James Collins visited ePen, and we chatted about setting, time, and place in a story. If you are up for a rich and majestic story of long ago, enjoy the author’s post, then click on the image to get your very own copy of a really good read. Visit his links below and let him know how much you enjoyed the story!
Setting up a Strong Foundation
by James Collins
One of my favourite scenes in any novel is from R.D. Blackmore’s ‘Lorna Doone’, a sweeping classic of banditry and romance set in the wilderness of Exmoor in the south-west of England. The scene in question is when the protagonist Jan Ridd, a simple farmer, awakes to a snow-storm in which he tries to dig his sheep out of drifts to prevent them dying:
“All the earth was flat with snow, all the air was thick with snow; more than this no man could see, for all the world was snowing…For all this time it was snowing harder than it ever had snowed before, so far as a man might guess at it; and the leaden depth of the sky came down, like a mine turned upside down on us….”
Jan continues, “At one corner of the field, by the eastern end, where the snow drove in, [was] a great white billow, as high as a barn, and as broad as a house. This great drift was rolling and curling beneath the violent blast, tufting and combing with rustling swirls… And all the while from the smothering sky, more and more fiercely at every blast, came the pelting, pitiless arrows, winged with murky white, and pointed with the barbs of frost.”
The power and majesty of this depiction of the elements has always intrigued me. It was this which first alerted me to the importance of utilising the weather as part of a novel’s setting in order to emphasise the less tangible aspects of the subject matter. Jan Ridd’s travails were definitely still with me when I began to research my novel ‘Sol Limitis’, which is set in late Roman Britain on Hadrian’s Wall in the midst of a very harsh winter.
This sense of a bitter, crushing winter was important for me. I wanted a desperate environment, somewhere that represented the very ends of the known earth and all the hostility and dearth of civilisation which that represented. My object was to make the weather a main character, an immutable and impartial antagonist throughout the novel; the frozen ground, the bitter nights, this blanket of ice and death that drives everyone into their homes to seek shelter. Whilst mimicking the local hostility that the protagonist Atellus feels on arriving at the Wall, it also represents the winter of the Roman Empire, the dying of Roman influence in the north, and the reinstatement of Nature ahead of Man in the pecking order of power.
The climate was a large part of the setting for ‘Sol Limitis’. Ostensibly it’s a work of historical fiction set in the Roman period, but when it came to researching the place of the novel, I found that most of the tropes about ‘Roman Fiction’ (if such a sub-genre exists) had to be abandoned. The similarities between Ancient Roman life within the Imperial City and scratching a living on the late Roman limes (or frontiers) are few and far-between: the Britannia of my novel has more in common with the so-called ‘dark-ages’ in the couple of centuries following the end of Roman rule, than it does with the notion of Rome espoused by the Caesarian conquests of the first century BC. Rather than confident, professional, well-paid soldiers glowing with the importance of Rome and their mission of civilising the barbarian hordes, late Roman soldiers on the Wall were likely to be locally-born, semi-professional and largely unpaid (and increasingly unfed). Their allegiance to such abstract notions as ‘The Emperor’ and ‘Rome’ would likely have been tenuous, if they existed at all, and their loyalty would likely have been to their friends and family, and whoever supplied them with grain and wine that week.
And Hadrian’s Wall itself? I needed this to be something living and used, something stained and pitted with wear. I wanted to reclaim it from the tour guides and cartoonish representations in history books, and transform it into what it would most likely have been: something as hideous and powerful as a bleak concrete post-war housing estate. Not a curious and quaint artifact, but something that people lived in and on and under; people who hated and feared and respected it all at once, for it was their protector as well as their tormentor.
So all the elements combine to create a definite setting: the geography, the climate, the period, the architecture and infrastructure and, most importantly of all, the combined effect of all these on the mindsets and actions of the people inhabiting this world. I would argue that realistic characters cannot exist outside of and independent from a realistic setting. And I have found in my writing that the more time spent researching and honing the setting of a novel, the more the characters placed inside it tended to thrive and take on their own lives, almost independently of the author.
So like Jan Ridd’s storm, which blew from nothing and raged overnight to change his world, the slightest germ of an idea – the soot-black layers of brick in a building, a glance out of the window to see the trees bending in a gale, or a buried passage in a novel – can be inflated into the start of a setting which can nurture an entire novel.
James Collins is an author, editor, freelance journalist and recovering archaeologist. Born in Stoke on Trent in 1979, he studied archaeology at the University of Nottingham and went on to work as an archaeologist in the UK and abroad. Tired of wallowing in muddy holes for a living, he survived various unsavoury menial jobs before catching his breath in the construction and renewables industries for more years than was healthy. He is currently working towards being self-employed and to be able to get paid for doing what he loves: writing. James also plays and teaches classical guitar and spends most of his spare time studying the Daoist arts.—