From Women Writers, Women’s Books:
Place in a book – do you need to go there?
Some years ago I went to a talk by the award-winning Irish writer Colm Tóibín. It was after the launch of his much acclaimed novel, Brooklyn, and I remember him telling the audience that when he wrote Brooklyn he had never been to the city himself. For his research he had relied on maps, read books and talked to people who lived there. I found this startling, as I’d recently read the book myself and the sense of place was profoundly believable and authentic. It went against that old adage ‘write what you know’ and made me rethink my ideas on how to write a book, on developing the setting for a story.
As it happens I was working on my first novel at the time. Elastic Girl is an emotional story about a young girl called Muthu who is sold into the Indian circus. The idea had come to me after hearing about this horrific problem on the radio, and it was a story that I felt compelled to write.
However, I wasn’t sure if I was best placed to write it. I wasn’t from India, I knew little or nothing of children being sold into the circus, and I had only been to India a couple of times, and not extensively to the locations where I had intended to take my main character. But, after Colm Tóibín’s talk I felt bolstered. I began to look at all the ways I could make my setting as evocative and believable as he did.
My in-laws are from India, so I did have some understanding of India’s culture, and when I had travelled to India I had kept detailed diaries that were full of information on places, sounds and smells that served to remind me of what it was like. I began to do extensive research on locations in India, the layout of cities, the food, the traditions, and then of course on the subject of children being sold into the circus.
I connected with a charity who helped to rescue children from circuses in India and I absorbed the photographic work of Mary Ellen Mark, an American photographer who spent a lot of time in the circuses in India, capturing images of child performers and acrobats. It’s amazing how much you can learn from an image, how it evokes such visceral emotions, and some of her photography was fundamental in helping to form my central characters.
. . . .
“As outsiders looking in, we see the physical landscape, colours and experience the odors of India and the heartbeat of Indian culture through her (Muthu’s) eyes. You listen to the throb and vibrations of living households and the circus in this case. The reader moves with the moods, noises and visions as if experiencing it first hand.” (Amazon review)
The approach to my second book was different, because I did travel to the setting of my story for research purposes. Black Beach is set in Iceland and I had initially come upon the idea for my book following a conversation with one of my close friends, who is from Iceland. She intrigued me with stories of the Hidden People in Iceland, known as Huldufólk.
These creatures are believed to live inside the rocks in Iceland and there are still many superstitions surrounding their existence. It reminded me of the stories I grew up with in rural Ireland around the existence of fairies, and perhaps that’s why it sparked my interest, this common cultural belief. In contrast to my first book, I had never been to Iceland, but it was definitely on my list of places I wanted to visit.
I was very fortunate to receive an award from the Arts Council in Northern Ireland, and I used that money to go to Iceland to do research. My friend came with me and she was able to help me make contact with some people who were instrumental to my writing of Black Beach. I spent time with the renowned psychic and friend of the Huldufólk, Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir. She was a great source of help in informing my central character, a girl called Fríða who also has the gift of seeing. Ragnihildur continued to help with my many questions in the years after I’d been to Iceland, and was one of the first people to read a draft of my book.
Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books
For (perhaps simple-minded) PG, the answer is simple: Fiction is fictional, it describes people, places and things that probably don’t exist in the real world in precisely the same form and nature they do in the fictional world.
Likely in the first lecture of a semantics class in college, students learn a mantra, “The word is not the thing.”
A character in a book that commits a murder is not a real murder and vice versa. Mount Everest in a book is not the actual Mount Everest. A character in a book who is Pentecostal is not a real Pentecostal man or woman.
William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County is not a real county in Mississippi. Many who study Faulkner believe it was modeled on Jefferson County, Mississippi, but if you were to travel to Jefferson County, you would find a university town, built around University of Mississippi.
PG has not read all of Faulkner’s works set in Yoknapatawpha County, but he does not recall any of Faulkner’s writings set in a university town. PG is 99% certain Faulkner never wrote about a fictional version of Vaught–Hemingway Stadium, the home of the University of Mississippi Rebels football team, seating about 65,000 people. Since construction of the stadium was begun in 1915, when Faulkner was about 18 years of age, he would certainly have been intimately familiar with it.
PG’s mental image of Yoknapatawpha County does not include a football team.
PG has read that Faulkner’s writings include over 1,000 named persons in his 19 novels and 94 short stories. None of those is an actual person. None ever lived in Jefferson County.
William Faulkner provides the proper pronunciation of Yoknapatawpha
END OF BONUS Feature
A standard disclaimer at the beginning of a novel often reads something like:
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
As perceptive readers will have concluded, PG dislikes the idea that people, places and things included in a work of fiction have to have any connection with reality at all, let alone be a faithful rendition of an actual person, group of people, town, city, state, country, planet or universe that actually exists.
PG knows next to nothing about the nation of India. However that lack of knowledge does not prevent him from writing a good work of fiction set in India, perhaps relying on National Geographic magazine for local color.
If a person mistakes the contents of PG’s fictional creation for the actual nation, such a person is probably not able to understand much about what PG has written at all (PG is, after all, an attorney, a member of a group not known to consistently produce prose easily grasped by a normal, sane person).
PG has read fiction set in places where he has actually lived. None has reproduced what those places are actually like. A faithful reproduction would not be fiction and would probably be boring as well.
End of Rant. PG feels much better now. He should probably lie down and take a nice nap.