As human beings, we do not live in a vacuum. From the moment we are born, and forever thereafter, we inhabit specific places – places we call home. Those homes could be mansions or hovels, refugee camps or penthouses, cardboard boxes on street corners or canal boats.
And here’s the magic: we are shaped by every one of the places we’ve lived in.
Writers often use setting to reflect the internal lives of their characters. At the moment, I’m writing a novel about adoption called Before I Was Yours (out in July 2017). The adopters, Sam and Rosie Keep, live in a tiny, ramshackle cottage right on the edge of a railway. Every time a train roars past, the walls of their house shake. The way Sam and Rosie inhabit that house and the way it changes when their adoptive child comes to live with them, is hugely important to the story.
There is another important place for Sam and Rosie Keep: the home they grew up in, a house by the sea in North Wales to which they take Jonah, their adopted child.
Childhood homes hold a mythical quality for us. Our memory is only ever, at best, a fictional version of reality, weighed down by our biases and emotions. And yet, even this fiction, tells us something about who we are – and who are characters are.
Furthermore, when we leave a place, it can sometimes feel like losing a person we love. We grieve for it. We feel that a part of ourselves has been lost. This too informs our emotional landscape.
I’ve recently read the beautiful, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. The home in which Rosemary, her protagonist grew up, is vital to our understanding of her character and her past – it also reveals beautiful twist which I wouldn’t give away for love or money.
Below is an extract from the novel when Rosemary goes back to her childhood home, a home she grieves for. It has inspired me to think about the power of home for my characters – I hope it does the same for you.
What makes this exercise effective?
Houses in fiction are often personified as characters. This is certainly true of my novel, The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells . No. 77, Willoughby Street, the tall, skinny, redbrick house with its scaffolding and damaged roof, is as alive as the characters who live in it. Homes act as a mirror to our characters. They also contribute richly to the atmosphere of our stories and can play a vital role in the plot too.
Homes also make the world of our stories real for our readers. Last Friday I was invited to attend a book group that had read Norah Wells. One of the members made a lovely comment: ‘the house and the garden the you describe is so real that I can imagine it exactly; I saw myself living there.’
Isn’t that incredible? That if we make the homes of our characters come to life, our readers will move in.
- Read the extract (below) from We Are Completely Beside Ourselves. Look carefully at how Karen Joy Fowler writes about Rosemary’s childhood home – look particularly at how the house is presented through Rosemary’s eyes and what this tells us about Rosemary and her feelings about her past.
- Think about a home you have lived in. It could be from any point in your life. And use the term home in the broadest possible way: the tent in your back garden, which you slept in every night one summer; your grandparents house; the hollow of a tree that you hid in every day for a month; your university room or the place where you live now.
- Using the five senses (touch, taste, smell, sight, sound) make notes on what that places is like.
- Using your sixth sense, your intuitive, emotional sense, make notes on how that place made you feel. Think about particular emotions like anxiety, fear, love, longing, security – most places hold a real mix of emotions, often in tension with one another.
- Add a fictional element to that home, something which was not part of the original place. You might want to put your home in a different country or change the colour of the walls or imagine a different garden or change your home’s shape or size or give it a special basement or attic.
- Choose a character, either from a piece you are writing at the moment or create a character from scratch (man, woman, old, young etc.) and give them that home – with both its real and fictional elements. Think of a reason for why they might go back and visit it. Then present that place through their eyes.
- Now write!
- If you are working on a novel, think about a childhood home which was important to one of your characters. Have your character visit that home and think about what this visit might reveal about him or her.
- Do this for another character.
- Repeat the exercise from the main workshop above but present the same place from a different character’s viewpoint. In Karen Joy Fowler’s book, the house is visited by Rosemary and her brother but we only see it through Rosemary’s eyes. The place would have looked very different to Russell: he’s a boy, he’s older and he had different experiences there.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, pp. 74-76
I was told to go through.
I didn’t want to. I was frightened. I felt that the house must be hurt not to be my house anymore, that it must feel abandoned.
“It’s just an empty house,” Lowell told me encouragingly…
I scraped through the dog door into the kitchen, stood up inside a fall of sunlight, dust motes caroming and shining about me like glitter. I had never seen the kitchen empty. The scuffed linoleum was brighter and smoother where the breakfast table ought to have been. Fern and I had once hidden under that table so that no one would see us drawing on the floor with felt-tip markers. The ghosts of our artwork were still visible if you knew where to look for them.
The empty room closed about me like a hum, squeezed me tightly until it was hard to breathe. I felt the whole kitchen thick with rage, only I couldn’t tell if it was the house or Fern who was so angry. I opened the door hastily for Lowell and Russell, and as soon as they entered, the house let me go. It was no longer angry. Instead it was terribly sad.
The boys went ahead, talking quietly so I couldn’t hear, which made me suspicious so I followed. There were so many things I missed here. I missed the staircase. We used to sled down on beanbag chairs. I missed the cellar. In the winter, we’d always had baskets of apples and carrots you could eat without asking, as many as you wanted, though you had to go down in to the dark to get them. I wasn’t going into the dark now unless the boys did, and if they did, then I wasn’t staying behind.
I missed how big and busy it had always been. I missed having a yard I couldn’t see the end of. I missed the barn, the horse stalls filled with broken chairs and bicycles, magazines, bassinets, our stroller and car seats. I missed the creek and the fire pit, where we roasted potatoes or popped corn in the summer. I missed the jars of tadpoles we kept on the porch for scientific observation, the constellations painted onto the ceilings, the map of the world on the library floor, where we could go with our lunches and eat in Australia or Equador or Finland. My palms cover continents curved in red letters down the far western edge of the map. My palm didn’t even cover Indiana, but I could find the state on the map by shape. Soon I’d hoped to be able to read the words. Before we moved, my mother had been teaching me out of my father’s maths books. The product of two numbers is a number.
“What a freak show,” Russell said, which took the shine right off for me. What a dump. My room in our new house was bigger than any room here.
“Is the lawn still electrified?” Russell asked. The front yard was choked with dandelions, buttercups and clover, but you could see how it was meant to be a lawn.
“What are you talking about?” said Lowell.
“I heard if you stepped on the grass, you got an electric shock. I heard it was all wired up to keep people out.”
“No,” said Lowell. “It’s just regular grass.”