I went on a lovely little holiday recently to Melbourne. I never really liked Melbourne much, for years and year. I always preferred Sydney, possibly because of a holiday I took there during the 2000 Olympic Games preparations. Everyone was so happy, so friendly, their best faces on. It was a magical, sun-drenched time and it coloured my perceptions of the two major cities from then on. Of course, the fact that Melbourne has weather as grey and unpredictable as London doesn’t help. And I always felt it was a very utilitarian, businesslike city. Grey concrete, grey people.
I think I’m slowly changing my mind about Melbourne. I failed in getting a job in Sydney several years after that first visit and I haven’t been back since. Whereas Melbourne, just a hop skip and jump away from where I live, is now becoming more familiar thanks to weekend getaways to see shows and shop.
Of course every Australian knows you can’t like them both. You are either for Sydney and against Melbourne or vice versa. rugby versus football. Pretentious versus down to earth.
Why am I meandering on about Sydney and Melbourne? Because place is a concept I’m focusing on at the moment.
Place is such a wonderful tool in the writer’s kit. You can write about a real place, describing it minutely and bringing it to life for your readers. Most of whom will never know that it is a real place and never see it if they do. But for you it’s a labour of love, to recreate it or immortalize it in writing, no matter the storyline or timeframe it ends up as a background to.
You can collect the best bits of a hundred different places and turn them into a new place for your story.
You can invent a place completely – or as much as it is possible for anyone to really invent something new. Even Middle Earth has a large chunk of English countryside running through it.
I love to write about the places I’ve been. I’ve seen and lived in some amazing cities and towns and I have soaked up the atmosphere, the people, the lights and the life. Setting my stories in those places takes me back there so that I can almost hear the tap of high heeled shoes on cobblestones passing by my window in Rome and see the neon lights shining on the wet pavement of downtown Tokyo. It is almost as good as a vacation.
There is nothing to stop me adding a detail here or there which helps my story, though. Or inventing details which may well exist but which have not been encountered by me. A back door or alleyway, a staircase or slip lane. These have helped me without detracting from the authenticity of the place I am building.
I feel that my ability to write a living breathing place is reasonable. My ability to write a living breathing character on the other hand? Well, that is still a work in progress for me. More on that next time.