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How to choose a setting

Mar 21,2013
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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.

  1. I realised how angry I was that someone thought stories set in Australia couldn’t be exciting.
  2. 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?

Mar 22,2013

Interesting that I'm not the only one who has felt that way!

I think, growing up, I preferred stories set elsewhere for two reasons. The first was, as you said Daydreamer, that they were a taste of somewhere I had never been. They felt like a complete escape from my world. Which, really, is what you want from fiction.

The second reason was that there weren't many books (if any) set in Perth that were the sort of stories I wanted to read. I always loved adventure stories -- although I preferred those that started in the ordinary world -- and those did always seem to be set in exciting places I had never been.

Ultimately though, I think you need to write about what you know. It's one of those true cliches. Foreign places might feel familiar from fiction (TV, films, books), but you need a kind of sensual memory of these places to make them feel truly real, I think. You need to have smelled them, tasted them and heard them. That said -- how does this work with historical fiction? Or fantasy? Okay, maybe that's just a rule for me.

The big decision I think I came to is the one that you've come to, ambivalence. Australia is exotic! Australia is new! It's a place not many people out there have read much about! Looked at in that light, it's even more exciting than London or New York or Tokyo, when it comes to setting adventure stories here!

Mar 21,2013

Oh, I love that description. x) And I tend to think of big, exciting things as happening outside of Australia as well (yep, usually in America. It's such a big, dominant country it seems like it opens all kinds of possibilities for crazy situations), but when I take a moment longer to think about it, two series of books that I love come to mind and both of them are set in Australia. So I know it can be done successfully. :)

While I am not opposed to books set in Australia, I think one thing I love about books set abroad is that it's set somewhere you've never been and so it has a certain appeal to it; you're exposed to a unique culture, tradition and way of life in general - though even as I'm writing it, I realise even that's unique. Looking at my bookshelf, I seem to be alternating between English and American settings (although, in the defense of the former, the authors are English so I suppose that's fair).

Mar 21,2013

Okay, I will guiltily admit that I too, think, that it's easy and better to set a story in America. Not to be mean, but America is just a... problematic country. There's just so much room for Something Dreadful to happen. When I think of good ol' Australia, I feel like we're a bit... soft.. and not crazy dangerous. We're just... nice. For example, guns. In the US, you can have a teenager who somehow ends up in this life-threatening situation easily find access to a gun when they need to launch into an adventure. But not so much in Australia (NOT THAT I WRITE ABOUT THESE THINGS. TEENAGERS, STAY AWAY FROM GUNS.)   So writing in America... is more of a matter of convenience.

THAT BEING SAID, I have changed my opinion. I mean, Australia is still nice, but I think that as writers, it's our responsibility to use that imagination and make it happen wherever it needs to. And the American setting is sort of overrated right now - predictable, even - whereas Australia's new and quirky and not everyone knows about it (I mean, people still think we have pet kangaroos... not that I'm actually doing anything about dispelling those rumours) so in fact, we should be even more exciting than somewhere like the US or England.

So Perth is great, and I shall be aiming to somehow explore Australia in my future writing endeavours too ^_^

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