Why Choosing Your Setting is Important
by Peter Cunningham
Setting in a novel is crucial. Whether your novel is set in the White House, or in a submarine, or the headquarters of the KGB, or in the board room of a Wall Street bank telling detail is paramount. I once knew a lady researcher who worked for the famous novelist Morris West. West would write to her with requests such as, ‘Give me a fresco in Pisa’, or ‘Let me have a nineteenth century kitchen in Scotland’. When a reader comes across such details, usually early in a book, his or her trust in the story becomes a reality and the crucial suspension of disbelief follows.
They say you should write about what you know. Ian Fleming worked briefly in the British Secret Service; Saul Bellow grew up in Chicago, the city that was to form the backdrop to many of his novels. John Updike was a product of the suburban America he so immortalized.
I began my writing career with a number of thrillers that required extensive research. I enjoyed being in the Negev Desert, and the Australian outback, being part of a DEA squad in New York City and standing in the frenzy of the oil trading pit in NYMEX, New York.
But then, something happened that changed my life. Peter, our eldest son, a golden boy, died at the age of sixteen. I was plunged into an inner world of grief and personal torment that I had not known existed. It was in this dark and utterly lonely place that I reached out and began to touch the parts of my own life that I knew so well but had, in my writing at least, either overlooked or forgotten.
I was born and raised in the city of Waterford, in the south east of Ireland. Waterford is Ireland’s oldest city. It was here that the English king Henry II landed in the mid-12th century to begin his conquest of Ireland. From my earliest memory I had been part of the streets and alleyways, terraces and intriguing hidden squares that make up Waterford’s medieval city.
The county of Waterford is one of the most beautiful in all of Ireland. Its coastline of cliffs and coves, its sandy beaches, tiny islands and exquisitely scented valleys were all laid down in my mind and imagination from the time I could walk.
When I resumed writing, as I tried to cope with our enormous tragedy, I decided that from then on I would set my books in the city whose every bend of street and house gable was familiar to me, and whose hinterland of mountains and sea I knew like the back of my hand.
Since my books would be set, largely, over the span of the twentieth century, I soon found a problem that I had not anticipated: Waterford City had changed a number of times in that period. And so, a man walking from his house in Ballybricken in, say, 1922, and proceeding downhill to the Quay that flanks the River Suir, would have passed different buildings, shops, houses and institutions than his successor making the same journey in the year 2000. Records for the intervening years were imperfect.
The most familiar setting I knew had already thrown me back into research, or so it seemed. I decided to do something different. I decided to invent a town, called Monument, which would be closely modeled on the Waterford I knew. Monument would have a mighty river beside it; but that river would now be called the Lyle, not the Suir. I made a detailed map, naming my streets and squares, but always with their Waterford counterparts in mind. This was a most liberating experience, for it meant I was free.
I applied the same solution to the hinterland, coming up with coastal places, villages, even a range of mountains. With the confidence of my real setting, now re imagined, I could concentrate on the characters in my books, their loves and lives, their fears and hopes as never before.
These books, now called the Monument books, are being made available as ebooks. The first, ‘The Sea and the Silence’ is now published. It is set in this town I knew as a child, beside the sea I swam in, along the beaches I have walked since my earliest days.
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Genre – Historical Fiction/Historical Romance
Rating – G