I’ve written before about setting and how it influences both the characters and the plot. But it also has a lot to do with resonance and helps to give roots to a character’s history, or backstory. In a conversation with fellow writers last weekend, I realised that the books which have resonated most with me all have settings to which I long to return, even if only in my mind. Wonderful places to dream of include the land of Narnia, the wild and windy cliffs of Du Maurier’s Cornwall and the magical castle of Hogwarts.
In a previous blog-post I wrote about why Romeo and Juliet works for me in its romantic, historical Italian setting, but not when set on the West Side of New York City in its rewritten version, West Side Story.
If I ever fly to New York, my first place of call will not be the area where West Side Story takes place, but rather Hobie’s antiques shop in The Goldfinch, or even the art gallery where that now famous painting was supposed to have been hanging when the bomb went off. Of course, that’s also because I have a thing for both antiques shops and art galleries, which is probably what drew me to that novel in the first place.
But since I can’t afford to go to New York, let’s return for the moment to the setting of Romeo and Juliet. If I hadn’t once upon a time journeyed to Verona in Italy to see the supposed house and balcony of Juliet, I would in all likelihood not have stopped for lunch on the road between Verona and Venice. This means that I would never have discovered the enchanting castle of Soave where I spent an afternoon marvelling at medieval weapons and chainmail shirts, a fresco of Dante on an obscure wall, and the panoramic view from the fire-step just below its high battlements. In short, if I had not harboured those romantic notions about Juliet’s house, I would have deprived myself of three of the most pivotal settings later used in my novel, Benicio’s Bequest.
Before I ever travelled to Australia, I had heard about Melbourne’s famous Lygon Street with its cafes and restaurants spilling across the pavements.
I had already decided that I wanted part of my next novel to be set in such a place, but first I had to see it for myself. Early notions of a cellar-like basement bar for my novel’s opening faded when I saw Lygon Street for the first time, and instead I set my fictional bar down a lane that led to a courtyard with a clock tower, beyond which was a hidden maze of alleys, private houses, and backyards of more double-storey buildings facing onto other streets behind and alongside.
My new world was born. From those images I built my character’s nest in an apartment above the bar that he inherited from his father, up a little lane behind an Italian restaurant run by his friend Gino.
The house that my sister and brother-in-law were renting during that first visit to Melbourne also became the model for another setting, as did the ugly grey house shared by my niece and two housemates. By the time I returned to Melbourne for my second visit, both of these dwellings had other occupants and the members of my family had moved on to more permanent accommodation, but those houses are still firmly embedded in that novel.
What is it that draws us to a place and makes us want to recreate it in a fictional space in our minds? I don’t know, but the pull to those places is strong or we wouldn’t be tempted to use them. I often see myself as what I call a potential-holic. I am drawn to the potential I see in people or in places, just as I am drawn to the potential stories that I could create around situations that I imagine in numerous “What if” scenarios. I think it’s a leftover trait from childhood. Just as I once imagined a bogeyman under the bed or some scary creature of the night lurking in a semi-visible dressing-gown hanging on the back of my bedroom door, I see the world as alive with endless possibilities of hitherto untold stories.
My theatre technician friends laugh at me when I imagine the backstories behind certain things in the plays or musicals that I watch night after night as I operate lights or stage manage them. An entire history was imagined about the childhood of the dreadful Hannigan siblings in the musical Annie last year, and I can’t even remember now what it was based on. Likewise, the previous year saw me dreaming up stories about the odd assortment of criminals who arrive in the boarding house of a seemingly frail old lady who manages to outwit and outlive them all in The Ladykillers.
These are not stories that anybody in the audience would know or even think about. In fact, they may bear no resemblance to the original author’s own ideas, but for me – just as the actors do their own research and come up with their characters’ motivations – I like to find my own justification for everything that they do. It’s not only good practice for my writing, but it can be enormous fun too. When you’re lucky enough to work in a creative environment, something rubs off on you and it would be foolish not to take advantage of it. And I suppose you could say that that’s my backstory.