A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
This week on Author Allsorts we’re talking settings. Settings are key to the atmosphere of your writing, but have you ever thought how they can also reflect your characters?
Before I discovered YA, these books were my favourites:
All romantic Gothic fiction, many of them written over 200 years ago. The original Gothic—crumbling castles, desolate abbeys, haunted forests, secret passageways, hidden rooms, dungeons—all classic horror settings today.
Settings weren’t just important to those first Gothic stories: they made those stories. The settings both ramped-up the scare-factor and reflected the psychological state of the characters. All those hidden rooms and passageways often mirrored secrets the characters were keeping, or parts of the characters’ own personalities that they didn’t dare acknowledge.
Although it was YA that got me writing, it was inevitable that my first book, Glimpse, would have a touch of the Gothic about it.
Glimpse was inspired by Alfred Noyes’ poem ‘The Highwayman’—another thrillingly dark and romantic text I adore. Glimpse is set in the present day, over one hundred years after Noyes’ poem was written. After her grandfather dies, seventeen year old Liz inherits his house: the sixteenth-century Highwayman Inn. The inn is ancient, rumoured to be haunted, and, in the world of my book, famous for being where ‘The Highwayman’ poem was written.
The Highwayman Inn is a major setting in my story and was so much fun to write. For the ten years before he died, Liz’s grandfather was the sole occupant of the huge inn, allowing many of the rooms to fall into disuse. When Liz moves in, the old-fashioned furniture is coated in spider webs and mouse droppings, the small windows are smeared, the garden is a tangle of vegetation, and the woods that border the inn’s land are dark and forbidding.
As in classic Gothic fiction, the inn holds a mirror up to Liz. Having always been ‘the weirdo who sees things that aren’t there’, Liz feels isolated from those her own age—just as the inn is isolated from the rest of the village. Liz feels trapped by her past—just like the old-fashioned inn. As Liz explores herself and uncovers her history, more of the inn and its hidden rooms are uncovered too.
Alongside Gothic literature, I took inspiration from a real-life setting. Some online research led me to The Spaniards Inn in London. Just like my fictional Highwayman Inn, The Spaniards Inn dates from the sixteenth-century, is rumoured to be haunted, was once frequented by famous highwaymen, and is close to a spot where highwaymen were hanged. Tying in with my passion for Gothic fiction, the inn is said to have inspired scenes in Stoker’s Dracula, as well as Romantic-period writers like Byron.
I visited The Spaniards Inn to soak up the atmosphere, so I could make my written descriptions of The Highwayman Inn more vivid and realistic. I took lots of photos, and when I got back to my laptop my fictional inn gained narrower staircases, lower ceilings, dark beams, and a number of other details. If it’s possible to find real-life settings that are close to those you’re writing, I highly recommend visiting them.
Gothic fiction taught me how powerful settings can be in the atmosphere of a story, as well as how they can be metaphors for characters’ personalities and the issues they’re tackling. Do your settings reflect your characters?
Kendra is a YA author and chocolatier. Glimpse, her debut novel, was inspired by Alfred Noyes’ poem ‘The Highwayman’. It will be published in Autumn 2014 by Much-in-Little.