I’ve been doing a lot of hacking away at ‘Emmeline’ this week – in other news, I think I may have come up with a better title for the story, but more on that anon – and I’m right up there within, I’d guess, 5,000 words of the Grand Dénouement. However, nothing ever runs easily in my world.
I’m finding it tough going these past few days – maybe 500 words here, one thousand there – and I reckon there are a few reasons for that. One of the main reasons (besides a few plot issues, which I’m pretty sure a rewrite will take care of) is the fact that the ending of the book takes place in a part of the world I’ve never been to, in a space I find hard to imagine, and in a setting so unfamiliar and different from my everyday life as to be completely alien.
I’m learning that one of the most important things you can do for yourself when you’re writing is this: Believe in your settings.
If your book is set in our world, and you have the means to travel there, then I suppose nothing can beat the experience of seeing it for yourself. But, however, if you’re like most people and your means are feeling pretty mean, travelling to far-flung parts of the globe isn’t really an option. The internet can help, of course, with images and inspiration and handy phrases in the local language and first-hand testimony of how it feels to scale Everest or survive an earthquake or visit Pompeii, or whatever it is you’re writing about, and it’s a good tool to use if you can’t see your setting with your own two eyes. But something as important as all that – and something I am currently finding difficult – is the necessity to believe, wholeheartedly, in the setting you’re writing about. Write about it with as much confidence as if it was the view you can see out your bedroom window. Write about it with as much pizzazz as if your fictional setting was somewhere you know intimately. Open your imagination up, and make sure your settings – your landscape, your climate, your vegetation, your animal life, your transport networks, your geographical anomalies, your people, your language(s), whatever – are all as clear to you as the reality around you, whether or not your imagined landscape is strictly true.
Now, obviously, you don’t need to describe all this detail to the reader. All the story needs is what’s necessary to make it happen. But it helps you to know your setting in all this detail. In a lot of ways, depending on the book, the setting is as important as another character. You know your characters inside-out – their backstory, their dreams and hopes and loves, their motivation – so why not your landscape, too?
My story, right now, is suffering because of my own fear of the setting I’ve put it in. It’s a vast canvas, an empty and howling landscape, a frozen and barren expanse. I don’t know what it’s like to live and work there – and I don’t know what it’s like to breathe its air or walk on its surface or exist in its embrace. I’m trying to imagine it, and it’s hard. I lack the confidence in myself and my own ability to just trust myself to write it well, even if it’s not entirely geographically and/or climatically accurate. This particular landscape is important to the plot insofar as it’s a challenge, and an obstacle, and it’s home to certain creatures who do not have anything good to say about the heroine and her brave band of comrades – but I’m not writing a natural history of the country, and so I feel I’m getting hung up unnecessarily, in some ways. I’m allowing myself to be derailed by doubts – ‘could that actually happen?’ ‘There’s no way the landscape would look like that,’ ‘This is stupid! None of this could actually take place!’ – and I have to keep reminding myself that this is my book, my world, my story, and anything I dream can happen within it.
If verisimilitude of setting is important to you, or to your story, then by all means get your work checked over by someone who’s familiar with that part of the world, or do some more intensive research, or whatever you need to do once the words have been written. If, however, you’re not writing a book whose plot hinges on whether a particular type of flower grows at a particular altitude or whether a certain wave pattern brings specific weather effects to a defined part of the world, then perhaps it’s not as important to be absolutely accurate, in a geographical or scientific sense. What matters is that your landscapes and settings are real to you, and that they make sense in the world of your book – without, of course, taking liberties like placing a sandy desert in the heart of Antarctica (without having a very good, and logical, reason, at least!)
It’s hard to write without a backdrop against which to place your characters – at least, it is for me. But, equally important as having a clear, skilfully described landscape (not too much detail, and not too little) to place them in is having the confidence to say ‘this is my story, and this is my world. These are my rules.’
I’m going to tackle ‘Emmeline’ with a different mindset today. I’m not going to let my fears that I’m writing something ‘wrong’ derail my desire to finish this story, and I’m going to stop letting the backdrop run the whole show.
And I’m going to start trying to believe in myself a little more.