Wednesday 11 July 2012

Setting The Scene with Kate Harrison - how to capture a place in your writing.

I am so pleased to have Kate Harrison back on the blog to talk about setting the scene for her latest book. Kate's new book Soul Fire was published last week. Soul Fire is the second book in her YA series. If you missed Soul Beach, you really need to read it!
 What are your favourite books? Think of them, right now. Now think about what it is you love about them.
 Chances are, characters come number one. Memorable heroes, even more memorable villains. But the place where their adventures play out might come a close second. Setting adds to atmosphere or tension – maybe you’ve even been inspired to go somewhere by reading about it in a novel?
Writing my Soul Beach thrillers – set half in real-life and half in an imaginary dark paradise– has made me really focus on setting. In the second book, Soul Fire, I travel from Greenwich to Barcelona to an online Limbo. One, a place I’ve rarely visited: one a place where I’ve lived and the third a place I’ve created from nothing.
 Whatever you’re writing, here are my top tips for making readers wish they were there (or that they never have to be…)
 Researching for real
   Try to visit if you can afford it, even if it’s only briefly. I went to Greenwich for a conference and used my spare time to research the location.
 Stage 1 was to wander without any real agenda, getting a sense of the atmosphere. I took in the sights and smells of the Thames, the craft market and the imposing college buildings.
 Stage 2 was more like being a detective. I tracked down specific places, from a pub to a hall of residence, that I knew I needed in the story.
  Take photos and videos as you go – lots and lots of them. Trust me, you’ll only regret the pictures you didn’t take. Also jot down what you could smell or feel – the jerk chicken and grilling sausages as I walked into the market, or the incredibly delicate papercuts I touched in one of the nearby shops.
   See the place through your character’s eyes: are they local, or visiting the place for the first time? Their impressions and hang outs will be completely different if they know the location well, as they zone out of tourist attractions. We’re rarely tourists in our own town: when I lived in London, I visited the Tower of London for the first time since childhood to research a book: couldn’t believe I’d forgotten how wonderful it was!  
 Virtual research
  Even if you can’t spare the time or the money to visit a place, you can spend hours ‘exploring’ the area via the author’s best friend, Google Streetview. It’s not just the buildings: look at the shops, the buses, even the shadows of people caught crossing the road while the Google cameras rolled.
  Forums or Twitter/FB are terrific for getting information from locals if you can’t visit. People are generally really keen to help writers!
 Buy a local paper or go online to news or entertainment sites. What do the people do for fun? In Soul Fire, I built a whole storyline around Barcelona’s obsession with fireworks – their edgy fiestas are fascinating in comparison to safety-conscious Britain.
 Think about language: are there local words for something? In Brighton, a pedestrian lane is known as a twitten – in Barcelona, a beach bar’s called a chiringuito. Used carefully, they add authenticity!
·         Your own kingdom
·         Inventing a place is tremendous fun – but you still do need to do your homework. As readers, we pick up on tiny details. So with Soul Beach, I had to work out the precise colour of the sand, what buildings there were, what wildlife lived there.
·         I made a decision that the place would build as Alice, my main character, explored it: that new levels would appear, like in a computer game. So at first, there is no wildlife at all – which gives a hint that things are more menacing under the surface.
·         Draw yourself maps or diagrams! Think about how far it is from one end of your world to the other. How do the people get around? What’s the climate?
·         Planning begins at home  - it’s easier to move characters around if you can picture the layout of their house, school, workplace. You don’t have to use all your details in the finished story – but they’ll give it a realism.
Finally… Putting it all on the page
   Now you have all your research – hide it! Put it in a box and write from memory!
   Why? Because you want to use the strongest, most interesting parts of your research. Doing it from memory means you’re automatically selecting the aspects of the place that are most vivid to you – and to the reader.
   Focus on the little details – everyone knows what Big Ben looks like, but what about the futuristic metallic escalators at Westminster Tube station, or the MPs specials at the nearby coffee bar?
   Go back to your photos and notes later to fill in the gaps – but be multi-sensory. Pick sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings carefully – don’t just list everything you’ve seen. You’re creating the background to your story, not writing a travel book…
  Though with a bit of luck your writing will be so fantastic that your reader will book the next ticket (unless, of course, it’s to Soul Beach).
Kate’s second instalment in the Soul Beach trilogy, Soul Fire, is out now, published by Indigo, an imprint of Orion.  
Kate can also be found on Twitter as @KateWritesBooks


  1. What a brilliant post! I will definitely be taking these ideas on board :)

  2. What a brilliant post! I will definitely be taking these ideas on board :)

  3. I think I should write a book set in a very exotic place - like Tahiti - and tell my husband that we just have to go there...for research :-)

    I've been to Greenwich once. It was pretty, although I didn't fully explore it.

    1. I wish you luck! If it works, let me know.I will then try it on my husband.


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