On the 6th September I attended a Guardian Masterclass titled How to Write a Bestseller. The course consisted of a series of talks by Matt Haig (on Characterisation), Alex Preston (on Creating a Sense of Place and Atmosphere), and Evie Wyld (on Writing Fact and Fiction), followed by a general Q&A led discussion with Sebastian Faulks (which was very exciting as he’s one of my all-time favourite authors). It was a really enjoyable day, and all of the speakers were extremely charismatic and funny. They all had so many insightful things to say and I found it to be really useful, so this is a summary of the notes I took in case it’s of interest to anyone else. I’ve broken it down into the individual talks, but check the tags or links at the bottom of the page to see all four parts.
Alex Preston – Creating a Sense of Place and Atmosphere
READ! You can’t write if you don’t read.
Plot and character come out of place. Place has a strong influence.
Build a sense of place over time – less is more. Don’t overdo it!
You don’t have to describe everything, think of putting the specifics in the foreground. Think about the novel as a stage, and the props that would bring it alive.
Point of view is central to your description, and also gives information about characterisation – what the character would notice, what’s important to them. The 1st person voice is dictated by a sense of place – would the character have a dialect, what would be in their line of sight etc.
Think about how different people see different things in the world, and filter accordingly.
Use of symbolism is usually unintentional, but develops through place/atmosphere – what the characters see.
Give us your character’s engagement with the external world to show, don’t tell. Use all the senses to make the world real, but especially focus on smell.
The mental pictures we see when reading are a collage or collaboration of our own imaginary landscapes and what the books give us. When reading, we base our mental pictures of images we know, and then develop them – therefore we don’t need to be spoonfed the description. Don’t impose your vision of the world! Let the reader populate the background.
As the writer, you need to know ten times as much of the world as you actually put in – iceberg theory. The more you know, you’ll be better able to give the information that matters. But you need a sense of distance to be able to see the place clearly. Research! Immerse yourself in the world. Readers have bullshit detectors, and will tell if you don’t know what you’re talking about!
Establishing shots are hard to get right. They need a sense of motion or action. Pick out specific details to focus on.
Writing exercises to warm the brain up!
Choose a setting, and describe it to an outsider. Give a tour. See the familiar from new eyes.
Give a tour to someone from history – show them what’s changed.
Draw a map of the place you grew up and illustrate it with key life events. Think about how places are changed by events – emotionally and symbolically.
Know what’s in your character’s drawers!
Describe your childhood bedroom just using objects.
Use mood boards, music or a collage of objects to build atmosphere.
The visual’s so important to writing!
If you suffer from writer’s block, try changing the point of view or tense of your story.
Recommended reading: Bliss by Catherine Mansfield. Speak Memory by Vladimir Nabokov.
See also How to Write a Bestseller: Matt Haig on Characterisation, and check back tomorrow for part three of How to Write a Bestseller.