As someone with a foot in two camps, Meg Mundell is exceptionaly qualified to talk about the mechanics and craft of writing. Not only is she a journalist with a proven track record and a huge amount of varied experiences, Meg is also the author of the acclaimed and multiple award nominated Black Glass, one of the stand out spec fic novels of 2011. As someone who has aspirations in both these directions, I’ve always been very interested in hearing Meg talk about her approach to writing, and delighted to discover how generous she is in sharing her knowledge with other writers. It’s always a pleasure to discover that someone you look up to as a writer is also a wonderful person! Whatever you are writing, I think that you will find a great deal of value in Meg’s post and I am thrilled to welcome her to my blog for today’s Wednesday Writer.
LOCATING STORIES: THE POWER OF PLACE
Most readers, when they open a book, are seeking something deeper than entertainment. When I dive into a story, I want to be transported into another world: a hardscrabble logging camp in the remote Louisiana wilderness, in Tim Gautreaux’s The Clearing; the sky-skimming exhilaration of mid-air flight, in Claire Corbett’s When We Have Wings; the trauma-steeped corridors of a wartime mental hospital in Pat Barker’s Regeneration; the cabin of a dying space shuttle stranded on the dark side of the moon, in Jed Mercurio’s Ascent – just to name a few recent and memorable reads.
What do I want from a story? I want to slip through the back of the wardrobe and emerge in Narnia; to step through the mirror into Wonderland. To feel the brutality and isolation of that muddy logging camp, to catch the thrilling lift of that thermal updraft, to suck down the last lungful of oxygen in that doomed space shuttle. I want to feel like I’m really there.
As a writer, the same holds true: when writing, I set out to immerse myself in an alternate reality, to disappear into what narrative researcher Charlotte Doyle calls the “fictionworld”, the imagined environment in which my characters play out their lives. I want to build a rabbit-hole into which my readers will gladly take a tumble. I want to give them a palpable and satisfying sense of thereness.
To this end, I invest a lot of energy in creating vivid settings. After all, nothing happens in a vacuum: all stories take place somewhere. A compelling setting can serve a story in so many ways: it helps anchor your tale in a specific place and time; it can entice or force characters into taking certain steps, or facing particular choices, propelling the story forward (two teens, lost on a camping trip, must share a sleeping bag to ward off hypothermia); it can shape the way characters interact with one another, the way social roles and power dynamics unfold within the story (a lowly office cleaner, unfairly facing the sack, discovers the manager passed out drunk beneath her desk after-hours); it can evoke mood, provide drama and narrative tension, and reveal a great deal about characters’ lives, emotions and personalities.
But most importantly, a convincing setting helps readers feel like they’re actually there in person, seeing the fictionworld through the characters’ eyes, feeling it with all their senses. Recent neurological studies have shown that when you get “lost” a good book, your brain replicates the sensory experiences of the characters you’re reading about. I kept this idea in mind while writing my first novel, BLACK GLASS, a work of speculative fiction. The book is set in a dystopian near-future world (or perhaps a parallel “now”) ruled by surveillance, segregation and civil unrest. Two of my main characters, young Tally and her friend Blue, are homeless “undocs”, struggling to survive on the fringes of a hostile city, in a society that sees them as worthless.
In bringing this setting to life, I borrowed some of Melbourne’s street names and landmarks, relocated, morphed and re-configured them to suit the tale, and amped up the sense of “there-ness” until it felt convincing. To research some of the book’s crucial sub-settings, I went out “location-scouting” missions – long walks and bikerides through some of Melbourne’s more derelict, forgotten corners: industrial zones, vacant lots, stormwater drains. Like anyone forced to survive on the streets, Tally and Blue must find safe spots to sleep at night, and to depict these hidden corners, I also drew on my time spent working at The Big Issue years ago, as staff writer and deputy editor. The magazine’s vendors showed me some of their own sleeping spots, tucked down back alleys, under bridges and freeway overpasses. With the writer’s natural magpie instincts, I shamelessly borrowed and adapted these locations too.
So much for research. How do authors write vivid settings? There’s no need to harangue readers with long descriptive passages, or tangled strings of adjectives: a few telling details will often do the trick. Does the place have a particular smell? Does it show signs of neglect, or traces of past inhabitants? Are there clues to what has happened here, or is about to happen – an overturned chair, a neat row of children’s shoes, a forest of waist-high weeds, a deck of playing cards splayed across the floor? How do your characters feel and behave in this place – are they at home here, or are they outsiders? Are they trapped, seeking sanctuary, cast adrift, out of place?
I find places endlessly fascinating. They shape our experiences, our relationships, our sense of self, the very course of our lives. Place is so central to how I see the world, when I sit down to write a new short story, setting often comes to me first. I count myself lucky that storytelling – of both the fiction and non-fiction varieties – has given me the perfect excuse to visit some amazing places in the name of research: an old quarantine station, outback truckstops, idyllic riversides, the backrooms of a crematorium, a gigantic factory that prints money. It’s also allowed me to draw on the magic of lost childhood places, to recall those peculiar enchanted sites that were once so special to me.
Writing also gives me a free passport to explore (and invent) places I’ve never visited in real life: spooky underwater caves, a cosmetic surgeon’s consulting room, the slippery deck of a container ship. What’s more, the wonder of stories is that these trips can be shared with others. Author and academic Nigel Krauth suggests that writing and reading involve a shared navigation of an imaginative terrain: “The psychological journey [of] the characters…is replicated for the reader. Poems and stories are…journeys of upheaval from a place left behind into new experience, new vision, new knowledge and understanding.”
When I open a book, that’s exactly what I’m seeking: new experiences, new sights, sounds and smells, a touch of armchair-based upheaval. No two people will read a single story in exactly the same way; our own unique imaginations, values and perspectives always play a part (for proof of this subjectivity, look no further than book reviews). But when we do read the same story, you and I immediately have something in common: we’ve both visited the same fictionworld, seen it through the characters’ eyes, felt it through the conduit of their senses. Sure, it might be an invented place, one that exists purely in the mysterious realm of the imagination. But in a very real sense, we’ve both been there.
Meg Mundell is an author, journalist and researcher based in Melbourne. Her first novel BLACK GLASS (Scribe, 2011) was shortlisted for the 2011 Aurealis Awards (in two categories), the 2012 Norma K Hemming Award, the 2012 Chronos Award (Best Long Fiction), and the 2010 Scribe-CAL Fiction Prize, and Highly Commended in the 2012 Barbara Jefferis Award. Meg’s short stories have appeared in Best Australian Stories, New Australian Stories, Australian Book Review, Eureka Street, Meanjin, Harvest, The Big Issue and Sleepers Almanac. Her journalism has been published in The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Financial Review, The Big Issue, The Monthly and others. She’s now working on three projects: a second novel, a non-fiction book about outback trucking, and a PhD looking at how authors research “sense of place”.