How to choose a setting
Somewhere there were fires burning. Black smoke rose lazily to the north over Napa County and then slumped to the east, the breezeless air taking it nowhere.
The wind had switched off three weeks ago, as summer had tightened over California, stretching endless blue from the Cascade Range to Tehachapi Mountains. Only twice since then had Ruby Hall glimpsed a white cloud retreat, as if an embarrassed child missing a cue in a school play. The breeze that usually announced the afternoon continued to miss its cue, the evenings as still and sticky as the cloudless days.
Once there were no longer stark shadows across baking pavements, Ruby lay across a sunlounger by her cousins’ Seacliff pool, her salty-skin prickly under a thin cotton dress. With one hand, she lazily held a borrowed paperback, while from the other she kissed the last of sticky ice-cream trails. She could taste smoke and ash in the vanilla.
These are the first three paragraphs from the first draft of Fire in the Sea. First paragraphs, first page, first day. No edits. As you’ll know if you read Tuesday’s blog about choosing a title (you didn’t? really?), the book was then called The Deep Hereafter. Which is a silly title. If you’ve read Fire in the Sea (you haven’t? really?), then you’ll notice a few other key differences.
For one, Sadie is called Ruby. Ruby has always been my standby name for a female protagonist. I’m not sure I ever really meant to call her that. It’s become a terribly popular name in recent years. I also considered calling her Ivy at one point, but didn’t like how that looked on the page. It needed more letters! (Apologies if your name is Ivy; it’s a lovely name.) My wife eventually suggested Sadie to me, which I resisted for about half an hour before realising she was right. I was initially put off by memories of this.
I think Sadie’s/Ruby’s original surname would have lasted about three days. I prefer a surname with at least two syllables. I don’t know why. In the end, I gave her Henry Miller’s. Indeed, all but two of the characters in the book have surnames that are lifted from my bookshelf. (One of these characters took her first name from the shelf and the other is Jake.)
Jake, if you’re wondering, is my standby male name. I never intended to call Jake Jake. I was actually going to name him after my grandfather, Leonard. In the end, we had to change this, as apparently there is a character called Leo in another, very popular series about Greek mythology. Pah! There’s a joke that has survived until the final draft that actually doesn’t make much sense anymore. It originally went like this:
‘My name’s Leonard.’
‘I’m not calling you that. Nobody’s called Leonard.’
‘To be honest, I’d prefer you called me Mister Freeman.’
‘Shut up now Leo.’
I couldn’t quite bring myself to entirely lose this exchange, even though I discovered that Jacob is, in fact, an incredibly popular name these days. (Mind you, not many teenagers are called Jacob, not yet.)
I could go on and on about the hundreds of other names I went through trying to find an alternative. (Ralph… pronounced Raif? Ranulph? Er, no.) But I won’t.
The main difference, of course, is the setting. When I originally thought of the idea for Fire in the Sea, it arrived as a Perth idea. But I was worried that nobody would want to read an adventure story set in Perth.
The reason I worried about this was that I’d had an American agent tell me that stories set in Australia were very hard to sell, particularly to Americans. And I wanted to sell books. Even to Americans.
The other reason I worried was that Fire in the Sea felt like a big, blockbustery kind of adventure. And it seemed like those kind of stories always happened in big, exciting places like New York, London or San Francisco. It had always felt that way, growing up in Perth. I'd never seen a film or read a book that was big and exciting, but still set on my front doorstep. Life, with all its myriad possibilities, was happening somewhere else.
So, for a month or so, I set Fire in the Sea in San Francisco.
After a month or so, I realised it wasn’t working. I didn’t really feel connected to the book. It didn’t feel tangible. If you read the opening above, you’ll notice it reads more like a tourist guidebook than a sensual document. Compare it to the finished version:
Somewhere there were fires burning. Black smoke rose to the east behind the grey hills, then slumped west over the Perth suburban plain, the breezeless air taking it nowhere. Ash dusted squat brown houses and dry-grass yards, where dogs sneezed beside blackened barbecues.
That last line makes all the difference. You can feel that. You can taste the ash, feel the prickle of the dry grass. That line was written from life. Perth felt real to me in a way that an American city was never going to.
So, I dumped San Francisco and took the story back where it belonged.
In the process, I realised a couple of things.
- I realised how angry I was that someone thought stories set in Australia couldn’t be exciting.
- I realised how angry I was that I had been tricked into thinking that myself.
Suddenly, it felt important to me that the book be set in Perth, somewhere no story like this had ever been set. I now had something to prove — to myself, to that agent. And having something to prove is probably an excellent reason to write a book.
Changing the setting really opened up the book to me. Suddenly I remembered all these things that had happened to me as a boy — being chased by a seal when I was snorkelling; going sailing on the Swan River on a still evening; being swooped at night by vicious bird creatures (Oh wait, that’s the next book…)
Because my story is about Gods and monsters and Minotaurs, it was important to me that the setting felt very real. So I used real places. In the end, that’s the thing I’m probably happiest with about Fire in the Sea — the juxtaposition of extraordinary things with very ordinary places. Putting a big story somewhere that always felt very small.
When I was signing books at the Perth Writers Festival (I had the great misfortune to be seated next to the wonderful Andy Griffiths, whose lines stretched out the door, around the corner and across several streets), I had a number of young readers come up and tell me how excited they were that there was an adventure story set in their home town. That meant so much to me. I realised again how rare a thing it is. And I knew I’d made the right decision.
(For the record, I’ve had several Americans write to me to say they enjoyed the book very much, even if it wasn’t set in San Francisco.)
Should there be more adventure stories set in Australia? Do you prefer to read stories that are set here or abroad? Have you ever read a book set in your home town? Did it help you to see your town in a different light?