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Where am I ?

Setting is about so much more than landscape and architecture, for me it is everything that isn't plot and character and that everything interacts with both: it is atmosphere, ethos, flavour, taste and colour. It is the essence of the story world. When you open a book, that is a portal into something else's mind, it is the world of the story that embraces you, that lures you inside. Who hasn't wanted to go to Hogwarts, Avonlea, Neverland, Narnia or New Crobuzon, the Yorkshire Moors or Northanger Abbey? Oh, come on, it can't be just me? I love that the fact that books take you somewhere else, that you swim in different waters, breathe a different air. You have been to the place where a story happened, and it lives in your head and in your memory long after the book is closed. Of course these places are made of words. In great books it is not just the obvious descriptive words but every line, that builds the unique particularity of the author's prose world. This is often the part of novel writing that new writers struggle with the most. They either weigh the text down with turgid explanations of how things are and dull descriptions of how things look, or fail to mention the setting at all so that people float in a void of default generalities. I think the trick is to always focus on the particular, to be precise in every word choice so that each word fits within our wordscape in register, meaning and rhythm and augments it, so that it helps create this incredibly detailed multifaceted sense of 'being there.' I know this rather begs the question 'how,' but for me asking the question at least helps us to be more aware of the challenge. It means a lot of re-envisioning of places, things, scenes, of endlessly returning to the text to bring elements of it into tighter focus. It makes painters of us all in forcing us to notice more and to bring more astute observations to the page in ways that are fresh and fitting. It isn't easy, I can tell you that, and it is rarely as successful as we could wish. People are formed by the environments, by the belief systems and social conventions of their milieu and that changes everything. Our readers have to believe that the characters in our books belong in their worlds, that they don't embrace twenty first century values in the sixth century or, indeed, the twenty ninth. It is about the way people speak their accent, voice and vocabulary as well as what they say, their references and metaphors. Setting is reflected in character as well as plot. It's why this whole writing business is about multi tasking, doing everything all at once because every paragraph has to be imbued with a sense of where and when the story is happening as well as letting us know what is going on, why and to whom! So many great books are great because of the startling vividness of their settings. Neither The Handmaid's Tale or Wolf Hall, would make sense were the place and time and values of those worlds not so brilliantly evoked. But even stories which take place in contemporary settings with which readers might be familiar need to have a strong, credible and well observed sense of place: my world is not your world, my friends are not your friends, what I believe about the world is different from what you believe, what I notice is not what you notice. As writers we need to recognise this and make it work for us, whether we write about the familiar or the strange. We must deconstruct what we know, in order to reconstruct it on the page. It's really tricky. Hi, I'm Nicky - welcome to my world.

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