A haunting house ~ how setting for a story matters
Have you ever read a story where the setting makes as big an impression on you as the characters or the plot? Where the place of the story is as vital a cast member as the main character? One such novel is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca where the rambling beauty and luxury of Manderley and its grounds take precedence over the mousy, insignificant and never-named narrator, the second Mrs de Winter. Or The Far Pavilions where India during the Raj is displayed in mesmerising detail. These are rare novels where the place the story takes place is perfectly balanced with the rest of the components of the story, and combine being perfect backdrops with being almost an entity in their own right. Fantasy novels create entire worlds for the story to unfold onto, and Middle Earth springs to mind instantly, the Shire as home for hobbits especially contrasting with the ruinous splendour of Minas Tirith and the horror of the land of Mordor.
I can’t count myself in the same league as any of these writers. I’m much smaller in scope and in vision. Much of both Strangers & Pilgrims and Away with the Fairies (see their separate pages at the top of the header if you’re curious) is set in small cottages, isolated from community and located in the English countryside. As Jean Raffa commented in her review of Strangers & Pilgrims, it’s quite clear how much I love the land I live in by the way I write about it. I can’t say I’m never going to write about an exotic far off land, but the balance of probability is that I won’t. Advice I was given as a teenager by a moderately famous writer was to write what you know about best. While imagination is a grand tool, I’m too limited as a person and as a writer to write solely from what my mind alone constructs and so places especially are always drawn from my personal experience. I’ve never once named the locations of stories, leaving readers to decide for themselves roughly where a book is set. I’ve also avoided intricate descriptions of interiors unless there is a good reason for doing so.
That doesn’t mean I can’t myself visualise clearly what a place is like. I can. I’d just rather not bog down a reader in too much extraneous detail. I’ve written about two cottages (Isobel’s cottage, for those interested, appears in two more novels) in books already released, and there’s a third one to appear in a book later this year (I hope) but there’s a reason why I find the cottage such an appealing setting. It’s cosy and intimate and lends itself well to both intense dialogue and to introspection for the characters. It’s cut off in some way from the hustle and bustle of a community. It also has history and stability. Isobel’s cottage is old, and a little run down and lacking in modern amenities. It emphasises the time out aspect of her needs, and the isolation from everyday concerns.
There’s also a few vicarages in my books. I’ve lived most of my adult life in one, though for the last five or so years, I’ve lived in an ordinary private home. Again, write what you know, but for many people what goes on inside a rectory, vicarage or manse is unknown and a little mysterious. There are pressures that most folks do not understand or imagine. Isobel’s experience is far from unusual and she copes better with it than I did. Her vicarage is a composite of the ones I have lived in or visited, and the constant barrage of phone calls etc is accurate to my experience of it.
The novel I am most proud of and hope to release this year has several settings. There is a cottage, and a vicarage but there is also something quite different: a large, rambling old mansion:
“Once she got up close to the house, she began to think hard. She walked round the outside of the building, counting chimneys and windows, stared at the extent of the grounds. She gazed at the house with an historian’s eye, saw the elegant melding of eras in the large house, saw stonework that must be mediaeval and timber framing that must be Tudor. She looked at it with the eyes of an estate agent and she saw a fortune.”
Now since I wrote my first novel at ten, this house or a version of it has been in my mind, growing and changing as my understanding and imagination also grew and changed. As the story emerged that I named The Bet, the house in which much of it takes place also emerged, vivid in my mind to the extent that I can see the rooms clearly:
When they got into the old nursery, Jenny was speechless for all of a minute, staring round with amazed eyes. It was a huge room, the floor polished boards covered with another ancient but probably priceless Persian carpet, like something out of the Arabian Nights. One entire wall seemed to be tall windows with leaded panes, a radiator underneath. The original furnishings from Ashurst’s brief childhood here were still exactly as they had been then, more or less untouched since he’d left, asleep in his father’s arms after his brush with death he still didn’t remember.
“Bloody hell, it’s freezing,” she said and she went across and put her hand on the radiator. “Stone cold. We’ll need better heating in here for a start.”
She went over to the carved crib, touching it in disbelief.
“This is practically medieval, this crib thing,” she said, running her hand along the smooth wood.
“Jacobean,” Ashurst said automatically.
“Christ,” said Jenny. “Still I bet any toxic substances have been slobbered away by generations of little Ashursts, so it should be safe enough with a new mattress and stuff. Oh, what a lovely rocking horse. No wonder you’re so spoiled if this is what you started life with. What’s the little room at the end?”
During my life, I’ve visited many old houses and have made mental snapshots that I have stored in my memory to use as building blocks for images. Dreams only ever use things stored in the memory for their visual images, producing intricate composites of hundreds of details and the finished dream is a new product. It’s the same with settings for stories; we use hundreds of tiny details and create something new and unique. At the weekend, I visited Strangers’ Hall in Norwich and was struck by how similar the house is to the one in The Bet. The Hall was first begun in medieval times, dating from the twelfth century and was added to and altered constantly. There’s a great hall, and leaded windows looking down on knot gardens.
The biggest of the bedrooms on show is strikingly like the one in my story, down to the four poster bed with reproduction curtains.
“The big bed, a Tudor four-poster, much restored with modern mattress and reproduction curtains was full of shadows. He knew that if he opened the drawer in the oak cabinet next to the bed, he would find his father’s reading glasses.”
Of course, the reader doesn’t need to know every single detail. I talk about faded and worn Persian carpets but I don’t describe the colour or the pattern. I can see it in my mind. I don’t describe the layout of the house, but I know my way round. It’s a maze of rooms and corridors and little staircases, far too big for one lonely traumatised young man to live in alone. In the first chapters, he wanders constantly round from room to room, trying to find somewhere he can be at peace, and failing; I wandered with him, observing as he stumbled up steps, stood at doorways and stared into darkened rooms.
The house in this story is integral to both the plot and the main characters but I hope that readers can construct their own mental version of it from what I chose to include. Constructing a setting for a story is a tough job, trying to balance between too much detail and not enough, but to achieve the goal of making that setting as haunting as the story is something I hope I have managed to do in all my stories. We’ll see later this year if I have managed to convey how much this house that has haunted me since I was about ten can haunt readers too.