The Power of Place


– a guest post by novelist Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn,
whose latest novel ‘The Broken Road’ is published next month

I like to set my novels in places that I know and love. First, because it’s always a joy to revisit them in order to do research (that’s my excuse anyway!). The second – and more important reason – is that I like my characters to live in places I know. It helps me when I’m writing to be able to ‘feel’ their environment, to know the streets they’re walking along, to see the world that they are seeing. The locations in my new novel ‘The Broken Road’, London, Plymouth and Venice, all more than fulfill the criteria, and I’d like to share a bit about their role in the novel.

First, though, a few thoughts about setting in fiction. There’s a tendency in modern writing to neglect setting for fear of boring the reader. Writers in the past had no such worries. We’ve only got to think of Hardy’s descriptions of Dorset, the wild moors of Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, and the London that Dickens evoked. But the argument that today’s readers are not interested in descriptions of place and will either skip those bits – or worse abandon the book altogether – is enough to frighten writers off.

But I think this is a mistake. Characters need to be rooted in place, as ‘real’ people are. Whether we’re by the sea, on a mountain peak, in a kitchen, in an operating theatre, in a hot place, a cold place, a prison, at an airport, in conflict with or at home in our setting, our moods will be different. Different things will happen to us. We’ll meet different people. We’ll be different people. Without a strong sense of place, it’s hard for a writer to fully realise character, and to achieve suspense and excitement.

So, back to ‘The Broken Road’. Much of the plot revolves round a family-run hotel in Plymouth, set in a magnificent location overlooking The Hoe and Plymouth Sound.

P10

Not only is there a wonderful view, but there’s a huge amount of history attached the place: the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for America from there; Francis Drake is said to have played bowls there while he waited for the Spanish Armada to arrive; Smeaton’s Tower, the eighteenth-century Eddystone Lighthouse has been rebuilt on The Hoe, and so much more.

This beautiful bay plays an integral role in the novel. For one of the main characters, Louise, it’s both a solace and a joy as we can see in this short extract:
The storm had left behind a canopy of clouds, puffy as pillows. Colour had leached from the sea, and waves rippled across its surface, scuffed up by the cool breeze. White foam, like soap suds, flared out from behind the ferry as it crossed the bay. Louise sat at the open-air café on the promenade and sipped her coffee. Her eyes reached for the Breakwater. This view was in her soul: her comfort, her security, her future.

Photo 2 Sarah

I visit Plymouth regularly, and no visit is complete if I don’t have my fix of The Hoe and Plymouth Sound.

And so to Venice, a city I have loved since I first went there twenty years ago. I love the quality of the light, the reflections that shimmer in the canals, the extraordinary beauty of the place.

Two of the characters in ‘The Broken Road’ go on an extended visit to Venice, a trip which is cut short abruptly when tragedy threatens to intervene. One of the characters writes poetry, and I wanted some real poems – that is not ones I’d cobbled together! – to be in the novel. I asked Sarah if she would consider writing some and was delighted when she agreed.

I knew immediately that I wanted one of the poems to be about La Donna Partigiana, a sculpture by Augustus Murer commemorating the women who contributed to the fall of Nazism in Italy.

The sculpture lies in the water just past the Giardini vaporetto stop. It was originally designed to be on a floating platform (best viewed from close up), by Venetian architect, Carlo Scarpa, But for various reasons, steel barriers have been erected round it, which for me increases its poignancy. It’is seen best at low tide, sometimes becoming invisible when the water is high.

I can’t see the sculpture without wanting to cry, and Sarah’s poem brings tears to my eyes in the same way the sculpture does. I often think it’s inappropriate for women who fought in the resistance to be commemorated by a vulnerable figure lying at the water’s edge, overcome by tides at regular intervals. But the key to its power for me lies in Sarah’s last two lines:

There is song still in her lungs
for those with the will to hear it.

Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn
www.lindsaystanberryflynn.co.uk