When place is a character

Well over a decade ago (before I wrote my first book) I had the good fortune of going to a Brisbane Writers’ Festival discussion on the importance of place—how the location, the landscape, the geography, the street, the residence, etc., all set the scene in any genre.

My publisher Lindy Cameron (Clan Destine Press) also reaffirmed this in regard to crime fiction, telling me “one of THE most important things about crime fiction is a strong sense of place. Real places make the crime and characters more believable.”

In some novels place or the location becomes in itself a character.

This week I’ve been in Victoria doing research for two books I’m writing—a non-fiction set at Hanging Rock in the Mount Macedon area and a YA set in Port Fairy (the shipwreck coast).

Consider the scene and location for (Lady) Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. Here we have the innocent young women from Mrs. Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies, wearing their gloves, corsets and petticoats—the ill-fitting European dress code—in the Australian bush against the rock described by Joan Lindsay as “a living monster”. The Hanging Rock is a character—Joan Lindsay capitalises the ‘Rock’ in all references.

The Power of Place bannerThis scenario also reminds us of the power of wild and lonely places. History is littered with tragic examples: the disappearance of Azaria under the shadow of the monolith, Uluru; the brutal child murders almost half a century ago by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley on the desolate English moors; the quiet and pristine stretch of sand on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey, where our ANZACs faced slaughter; or in fiction, the bleak unfriendliness of the moors providing the background to Catherine and Heathcliff’s love and destruction in Wuthering Heights.

Picture the setting for A Game of Thrones, the first novel in A Song of Ice and Fire by American author George R. R. Martin. Here we encounter the Wall—a huge structure of ice, stone, and magic power that protects the Seven Kingdoms. Do you see it as a character? Imagine the story without the Wall and the bleak environments that seem unconquerable.

Who hasn’t pictured themselves at Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice, wanted to follow the north wind to the tranquil French town in Chocolat, envisaged Quoyle’s return to Newfoundland in The Shipping News (and to the lashed down house-upon-the-rocks—the house surely a character) or felt the dry heat or imagined the scent of the bush in The Thorn Birds or Seven Little Australians?

But let’s not forget the important of the gritty urban or underworld settings particularly in crime novels where the dark hides evil and the innocent appear more vulnerable. Andrew McGahan’s Praise paints the city scene of drugs and the dole in the Australia of the 1990s, then there is the sinister crime scene of Gorky Park and check out the cityscapes that Lee Child’s wanderer Jack Reacher explores across the US continent.

Of course the internet makes location research much easier today than it was for authors of past eras. When writing my Mitchell Parker crime thriller, Graveyard of the Atlantic, I sat in Brisbane, Australia and watched the Cape Hatteras beach in the USA via a beach camera. But there is nothing like being there and I’m all the richer for visiting Hanging Rock and the ‘village’ of Port Fairy.

Do you know any great examples of place as a character?