Monday, April 02, 2018

Imaginary Places

Catherine Macdonald, commenting on Donis's post last week, said that she felt guilty about creating a castle in Scotland because there wasn't one in the right place. I was enormously impressed by her moral standards because I do far worse and don't feel guilty at all!

My books are always very firmly rooted in the landscape, but I create the village, the town, or even the island that's going to be my main setting. There are various reasons for this.

I always have at the back of my mind the thought that if I use a real place and comment adversely on an organization, a business or an institution, or have an unpleasant character linked to one, I could fall foul of the libel laws. People have an amazing tendency to 'recognize' themselves in books – my mother was always convinced that she was the elderly lady who was murdered in the first chapter of my first book. (She wasn't, honestly!)

Real places are so inconvenient, too. They will persist in not having the streets organized in a way that would make it convenient for my story and local readers do tend to get stroppy when you move their buildings around. Not only that, if they spot a mistake they don't hesitate to point it out; I got an irritable email from a reader pointing out that I had got one figure in the number of the road my character was driving on wrong.

But my creations are always precisely placed in a gap where they could plausibly be and the descriptions of the scenery round about are exactly what you would see if you stood on that particular spot, and the distances from real towns or landmarks are carefully calculated.

The other reason I choose to invent is that I love doing it. The best fun of all was creating my island for my book, Evil for Evil. There is a series of tiny islands, the Isles of Fleet, just off the coast of Galloway and I slipped in my own, just at one end. I had a totally clear picture in my mind's eye – still do! At one end a rough causeway led from the shore at low tide and from there it swept smoothly up, past the little ruined chapel and the Norse graves, to the bothy and sheds for the feed for the roe deer that were farmed there, close to the little wood with the sea-cliffs on the farther side. I almost can't believe I wouldn't find it there if I went back.

I wouldn't do it without having done a lot of research in the area first. Atmosphere is really important and I have to get it right, since that will be the background to my own creations, and the only moral aspect for me is that I don't distort the places that really are there. If I name a genuine town, the description will match what I know is there. Can't have people getting totally confused!

When I explain the principle to people who ask me exactly where a book is set, they seem, so far, to be quite happy to accept that. It's fiction, after all!


Susan D said...

And what a delicious feeling of power you can have, creating spaces like that. "Oh, I think I'll just put a tree right....there."

I think the idea of conjuring up an island all your own sounds delightful. And it so happens Evil for Evil is the next of your books to read.

Aline Templeton said...

I do hope you enjoy it, Susan! Yes, I think your right - it is joy of absolute power!

Donis Casey said...

I always put enough reality in the setting that readers can go, "Oh, I recognize that!" But the truth is my world and my characters exist mostly in my head.

Catherine Macdonald said...

Thanks for the interesting post, Aline. I suppose we ‘re always creating an imaginary world for readers, no matter how many aspects of the “real” world we include in it. And readers do seem to be very accepting of made up landscapes etc. as long as the world we create for them is involving and one they can live in for the duration of the book.