Using familiar place in a novel


One of my favourite 'tricks' in writing a novel is to use actual places and times, and then insert my fiction into those known situations. On Bended Knees featured Leicestershire in the mid 1960s, then Berlin and Dresden in 1975, all places I knew well. While I had visited Bangladesh, I returned to the country specifically to research a novel now doing the publishing rounds, Slippery When Wet, using periods of being a guest in stately homes for the English setting of that book. I've just finished reading Harry Mulisch's The Assault and find I now question this whole procedure.

It's a fine novel, a character working through subsequent decades to place the details of a wartime atrocity that wiped out his family when he was 12. The final scenes take place during a large rally against nuclear armaments in Amsterdam. I may be wrong but I feel sure the author attended that rally. The setting seems wrong for the revelations of the scene, too many characters are glanced upon by chance among the thronging hundreds of thousands. The author's using what he knows hampers the scene ... a similar thread in these last chapters sees the character in Padua, with a house in the Italian countryside. These visits belong in the author's life but not in this novel.

My new book Cromozone has an entirely imagined landscape. Situations I've lived in, 1970s Berlin being a principle one, colour the scenes of my imagination but the places of the book have a psychological charge born from reality without being limited by it. I know the current constant sequence of hospital visits in my life are effecting the settings of the book too, as are various internal scans of the body. A current plot device and setting comes from helping out in the harvest in a French vineyard last September. Place is integral to the story, and details don't intrude from experience. I'm finding strength in wholly imagined places and times.

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