Monday musings on Australian literature: Angela Savage and setting in fiction

Angela Savage, The dying beach

I have several ideas for my next few Monday Musings, but another one popped up on the weekend as I was perusing my Twitter feed. I don’t check Twitter regularly enough – it’s impossible to keep up with all the social media sites don’t you think? – but when I do I regularly find a treasure or two. Anyhow, this tweet was from Angela Savage promoting the short piece “Take me to a different land” that she wrote for the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference being held next month at the Virginia G Piper Centre for Creative Writing at Arizona State University. This is an annual conference for “writers, readers, and lovers of literature”, though it seems to me that the main focus is on writers, as it describes itself as devoted to “the science and art of creative writing, including world building, plot/narrative structure, and character development to more specialized topics like writing about climate change, working with different cultures, and pulling material from fairy tales and myth”.

Saguaro, near Tucson

Beautiful saguaro, near Tucson. (Just because I can!)

I was inspired to delve further for a few reasons: I’m interested in anything to do with the process of writing fiction; I wanted to know what Angela Savage had to say having enjoyed her crime novel The dying beach (my review); and, less relevant to this post, I love Arizona!

Now, setting is one of those aspects of fiction that readers often discuss. And, in fact, Savage starts her piece by quoting a reader from a rejection letter she received for her first Thailand-set novel, Behind the night bazaar:

I didn’t really feel that I had been taken to Thailand… I think there needs to be more of a sense of the sights and smells of Thailand, of being taken to a different land.

Savage says that at the time she was writing the novel she’d been living in SE Asia for six years, including 18 months in Thailand. She realised that it had become too familiar to her. She needed, she said, to step back and remember what it was like when she first arrived, and “try to conjure the little things that made the place unique”. She describes the process she went through to give that first novel the feeling of Thailand, and then says that for her later Thailand-set novels she’s returned to the country “with the express purpose of conducting fieldwork to inform my fiction”.

She goes on to say that as well as working on conveying “the sensory texture of different locations—the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and touch”, she “walks the streets in the shoes” of her characters, “imagining the landscape as they would see it, based on their state of mind.” Her aim in doing this is to closely relate the setting to the character. She recognises that a “strong sense of place” can transport readers, “adding to the pleasure and excitement of reading” but that the writer’s challenge is to ensure place enhances the story, rather than be a distraction.

I’ve written about setting and place a few times on this blog. In one post, I talked of this sensory aspect, saying that “my favourite descriptions are sensory, enabling me to feel and see the place and its impact on the characters”. This is largely what Savage is talking about here, isn’t it?

In another post I reported on a panel with the 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Award winners. The chair, Caroline Baum, asked fiction winner Stephen Daisley about writing on place. She said that roughly 50% of authors writing about foreign places say they must visit a place to write about it, while the other half argue that this isn’t necessary. Daisley admitted that he’d not visited all the places he’d written about in Traitor, resulting in Baum asking how one can write about a place without visiting it. Daisley’s answer was Google!

Author Nigel Featherstone, was asked, in an interview he offered to my blog, about his writing on landscape in his novel, Remnants. He said

Even today, as I drive around the Southern Tablelands, I’m struck by the character of the landscape, its moods, its reticence, but always the amplification of self. As a writer, I’m interested in place as character as much as I am in human beings as character.

So, that’s what some authors say. What do readers say?

Commenting during a discussion of my 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards post, Louise (A Strong Belief in Wicker) wrote:

But if an author chooses to set a story in a real place, and they name it, then I think they should get it right. I want the details to be right, and if they aren’t (and I notice that they’re not, that’s another big step) then it spoils my enjoyment of the rest of the story. I don’t necessarily mean it to, but it just does.

Regular commenter on my blog, Meg, agrees, commenting on my recent Spotlight on Georgia Blain post that:

I do prefer factual detail about people and places. When I read fiction I want to believe what the author is telling me. I don’t want to have to question something I know to be different.

And then just a few days ago, John (Musings of a Literary Dilettante) commented on Lisa (ANZlitLovers) post on Bernhard Schlink’s latest novel, Woman on the stairs. He agreed with Lisa’s criticism of the book, saying:

Thank God – I’m not alone! I found this dull too, and very poorly edited. For example: when the narrator says he loves the botanical garden in Sydney, he says it is bordered by a cathedral to the north and by the Opera House to the south. Wrong! It’s the Opera House to the *north*, the cathedral to the *south*…

And finally, Cally73 (a GoodReads reviewer) commented on the abovementioned Stephen Daisley’s Traitor that:

A little more explanation of the New Zealand setting would have been beneficial – as a New Zealander, I was able to work out where it was set, but those unfamiliar with the geography of NZ may find it difficult.

Oh dear, and that’s a place he has been to!

What I sense here – based on both the few examples here and more conversations over the years – is that readers can be very critical if they think authors have got the “facts” about place wrong, whilst for authors, the focus is more on the “sense” of the place and whether it serves their purposes. Many know they will be picked up if they get the “facts” wrong, but that’s not their focus. For authors who like doing research, it’s not a big issue, but for those who don’t it’s probably safer, as Louise above implies, to create a fictional setting, even if it’s based on a real place. Call Canberra by another name, and readers can go with the flow – but that doesn’t help of course if the issues the author wants to explore are place-centric (such as the shrimp-farming industry in Angela Savage’s The dying beach.)

I’d love to be a fly on the wall when setting is discussed at the conference. What issues will concern the authors most?

33 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Angela Savage and setting in fiction

  1. Yes, the author has to get the setting right! I agree with Meg, anything less is a distraction. And where the author has fictionalised a setting (Yes, I know you know I’m thinking Emily Maguire) then my first concern is to work out what real place their fictional place is based on.

    • Is it really Bill? I think I idly wonder sometimes but it’s not a huge issue for me. I am realising that I am out of step on this factual issue with the majority of readers. I have a clear idea in my mind off what is fiction and what is non-fiction, and am happy to give a lot of leeway to the former regarding fact. It’s a wonder I don’t love fantasy!!

  2. I enjoy research, it’s a joy, and I hope my stories have a sense of place. I don’t think it necessary to walk the streets of the country you are writing about especially if you write historical fiction. Inhabited places change over time, buildings disappear, new ones are built, and nothing remains as it once was. I think Angela Savage is correct in saying it’s the small things that make a place come alive for the reader. A character, in WW2 might put their precious, and hard to get, silk stockings in a glass jar so they don’t ladder and this small detail will bring a story to life. I read a story recently where the author got two facts wrong, it wasn’t a long story, it was very well-written, and won a literary prize. Both these errors could have been easily picked up by the author in ten minutes of research and made me think the author couldn’t be bothered to put in the time and the editor didn’t bother to check the facts in the story. A novel by the same author, it was listed for a literary award, suffered from the same problems. Where was the author’s respect for the reader? Where, I ask you was the editor? Occasionally things can get missed in the writing and in the editing of a story and one wrong fact is not going to ruin a wonderfully written novel for me, it’s the repeated errors scattered through an otherwise well-written story that make me avoid that author’s future works. For a wonderful sense of place I loved ‘Salt Creek’ by Lucy Treloar. She brought the Coorong alive for me, and yes, she knows the area but she took the reader back in time and I could believe I was there. And she took me to another land.

    • Thanks so much Elise for this insider view. I agree re those small things, those things that particularly mark an era, can give you confidence that the author knows what they are writing of. They can delight rates too, can’t they.

      But I think in the end the most important thing to me is whether the author has got the human heart right. If that’s plausible, and if it’s written engagingly, freshly, that wins for me every time. I can barely remember a story where an inaccuracy has bothered me, but I can name right now several whose writing and/or characters have bored me. I have always thought I would be a bad editor!

  3. Elise, I think the trouble arises when the author doesn’t realise that there’s something that needs to be researched, and that’s more likely if they’ve never been to a place and so they write with assumptions about it. For example, one of the things that feels strange to me when I travel here in Australia is that once I get out of the cities, everybody speaks English, and I realise that in my part of Australia, the energising babble of multiple languages is a constant in my life, in the street I live in, in the shops I go to, in school playgrounds and in parks and local cultural institutions. I suspect that this aspect of Melbourne is unlikely to occur to an author researching my city, who would be more likely to assume that we’re an English speaking nation and not realise that there’s more to it than that.

    • Good point Lisa – I think that would be often the case – thetas, as you say, you don’t always know what you don’t know. I guess Elise thinks that’s then the role of the editor but I suppose there’s only so much anyone can know. In the end, it probably all boils down to how engaging the novel is versus how many of these “errors” there are which trip particular readers up?

    • Good point about foreign voices, Lisa. I was pleased to remember a paragraph in a chapter I wrote that did mention a foreign voice. I didn’t plan it I imagined it and never gave it another thought. It was in King’s Cross in the forties.

      This post has had some really good comments.

      • I love it when my Monday Musings generates a discussion like this Elise, because I’m often nervous that I’m sounding silly or that I’m flogging dead horses. I really appreciate your joining in, and helping the discussion along.

  4. I need a pretty realistic setting without too many glaring mistakes. I have friends who live in the USA and every time they read a book that takes place in Australia they tell me. Yet they make assumptions about Australia based on those readings that aren’t always true. They have little idea of the multi-culturism here. (My husband and I actually collect ‘Stupid questions Americans ask about Australia). I read once if you want a good geographic layout of a city read the best crime novels that take place as you get a real place for settings. I read crime from time to time and I do find that to be quite true (from the better crime writers that is). Think Dragon Tattoo and some of the Los Angeles detectives. It is an interesting topic. Although on the other side of the coin if the storyline and characters are really great I do get more wrapped in that than the location. I guess each situation is individual. My 2 cents. lol

    • Thanks Pam. I really love hearing the different perspectives people have on this topic – and even though I’ve raised it under different guises, new ideas come out each time. You should do a blog post if you can – without offending – on those stupid questions. (The funniest one I remember was when I was leaving the LA area, an American reading group friend from there was about to move to London with her husband, and told me earnestly that she’d be closer to me then! Um, no … I had a quiet chuckle.

      But, back to the topic, that’s an interesting point about good crime novels. I guess they do need to get it right. I was talking about this issue at lunch today, and one of my lunch partners commented that Frederick Forsyth is known for his thorough research. He apparently has said that if he says a character walked up 5 steps to a building’s door, then that building had 5 steps!

      • Maybe it is a major part of the alchemy of fiction for the author to make his vision or sense of a place convincing to the read- almost in spite of the “facts”. That may not always convince- think of Chinua Achebe’s disgust at Conrad’s Congo.

        Interesting point about a writer needing to live abroad to see his/her own place more clearly- a good example would be RL Stevenson’s writings about Scotland.

        • Interesting point Ian, “almost in spite of the facts”. I like that.

          Not having read RLS I wouldn’t have thought of this examples, but now you remind me, it is something that Peter Carey has argued.

  5. I suppose then Sue. you would agree with Mark Twain: “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story”. In regard to sense of place, I think It is a bit like travelling, you always gain more from visiting a place than reading about it in a guide book. All senses are felt. I like Louise’s suggestion, create a fictional setting even if it is based on a real place.

  6. Very nice cactus! You must have been in Tuscon in spring after a rain since everything is so green.

    I think I’ve noted before my preferences that if authors are going to write about real places, especially ones I am familiar with, they had better get the details right. I read a Lydia Davis novella several years ago set in southern California and even though she never once mentioned city or street names, just by the details she employed I was able to figure out where the narrator’s house was. I must admit it gave me a little thrill especially since when she would drive somewhere I could make a complete picture of the scene. I felt like I was in on a secret.

    • So glad you liked the cactus, Stefanie – I love that you commented on it! We were on a “photograph a nice saguaro” mission – and it was in fact January 1992. We’d driven to New Mexico, spending New Year in the gorgeous Santa Fe, and were on the return route home. A wonderful holiday. I love finding opportunities to use my old photos which have all been scanned and I can access via my laptop.

      As for facts and real places, yes I believe you have!

  7. Hi Sue, I’ve enjoyed reading the discussion sparked by my piece for the Desert Nights, Rising Stars conference (and I can’t wait to hang out among some of that eye-catching cacti!). Further to the importance of the little things, I wrote a blog post about this after my most recent field visit to Thailand here. As I say in the post, part of the value for me of field work is in the ‘show, don’t tell’ moments that seem to leap out of the landscape.

    On the issue of getting the details right, in her article ‘Are We There Yet? – The Place of Place in Australian Crime Fiction’, Sue Turnbull suggests, ‘Paradoxically, the mapping of real space in crime fiction seems to be as much a pleasure for those who know that space intimately as for those who know it not at all. For the former, it’s the pleasure of recognition (or the niggle of knowing it better); for the latter, it is an encounter with the exotic.’ Your readers suggest, though, that the ‘niggle of knowing it better’ diminishes the pleasure of reading. Indeed, Turnbull goes on to argue ‘the more intensely local and/or regional a crime story is, the more it will be enjoyed by those from elsewhere.’

    Food for thought.

    • Thanks Angela, it’s lovely to hear from you. I’ll go read Sue Turnbull’s article. She’s certainly pinpointed the two joys about place – enjoying the familiar, being able to visualise the spots you know, and becoming enmeshed in a new, unfamiliar place. Fortunately for me, the “niggle” of knowing it better doesn’t seem to translate into “they’ve got the Opera House in the wrong place” spoiling it for me – though I suppose there’s always the first time. Maybe if an author put Parliament House on the north of Lake Burley Griffin, I might be miffed!

      I like your idea of capturing the “show, don’t tell” moments. That’s the challenge isn’t it? Because if authors do too much telling they get criticised for their research showing.

      • I am really excited about Arizona, Sue. It will be my first time ever in the USA and with the possible exception of New York, there’s pretty much no other part of the country I’d rather visit.

        • That’s great Angela. I was thinking after I made my comment that the SW with its deserts is very different to SE Asia and Thailand! I do hope you enjoy it. Sounds like you are going with a great attitude and expectation.

  8. I found Angela Savage’s process so interesting, particularly because the sensory details of her books transport me straight back to Thailand, making me hungry for the place all over again. And I agree with Nigel Featherstone’s comments about place as character. Great post, Sue.

    • Thanks Irma. I love hearing what writers say about these things.nim I’m glad Savage’s process works. Having barely been to Thailand that’s something I couldn’t really confirm, except that I enjoyed her descriptions.

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