In the latest in my series of guest posts from authors of new books, Dominc Brownlow discusses how, in his writing, he uses location as more than simply a setting.
Location, surprisingly, is often underused in writing. All books and stories possess one or more of them; characters can’t simply float through space, levitating from one scene to the next. They must be placed somewhere, like actors, in order to play out the intended narrative, but once that stage has been decided upon, the backdrop painted, the curtains raised, the role of that setting should not then be over. Location should be treated as a character and accorded the same luxuries. And, most importantly I think, used as one of the senses.
When I wrote The Naseby Horses I had a post-it-note above my desk reminding me not to ignore these essential faculties: touch, smell, colour, sound. It is still there now as I write my second novel, the ink a little faded from the sun. Isolation is a fundamental aspect of my writing – I’m only on novel two but they are both centred around this theme.
For me, it is the Fens; huge open swathes of flat agricultural land stretched beneath wide infinite skies. That, in itself, is fairly self-explanatory. It is an obvious stage for remoteness. However, it is the perceptions evoked beyond remoteness that can, if you invite them in, assist the story so. It is the way both the landscape and its inhabitants behave; the attitude of locals, the manner in which nature and wildlife react, and how this effects, or is used by, the characters in the novel.
The same method could be employed with a major city, or beach or mountain or alien spacecraft. All these locations are in possession of sound, smell, colour, touch, as, similarly, is a kitchen, bedroom, school, garden, sports field or courtroom. By introducing the sensual nuances of a location a writer is, by default, connecting the character to that place, and, in the same metaphorical vein as how pathetic fallacy works, eases these perceptions into the subconscious of the character and, hence, reader.
“Show not tell” is the axiom waved about like Colours in the How To Write books, and one, as a literary waffler, I struggle with the most. However, by describing the mood and essence of a setting, wherever that may be, as long as an initial connection has been made between place and person, the writer is, in part, showing not telling. He, or she, is using location as the shadow of the character. One of my favourite lines in The Naseby Horses is ‘somewhere in the distance sunlight glares off a moving car.’ I like to think this issues a latent sense of escape from a desolate backdrop, without actually saying it.
John McGregor’s Reservoir 13 uses this brilliantly and, of course, the ultimate example of how to use location as a character is Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea. Ray Robinson is also a modern day master of this in The Mating Habits of Stags, and for the claustrophobic seedy panicky senses of the city Martin Amis’s London Fields excels beyond all.
Dominic Brownlow lives near Peterborough with his two children. He lived in London and worked in the music industry as a manager before setting up his own independent label. He now enjoys life in the Fens and has an office that looks out over water. The Naseby Horses is his first novel. It was long listed for the Bath Novel Award 2016. The paperback edition is published on 24 August 2020. He tweets @Dominic Brownlow.