Location, location, location
Hello and thank you for coming along to event number twelve at the Virtual Book Festival. Estate agents put a huge amount of importance on location when it comes to selling houses – and for writers, too, getting the setting right can be crucial to a book’s success. Today it’s the turn of JJ Marsh author of the fabulous Beatrice Stubbs crime novels which are set in various locations around Europe and she’s brilliant at conveying the settings. So I’m delighted she’s going to share her thoughts on the use of location when writing fiction. And we also have an extract from her latest novel Honey Trap which is set in Italy.
Welcome, Jill – and over to you.
The Little Differences
“You know what the funniest thing about Europe is? It’s the little differences.” (Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction)
Authors such as Monique Roffey (Trinidad), Stef Penny (Canada), Alexander McCall Smith (Botswana), Barbara Kingsolver (Mexico) and John Steinbeck (Monterey, California) have all transported me to places I’ve never seen but can vividly imagine, thanks to their descriptive skills.
Nothing makes me happier than when a reader tells me they’ve been transported to the location by one of my books. A sense of place is integral to my work and I consider the city, village or countryside to be a character in its own right and worthy of as much attention as any other.
Creating a sense of place requires a variety of elements: sensory detail, geographical, architectural and meteorological notes; observations on cultural habits and perhaps even upending some clichés. But the primary consideration must be perception.
Think about your last holiday. What did you notice, photograph and remember to tell your friends? I’ll bet it was all those little differences that aren’t the same at home.
What matters is deviation from the norm. The setting for The Beatrice Stubbs Series is Europe, varied enough to be interesting, close enough to be familiar. And that is the key word – familiar. To whom?
Let’s start with the character. For example, we’re in the city of Naples. A tourist is likely to exclaim at the chaos of traffic, the plethora of Vespas, the strength of the coffee and the constant noise of the cobbled, crowded streets.
Our local man sees all that as background. He’s much more likely to notice his usual route blocked due to a political demonstration or the looming clouds over Vesuvius suggesting a storm.
Now turn this point-of-view into a recently arrived immigrant. Some elements will delight and others dismay in comparison to what she knows. Does the volume of everyday conversation reassure or alarm? Depending on where this person is from, trying to cross the road may seem terrifying or surprisingly ordered.
How do we experience a new environment? Via our senses and comparative memories. In many European languages, the question word people use to elicit subjective description is ‘How?’ – Comment, Wie, Como, Hogyan, etc. In English, we ask ‘What was it like?’ In other words, please compare it to something I understand.
Sensory detail can wield immense suggestive power, particularly in combination. Taste and smell, texture and sound can all equal the overworked first choice of descriptive passages: sight.
A walk along Porto’s River Douro is a feast for the eyes. Washing flapping from wrought-iron balconies, crumbling façades the colour of sponge cake, the retro-style wooden trams and shimmering water reflecting the masts of the distinctive black barcos.
But take a deep breath. Absorb the details. There’s a peixeira (fishwife) selling pungent salt cod while humming along to the fado from the nearby café. Hop on the tram and run your fingers over the cracked leather seats. Leave the trundling vehicle at Foz, take your shoes off and press your toes into the sand till you find a beachside bar with a free deckchair. Enjoy a glass of white port and a plate of grilled sardines while you inhale ocean spray from under a striped umbrella.
Smooth not lumpy
That chunk of description above is all very well in terms of employing all the senses, but where’s the story? Where’s the assassin with his mirrored sunglasses? Or rippling chested romantic hero bounding across the dunes? Or massive shark leaping out of the waves to consume you and your sardines?
Anyone who’s ever listened to a story or anecdote, whether round a fire, tucked up in bed or with a gang of mates in the pub, knows the formula of scene-setting. And it’s not just English. Every European language I’ve attempted to learn has at least two forms of past tense: what was happening (set the scene) and what happened (action).
SCENE SETTING: The sun was shining, the birds were singing and the breeze was ruffling Anastasia’s blonde locks as she rushed to the creek, desperate for cool water against her sunburnt skin.
ACTION: She slipped off her dress and stood on tiptoes to dive into the pool. A crashing noise startled her from the undergrowth. A Martian burst from the tree-line, tentacles akimbo, its seven eyes focused on her slight form.
Description doesn’t just belong in Scene Setting, it should play a part in Action. Weave in your perception, sensual nuances, weather, environment and atmosphere into everything, but make it matter. Use detail – not flowers but daffodils. Not birds but ravens. Plant that wobbly plank in the early chapters and bring it back to trip your axe-murderer when you change into fifth gear.
SCENE SETTING: Sun beat through the palms and parrots shrieked like cheerleaders as Anastasia ran for the creek. Sweat ran down her temples and her blonde locks dampened into honey-coloured curls, a light breeze encouraging her to sprint the last five metres. She focused on the limpid turquoise pool ahead, craving its cool green relief and the balm it offered to her rosy skin.
ACTION: On her favourite smooth stone, she peeled off her dress and stood on tiptoes. Nothing could stop her now. She bent her knees and raised her arms to the point of an arrow, preparing to dive. Just as she drew her in-breath, the foliage behind her burst into life. Both impossible and recognisable, a shape emerged. Seven matt-black eyes fixed on her slight form, its tentacles vibrating with unearthly energy and a sulphurous stench emanated from its suppurating flesh. What else could it be? The last surviving Martian.
This is where working with other writers opens your eyes. Our lovely hostess, Anne, noted on an early draft of my first novel that my characters descended into a crypt, lit by wall scones. As opposed to wall sconces. Apart from such oafish examples of my clumsiness, my mentors and editors have saved me countless times if standards slip.
One element is finding new ways to circumvent the dull, bland adjectives of ‘hot’, ‘dark’, ‘tasty’, ‘disgusting’, ‘smooth’ for something less expected. My Triskele colleague Liza Perrat (Queen of Descriptive Language) told me off for lazy writing. “The sky darkened ominously? – not good enough. What colours? What did it remind you of?” The reworked line developed into ‘Grey, yellow and violet clouds – the colours of a bruise – obscured the white tip of the mountain.’ Liza’s insistence on raising basic to beautiful is a lesson I won’t forget.
It’s not easy to find new way of avoiding natural collocations such as ‘heavy rain’, ‘imposing architecture’, ‘rolling hills’ because that’s our shorthand in conversation and the fast food of journalism. Writers need to work harder, winkling out the detail which means something to the character. Raindrops on metal? An unpleasant recollection of the refuge at the border or a happy memory of that saucy weekend in a caravan?
The Little Big Things
Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue between two hit-men is superbly judged. They are who they are, they do what they do, but a glimpse of another culture holds them both in thrall. There’s another world out there and the safest observation point is from a story.
Expressive touches that transport a reader come from many sources but I’d argue the key elements are creative use of detail coupled with your character’s view of the world. Only from details do we – as readers and adventurers – form the big picture.
Anne: Thank you so much Jill. What a fascinating insight into location and all the nuances that go with it.
Below is an extract from Jill’s latest novel along with an online link for buying the book and some more information about Jill.
From the back cover:
“Chaos or order is simply a matter of taste”
A half truth is a whole lie
Ecco, the world-famous Michelin-starred restaurant in Naples, has a problem. A chef is dead and there’s a spy in the kitchen, selling their secrets to competitors. What they need is a food-loving detective to go undercover. Isabella Lopez knows just the person.
Over Holy Week in Italy, Beatrice Stubbs takes on her first paid job as a private investigator, accompanied by family and friends. Posing as a wannabe pastry chef, her job is to hook the worm out of the apple.
Meanwhile, her men folk explore the city, the volcano and the ruins of Pompeii, followed by a man in a black beret. Who or what does he want?
At the restaurant, kitchen staff are scared and mistrustful, the head chef is explosive and Beatrice’s culinary skills lack finesse. The pressure is on. She sets a trap for the mole before anyone else gets killed.
The Neapolitan family network and business links grow increasingly tangled, dragging in everyone Beatrice loves. This catch is bigger than she thought and she can’t handle it alone. Has PI Stubbs bitten off more than she can chew?
‘I thoroughly enjoyed Jill Marsh’s presentation of a hot and flustered Beatrice Stubbs amidst Italian pots, pans and flans, who at the flick of a whisk, manages to regain her cool and resolve a tricky Neapolitan intrigue and murder.’ – Janys Hyde, owner at Creative Retreats, Italy
A thrilling career change for Beatrice Stubbs amidst the chaos, beauty and gastronomy of historical Naples. – Liza Perrat, author of The Bone Angel Series
Extract from Honey Trap
The speedboat bounced across the waves, jolting the passengers perched on the plastic benches. Adrian found the spray and speed exhilarating, as did Luke, but Matthew’s posture remained stiff, as did his smile. The leathery boatman reached out a muscular forearm to assist them as they clambered onto the quay.
Adrian spotted the subtle transfer of Euros as Matthew shook their pilot’s hand. They all waved goodbye and gazed up at the colourful peak of Capri. The weather was warm enough to turn pale British skin pink, clusters of purple heather and yellow broom seemed to erupt from each corner and the cheerful chatter of the quayside lifted everyone’s spirits. Too romantic for words. Adrian was glad he’d re-watched The Talented Mr Ripley before leaving London. Now he knew exactly what to expect.
Luke ran ahead up the steep narrow street, pointing out ice-cream shops, souvenirs and on every other doorstep, reclining cats. Basil, oregano, thyme and marjoram grew on most windowsills, adding a herbal note to the lemon-scented air. They strolled uphill, snapping pictures of one photogenic panorama after another: small coves changing colour with each wave and cascading terraced gardens. On the winding streets, tiny one-person utility vehicles carried suitcases, their drivers hooting to clear a path between the tourists. Of those there were plenty. Adrian guessed the nationality by dress sense before he could even hear the accents. He took a decision to stop being judgemental and admire the beauty of this little island with its celebrated history.
Luke’s energy took him further ahead than Adrian deemed comfortable, while Matthew’s slow progress stretched the distance between them to a worrying degree. Adrian caught Matthew’s eye, indicated Luke and made the motion of a grabbing claw to indicate he’d catch the boy. The ex-professor rested against a wall and nodded his permission. Ducking groups of tourists dawdling up the congested little street and taking selfies, Adrian loped after the six-year-old, scanning both sides for a small blond head. With a surprising sense of relief, he spotted Luke watching a street vendor waving beribboned sticks to attract young eyes. Right behind him stood an older man in a black beret, equally absorbed in the display.
Adrian drew Luke away with a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Let’s stick together. Your granddad isn’t as fast as you and we shouldn’t spilt up. Now I’m not sure what you think, but I wonder if it’s too early for an ice-cream?”
Want to read more? Here’s the Buy Link https://geni.us/honeytrap8
About JJ Marsh
Writer, journalist, teacher, actor, director and cultural trainer, Jill has lived and worked all over Europe. Now based in Switzerland, Jill is the author of The Beatrice Stubbs Series, a founder member of Triskele Books, co-editor of Swiss literary hub The Woolf and reviews for Bookmuse.
You can connect with Jill online at the links below: