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Why Place is so Important in Fiction by Helen Matthews

It is a treat to have the bestselling author of Facade, Helen Matthews visit the blog today to explain the importance of setting in novels. Thank you for your time and expertise, Helen.

What are the key ingredients for a novel to linger in the reader’s memory? I’d argue that, after establishing the characters and figuring out the plot, it’s the setting and sense of place that bring a story to life. When I’m reading a novel I want to immerse myself in the world the author has created. I don’t mind if it’s an exotic location or an everyday sort of place – I want to be there with the characters as they reveal their stories.

Who remembers the first lockdown in spring 2020, when we weren’t allowed out, unless we were key workers, or for supermarket visits and daily exercise. The once-familiar world close to our homes transformed into an alien landscape. Where were the crowds of people? The queuing traffic? What was that strange high-pitched whistling noise? Clue: it was probably bird song.

My chosen exercise was cycling, and by midsummer 2020 I’d covered almost 1,500 miles on my bike. I could travel further on two wheels than on foot and because I was cycling solo, I was hyper-aware of my surroundings. Some days my route took me past the spot where our husbands had set up a banner and balloons to welcome me and my two girlfriends back from a 90-mile bike ride along the Kennet and Avon Canal starting in Bath. Passing that spot stirred in me the same sense of achievement I’d felt three years ago when our saddle-sore backsides crossed the finish line. Places can spark memories buried deep inside you.

In fiction we create a sense of place using words. This doesn’t mean heavy-handed description or a glut of adjectives and superlatives. A few lightly-sketched details and some sensory triggers of smell or touch can bring a location to life and create a mood.

My latest novel, Façade is psychological suspense and mystery but houses, homes and property are vital underlying themes which add substance to the plot. There are many classic examples of houses being central to a book’s plot, and the mood of its occupants. Manderley, the brooding mansion in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, inspires a sense of tension and dread not only from the building itself but its clifftop position with the destructive currents of the ocean swirling below. The house in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is even more isolated in its bleak moorland setting and stands as a symbol of turbulence, foreboding and destruction.

In a more recent novel, I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers, the Hampstead home of an American family is the physical scaffolding that gives shape to the novel shape and all present day action hangs from it. The main character, Michael, lives in a flat next door and his war correspondent wife has recently died while on assignment in Pakistan. In his grief, Michael leans heavily on his neighbours, practically living in their pockets and the book opens with him entering their – supposedly - empty house through the back door to borrow some DIY equipment. Readers hold their breath, knowing something appalling is going to happen as, chapter by chapter, we’re invited to shuffle in through the back door and up the staircase for a closer view. This is literary fiction about loss and suffering, guilt and grief and the near-impossibility of redemption. The angst Sheers creates is visceral. He uses the staircase to form the spine of the novel and although the timeline of the novel encompasses earlier events, including the conflict in Pakistan; the imagery and sense of place he conjures up are masterful.

In my own novel Façade it’s not a coincidence that one of the two main characters, Rachel has built up a successful property business from small beginnings, while her sister Imogen, despite marrying a once-successful rock star, has squandered everything and never owned a home. Jealousy of her sister’s success drives Imogen to extreme lengths in her quest for revenge.

In Façade, there’s a whole cast of houses and homes, including minor ones such as Gamekeeper’s Cottage, where some bad things happen but two properties are central to the story. The first is The Old Rectory, a splendid Georgian house owned by Rachel and Imogen’s parents, that was once perfect but is now decaying. To each family member, The Old Rectory means something different. The house keeps the family trapped in the past, by tragedy, envy, guilt and by a burden of obligation. The Stapleton parents have a schizophrenic relationship with the house: it’s the place where their baby son, George, died but also a symbol of their lost success, wealth, and importance. To Rachel, the daughter who has supported her parents financially, it’s a never-ending burden which traps her on the treadmill of a life that no longer fits. The following quotation gives a sense of how Rachel feels about the house:

The feeble sunshine painted The Old Rectory’s rear windows into reflective mirrors and the house seemed to whisper to her, as if re-establishing its claim: mend me, fix me, love me. She gave the neighbour’s cat, Monty a final hug and set him down on the path.

For Imogen, the family home is a cause for resentment because she believes her parents have helped bankroll Rachel’s business and are clinging on to the house, rather than selling it and passing some of their wealth to her. Returning to England following the death of her husband, Imogen gets a job interview through an old friend, Gavin. He’s one of those people who knows everyone and everything so he also finds her a place to live, rent-free, in a houseboat called the Lazy Lucy on the Regent’s Canal at Little Venice in London. Here, the sense of community among boat dwellers in their hidden central London location is strong and Imogen meets genuine people, such as Bill, and has the opportunity to reinvent herself.

Imogen sensed Bill had spotted a vacancy in her life and, in his clumsy yet endearing way, imagined he was edging closer to filling it. He’d invited her to spend a weekend with him in Dartmouth where, it appeared, he owned a quayside cottage but no boat. So, being a boat obsessive, he rented out his cottage and lived most of his time in London on the canal. What was wrong with some people?

In this healing environment, Imogen could begin to atone for her past but, when the opportunity arises and a much older ‘flame’ reappears in her life, off she goes again, chasing wealth and the admiration she confuses with love.

Imogen drifted from room to room, sensing life going on elsewhere and pined for the carefree days on the Lazy Lucy: the swish of water; the neighbours, so close she could hear them arguing or brushing their teeth; the sizzle of olive oil hitting the pan as someone cooked dinner.

Within the close community of London’s waterways, Imogen had found home but, tragically for her, she failed to recognise it.

The Author

Born in Cardiff, Helen read English at the University of Liverpool and worked in international development, consultancy, human resources and pensions management. She fled corporate life to work freelance while studying for a Creative Writing MA at Oxford Brookes University. Her stories and flash fiction have been shortlisted and published by Flash 500, 1000K Story, Reflex Press, Artificium and Love Sunday magazine.

She is a keen cyclist, covering long distances if there aren’t any hills, sings in a choir and once appeared on stage at Carnegie Hall, New York in a multi-choir performance. She loves spending time in France. Helen is an Ambassador for the charity, Unseen, which works towards a world without slavery and donates her author talk fees, and a percentage of royalties, to the charity.

My author website: you can sign up for my mailing list or order signed books from my online shop.

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