In many works of fiction, location is so vital to the heart of the book, it’s essentially another ‘character’. This doesn’t apply to all novels, but in others the author creates a location, just like a character, that’s incredibly memorable whether real or imaginary. To me this is part of the beauty of reading – I’m transported to Leningrad in Helen Dunmore’s The Siege, Nova Scotia in Annie Proulx’s Shipping News, or to a mythical place ”off the edge of the map” in the sizzling debut novel Snake Ropes, by Jess Richards.
As a writer, I think about the location almost before anything else. To me, that sets the scene, and from there the theme and characters can grow and live and become as three-dimensional as characters in a novel can be.
I currently live in Brighton UK. It’s on the south coast of England and is surrounded by the chalky cliffs of the South Downs. Think ‘White Cliffs of Dover’, and that’s what they look like. There have been a number of novels and films set here, the most famous being Graham Greene’s ‘Brighton Rock’.
The book was written in 1938, and the original film made in 1947 with a very young Richard Attenborough as ‘Pinkie.’
The underworld of violence and crime is juxtaposed against the perception of Brighton as a fashionable resort only fifty miles away from London. In the film, location is key – Brighton railway station with the beautiful arched ironwork, characteristic Brighton architecture of tall, sweeping terraces painted cream, and of course the pier, where many scenes, including the finale are filmed. My most vivid memory from first reading the book as a teenager, was Pinkie pouring vitriol onto the wooden railing of the pier to frighten his girlfriend – what would happen if it was thrown in her face! Scary stuff back then.
In thinking of location as a key part of a novel, as vital as the main protagonist, I thought about the West Pier as that character. Starting as the darling of the Victorian era, coming into her heyday when the British seaside tourist trade gets under way in the 1920′s and 30′s. Eventually, like an aging dowager she starts to get a little tarnished and shunned by everyone. She falls into disrepair, and is closed off. Finally, in mirroring the fate of Miss Faversham in Great Expectations, the West Pier is set alight, and any thought of restoration vanishes .There used to be two piers in Brighton – the West Pier, and the Palace Pier. The West Pier was closed in 1975, and burnt down in 2003.The remaining Pier is now simply called Brighton Pier. But the West Pier, now the town’s very own metal sculpture, stranded about 50 yards from the shore, has become an icon as well as something of a bird sanctuary. In the winter a murmeration of starlings appears and swirls between the two piers finally coming to land on the West Pier.
Brighton West Pier at sunset with a murmeration of starlings
Once she’s stripped to a skeletal structure, she takes her place in today’s history as a modern sculpture, a new landmark icon for the city of Brighton.
What a story you could weave around the life and death of the West Pier. Mmmm… maybe for my next novel.
Now it’s your turn. Is location important to you when you read a novel? If you wrote a book set in the place you live, what kind of novel would it be?
I’d love to hear your ideas.