Writing Reality: Location and Time

04/11/2013 at 05:45 (Personal, Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


Listening to Ralph McTell’s Streets of London, I’m always struck by a particular stanza:

Have you seen the old man
Outside the Seaman’s Mission
Memory fading with the medal ribbons that he wears
In our winter city,
The rain cries a little pity
For one more forgotten hero
And a world that doesn’t care

It reminds me of what first drew me to the city, embedded it in my heart – apart from the obvious beauty of a silken blue scarf on the horizon, one that all too soon knots itself about the throat in a toxic beauty of pollution. I used to travel into London with my mother to meet my father after work, so my memories are mostly of windows set into antiquated walls that blurred past the train, their golden glow seeming like diamond eyes to my excited ones, though the lives held behind would be working late into an evening full of blue-black shadows.

As I’ve got older, the shine of the city hasn’t diminished, only shifted perspective. I often take walking trips across its myriad streets, one borough to another, all alive with individuality and the traits of whoever happens to live there. Though it’s come to my attention more recently (as a writer), that an environment can inform the personality habits/quirks of a resident, as much as the latter influences the state of their home/workplace.

So while wandering, I take in the welcome glow of polished windows and pub signs, the huddled figures in doorways they can never hope to enter but which offer temporary shelter from the wind. There are those who’ll return to the same park bench each day on their lunch break, out of comfortable habit and to feel a niche of Home; or perhaps to escape the mundane nature of this. Depending on what they have to hand, what their circumstances are, they’ll feed or fend off the ever-present pigeon clouds that alight and clatter away by turns, in that bird’s daze of checkered tree-light and traffic noise.

All these impressions, so many more, tangle me up whenever I visit. I find my eyes lingering on the hidden places of the world, the random moments and meetings, rather than rising as they once did to the glaring lights and tourist eyecandy; the teeth of stone, steel and glass. Hooked alley corners, small pockets of greenery, the shadows that smell of a thousand borrowed cuisines; though these often ring with a binman’s calls, and provide more shelter for that hunched shape of one still evading what had them leave their old life behind
(if they had one at all.)

All under an indifferent sky. Freedom is a hard-won prize.

I use the city as an example for its diversity, but you’ll have your own influences, your own icons and symbolism. When writing a location, framing a fictional narrative about a setting in which your characters exist, how often do you stop to wonder about its influence upon their lives – direct and indirect – how it informs their movements, lifestyle choices, emotional responses?

There are things I’ve had to consider in more depth, when writing my novel. As it’s set mainly in one town (fictional, “Reighton”) and is caught between timeframes of past and present (filtered through two first-person narratives, with additional input from secondary sources) it’s become necessary for me to know that environment inside out. I use that analogy again, of taking a clock to pieces to know its mechanism – should the need arise, I have the same resources to hand for taking Reighton apart, assessing how a relevant plot point can be made where it links to a contextual detail.

Just as characterization hinges upon traits and layered memories, a location may develop a personality of its own. Opinions differ greatly about Reighton, depending on a character’s stance in life and more importantly, what impact the town has had upon them. There are families with generational roots deep in its history, who feel a frustrated affection for its once-great past and sadness for its seemingly stark future. Their ancestors were the pivotal force behind Reighton’s conception, first as a farming community along the river Rei, then – with the arrival of a powerful outside influence – as a multifaceted, prosperous clayworks. The latter effectively put Reighton on the map; it became part of a successful commuter belt.

When the clay business collapsed, those families whose lives had twined about it were left to the whim of the council and any investors who happened to pass through, seeing a trick of hasty housing for yet more commuters. The factories and warehouses now lie barren, the old rail line is a playground for the children, who most likely will never know full-time employment. The once-bustling town is, in its present setting, a shadow of itself; this breeds apathy in some, a fierce desire to escape in others … and in a few of the kid-gangs, a somewhat delusional belief that because the outside world has no need for them, they can in turn inwards and become small Gods.

 photo d1cfde5c-bd85-4f15-b9e2-bffeaccc7ab4_zps65860fa0.jpg

To achieve all of these plot points – to give them logos as well as pathos – I look for what has influenced my own life. A year spent on the Dole in a town of dying economy, well, that certainly features heavily; as do those childhood days of playing down the abandoned rail line in my old home town.

I wanted to find how these environmental issues might dictate certain character behaviours. In Reighton, lack of work has seen a rise in petty theft and muggings, but also an increase in the tight community ethic. It’s very much an Us vs. Them scenario, with the weary locals – after several decades of declining means and a ream of broken promises from their council – near to breaking point. Morale is low, community-spirit is high, and a thin copper wire of tension runs around the whole town, from the more affluent East side (where the commuter-belt / wealthier locals are, in newer estates or the antiquated mansions of their ancestors), to the impoverished West side of the river, in which many a generation of ex-clayworkers has lived and died.

I pulled influences from my old town, inverting the history of a local parish where I once lived, to add credible details to the history of Reighton. Ridgewood, in the East Sussex town of Uckfield, served as the location for a clayworking pottery through the 19th/20th centuries. As a child, I had no concept of this remarkably layered history; what my friends and I saw were the remnants, two great pits left in the ground for us to play hide-and-seek in, Murder in the Dark, and to sled across when the snow fell on the slopes. My memory of that time is rich with the bittersweet smell of hawthorns, and the wide bowl of open sky; standing on the rim of the larger pit and often finding old discarded hand tools; the proud possessions of whoever once toiled over the clay.

It was a fine playground for any child, and has since been converted into a Millennium Green nature reserve, to preserve it for future generations. Its past is now being brought to light, as when I grew old enough to find an interest in the finer details of my locality, there was little to come by. Said details have made up much of the framework for both my novel’s narrative, and the foundations on which they stand. My local library’s archives were also a priceless resource – use your own wherever possible, particularly to learn the structuring of a town across generations, to gain an insight into environmental and economical patterns (e.g. many towns begin life alongside a river, arable land and/or a major trade-link road.)

Often, character lifestyle choices will be based upon what they’ve learned through a progression of experiences – parental influence, education, home and work environments. A series of locations may well mirror this.

“Mickey was about twenty-six, short, with a small moustache on a pasty face. The romance and glory of his life were behind him. The romance was still the warm East, where he had been a clerk in a rubber firm, and the glory had been the divine facility of living, women and drinking. Now he was unemployed, and wore an overcoat along the hard, frozen plains of Earl’s Court, where he lived on and with his mother… he was famous for his drunkenness locally, being particularly welcome in drinking circles… because by his excesses, he put his companions in countenance, making their own excesses seem small in comparison.” – Pg 42, Hangover Square, Patrick Hamilton.

Symbolism can be brought into the act too, once a fictional setting becomes as well-known to you as the reality you walk through; these shadowy messages start to appear in the corners of the bigger picture. Huddled shapes in the doorways of grand houses; a newspaper of today, blowing up the road being built for tomorrow; and indeed, the succession of wealth unto celebrity, an endless parade of tomorrows for as long as both hold out:

“No one wore costumes on the night of her engagement party at the Racquet & Tennis Club, but in the ballroom of that club, that limestone manse sitting like a sphinx on Park Avenue … you didn’t need costumes to have a masque ball. Everyone knew their role and played it… Their names were written in gold leaf on mahogany plaques across the walls of the changing rooms, Whitneys, Phippses, Rockefellers, and they bathed naked together in the Turkish bath and played obscure racquet sports passed down from Bourbon kings and sealed billion-dollar deals with clinks of glasses over lunch. And at these parties, if you were not a member, you were a guest and set your face stern to conceal your awe. You were solemn to foil discovery of the wonder that mugged you of your confidence… then into the grand ballroom that invited you to look down on who you had been just moments before, on the street below. You hated loving being there, and you struggled to conceal yourself, and all of a sudden, you were in costume.” – Pgs 1-2, Mergers and Acquisitions, Dana Vachon.

One of my characters, Garth Hakken Sr., is forever in and out of prison. He is part of the forgotten Reighton generations on the West side, but chose not to go quietly into poverty – his is a life of scrap-metal and shady deals, to keep his family fed. His acclimatization to both this darker side of life, and the legal consequences set against him, inform his thoughts and behaviour. He walks with his head tucked in, as a boxer will to avoid a punch; his tall frame is somewhat curved over, movements neat and confined, to avoid drawing unnecessary attention and out of sheer practicality – he’s spent a good deal of time in a cramped cell.

Do your characters aspire to fit in on a social level, or – due to the level of danger in their surroundings – have they learned to act upon instinct and disappear, before fear takes over? To what extent do socio-economical matters impact upon their lives? How have circumstances changed them from the blush of youth, into the pale years of age; do they wear these marks of another time for all to see, a proud symbol diminished by the world’s neglect?

 photo fbb7ad4c-54f4-447b-99eb-25e39a5048ac_zps5e231911.jpg

Memory fading with the medal ribbons that he wears
In our winter city,
The rain cries a little pity
For one more forgotten hero
And a world that doesn’t care

These are considerations to make – running parallel with research for a setting/environment – for potential advancement of plot, based upon what drives a character to react as they do.

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