter, and we all need to celebrate with much-missed friends and family. It has been tough for most people, and even tougher for so many more.

When I wrote ‘Chasing the Sun, the novel came from a desire to take my readers to stunning locations. From the cold separation of locked down Britain, I wanted to offer the warmth and fun of Spain and Mexico, the chance to join Molly and her sister Nell on their holidays in the sunshine. Molly, a widow, realises on her seventieth birthday that she is restless and doesn’t know where her life is taking her. It’s a perfect reason for a journey of self-discovery, chasing the sun metaphorically, and location is everything.

The great thing about going on holiday is the chance to kick back, relax and enjoy life a little: Molly and Nell spend time on the beach, sampling good food and wine. They visit fabulous locations and meet interesting people; there is the opportunity for fun, mischief and romance. I hope that the reader will enjoy going with them and sharing some of the things they enjoy.

In Spain, Molly eats octopus. I’ve never eaten ‘pulpo’ and although I do research many things by trying them out, but this is definitely not one of them. The sisters enjoy the best Spain can offer them, including sunsets, beaches, boat trips and sangria. I’ve tried all of those…

Then Molly moves on to Mexico, and I was lucky while writing ‘Chasing the Sun’ that my son was living in Mexico City. I’ve been to Mexico myself, but it was useful to be able to call him and ask questions about the local climate, what time the sun sets, what does the local mole taste like. He was the source of all sorts of useful research information, including inside information about El Día de Los Muertos, as he was there during the celebrations and could talk to Mexican people about the cultural importance and vibrancy of The Day of the Dead. I wanted to bring the local colour to readers.

When I created the tapas bar, Sabores, meaning Flavours, I tried to bring a very different taste of Mexico through a plant-based café that served new and exciting dishes. I have made all of them myself, and I’ve included a few recipes at the end of the book, just in case some readers were interested in trying them. The carrot canapé is quite easy, and most of the others aren’t too difficult except for the vegan scotch egg, which is fiddly. Most ingredients aren’t hard to source, especially by using the internet, and the plant-based chorizo using vital wheat gluten and the cashew cream cheese are well worth the effort. I hope readers will enjoy sampling some new food.

The most exciting thing for me during the journey to Mexico, even more thrilling than dancing the bachata and riding horses Western-style, is visiting Chichén Itzá. It is a very atmospheric and beautiful place so, when Molly goes there to see the sun rise with two friends, I wanted to express how breathtaking it is there.

In short, I’d love us all to fly off on a plane to Spain and Mexico right now if it was safe, but it isn’t. So, it seemed to me, that the best way to travel is vicariously, through the pages of a book, and to enjoy good times with Molly and Nell. Molly’s attempts to chase the sun take her to two wonderful sun-soaked locations. The beaches, the food, the people and the culture of both Spain and Mexico are charming and fascinating. I hope you’ll enjoy travelling there between the pages and that, for you too, the summer will be one of sunshine, laughter and fun, whatever the coming months bring.

My next novel, Chasing the Sun

Originally given the working title The Hokey Cokey Woman, I set out to write a story about Molly, a seventy-year-old widow who leaps into situations with complete abandon, later realising that what she’s chosen isn’t for her and she should have considered all options and thought more wisely. But part of Molly’s charm is that she’s spontaneous; she is caring, full of positivity, enthusiasm and she has natural joie de vivre. In the novel, she finds herself in several situations that are the result of her impetuosity, because she acts before she has thought out the consequences. Although her spontaneity might be endearing, and she has boundless energy and enthusiasm, her life isn’t perfect: she’s always seeking something new, chasing something elusive, but she doesn’t always know what it is.

Nell, her half-sister, is a few years younger, wiser and more sensible. But when her own seemingly-solid marriage is in crisis, she appears on Molly’s doorstep, her world suddenly shaken.The husband who had become part of the fabric of her life wants something else and Nell is shocked that the comfortable existence she knew is in the past.

Molly’s reaction is to leap straight into a new adventure, to change the scenery in order to prevent Nell from further heartache, so she drags her off to Spain for a holiday. They have a wonderful time, although Molly’s impetuosity leads her into a few more scrapes, but they both make new friends and initially life appears idyllic. However, after a while, Molly has itchy feet and she yearns to move on and to discover more.

I am always interested in the themes of companionship and love, and how different people make different choices about whether to stay single or to choose to be in a relationship: loneliness can affect us all, whatever our age. Molly is a widow, she is independent and has learned to live alone, so she doesn’t stop to consider whether being single is a problem. Nell, however, has had a partner in her life for forty years: she hasn’t known solitude before and being by herself is a novelty. So what interests me in this part of the story is the way both women react to the choices of new love and friendship. Are friends needed to keep loneliness at bay? Is any partner better than no partner at all? Or can solitude and self-reliance be an alternative to loneliness: sometimes we find satisfaction in being alone, and sometimes we yearn for love and companionship. Both Molly and Nell face decisions about their future paths several times in the novel and their responses are very different.To live life independently or to accept a new partner, that is the question. As one character says, being single is not the opposite of being happy. And as the other suggests, once you have tasted champagne, why would you opt for flat lemonade? So the title Chasing the Sun is not simply about wanting to be in warmer climes, it is also about how the characters consider bringing warmth into the cold empty space of their own lives.

The setting of the novel was also an important choice. I began writing Chasing the Sun at the start of lockdown, having previously intended to go to Spain for a few days to practise speaking Spanish and to research the location. When the trip was cancelled, I researched the coastal area of Murcia online. 

I’d been to Mexico several years ago and my son was living there at the time that I was writing the novel, so I took my character there, to a location and a culture where I had some background knowledge already, which was a useful starting point for research. I wanted to offer the reader the chance to experience vibrant, sunshine-filled locations and a rich cultural heritage as a form of escape from what had become the lockdown norm. My intention was that if we can’t go on holiday physically, then we’ll go vicariously, with a character in a novel. 

To that end, I hope the readers will enjoy Molly’s voyages to the sunshine, and also I hope that they’ll like the exploration of the choices between independence, loneliness and romance, the life-choice options considered by Molly and Nell, two very different characters with very different experiences. Chasing the Sun is out on April 8th.