Capturing the Castle

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.Manorbier Castle

The opening line of Dodie Smith’s 1949 novel I Capture The Castle is, for me, one of the best ever. Quirky and intriguing, it instantly pulls you in, entreating you to read on to find out exactly what the narrator is doing – and how she ended up there.

What Smith does so brilliantly here is to give us an immediate and powerful impression of the novel’s setting. This one line seems to encapsulate the romantically crumbling Godsend Castle, with its strange juxtaposition of the exotic and the mundane. Life at Godsend is a dizzying whirl of bohemian artists, genius writers, tea-gowns and musty old furs, with Clair de lune on the gramophone and the scent of Penhaligon’s Bluebell in the air. But, equally, it is a world that is tainted by poverty, hunger and uncertainty about the future.

The image of the heroine, Cassandra Mortmain, perched on the draining board, scribbling furiously in her journal, stands at odds with the loftier images that are evoked by the novel’s title. It is as if Smith is asserting that this will be no tale of aristocratic wealth and privilege – the Mortmains may live in a fairytale castle, but it is one that clearly languishes under a curse. Indeed, Godsend – with its crumbling turrets and leaky roof – reflects the family’s precarious social standing, with the unloved, dilapidated building functioning as a symbol for their decline.

All good writers understand the importance of setting. Among the first lessons we teach children about story-writing is how to create a rich and engaging backdrop for the action. As a teacher, I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve practised matching characters and settings, or come up with alternative settings for fairy-tales, considering how these might change the ultimate outcome of the story. From Middle Earth and Hogwarts to Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea chronicles and The Hunger Games’ broken empire of Panem, children’s literature abounds with vibrant and imaginative settings. Even when a novel isn’t obviously concerned with fantasy or alternative realms – when it is what we might describe as ‘gritty’, or ‘realistic’ – it is generally safe to assume that the author has thought at length about where their characters should live.

Goldeneye, Ian Fleming's Jamaican hideaway

Goldeneye, Ian Fleming’s Jamaican hideaway

I’ve long been intrigued by how writers draw inspiration from their surroundings. From Ernest Hemingway in Spain to Ian Fleming writing the Bond novels at Goldeneye, it’s clear that where a writer writes often profoundly influences how they write. In a way, that’s stating the obvious; if we heed the well-worn maxim of ‘Write What You Know’, it makes sense that a writer who lives in, say, Cornwall will opt to use this as their setting. Could Daphne du Maurier have written Jamaica Inn if she’d been based in Glasgow? Would Jean Rhys have captured Antoinette’s trials in Wide Sargasso Sea quite so vividly if she’d never visited the Caribbean?

I think the influence of setting runs deeper than that, though. Even if I choose to set my story somewhere entirely unrelated to where I am – or if I decide to fashion a fantasy world that’s entirely of my own invention – my environment is bound to influence my writing in some way.

Brrrr! The view from my window.

As it happens, I’m writing this halfway up a mountain. Technically, I’m meant to be off risking life and limb at the local ski school, but today’s near-blizzard conditions mean that I’ve eschewed learning how to parallel turn and ‘bend zee knees’ in favour of getting on with some reading and writing (in between watching, from the comfort of the sofa, far more competent people than me compete in the Winter Olympics). Outside it’s positively Narnian – a virtual white-out. Pine trees cling tenaciously to the near-vertical mountainside, branches drooping under the weight of several inches of fresh snow. It all feels very different from London, with its flooded streets and overcast skies. And anything I write here will be different, too – even though, to all outward appearances, it will be part of the same story I’ve worked on for the past two years. I’ll still be writing about knights and pilgrims and shifty-looking innkeepers, but my writing will be somehow imbued with a sense of the Alpine landscape around me.

With this in mind, I thought I’d dedicate the rest of this post to a few MG and YA books I’ve read recently that strike me as having a particularly powerful sense of place. Although outwardly very different, they all share a sense of the setting springing off the page, almost becoming a character in its own right.

The Fire EatersFirst up: The Fire Eaters: The industrial north-east really comes to life in this wonderful novel by David Almond, which I originally read as part of my MA. (Appropriately enough, I think it was for our seminar discussion on ‘Setting.’) Almond uses elements of magic realism to confound our expectations about his chosen location, the seaside town of Keely Bay. Far from being the fading, rather down-at-heel resort that it first appears, Keely Bay turns out to be steeped in wonder and mystery, home to a large cast of colourful characters, from McNulty, the eponymous fire eater, to Ailsa Spinks, a local girl whose family of sea-coalers cling doggedly to a set of dying traditions. Set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s a novel that should in many ways be bleak, but ends up being anything but.

IngoThe brilliant Ingo books by Helen Dunmore are another example of a series where the setting takes centre stage. In this case, it’s quite literally immersive, as much of the action takes place under water! Dunmore’s writing evokes a vivid sense of the dangerous beauty of the Cornish coast, and she cleverly uses her dual settings of land and sea to establish Sapphire, her teenage heroine, as a literal fish out of water. Sapphire, it soon becomes clear, is far more comfortable discovering Ingo and befriending the ocean-dwelling Mer than she is living on land with her mother and far ‘earthier’ brother Connor. Once again, the reader is made to reconsider their preconceptions, as the ocean, while fraught with its own dangers, often seems to be a saner, more rational place than the land.

The Owl ServiceThe Owl Service by Alan Garner. This book terrified me when I was ten, but it’s now among my all-time favourites – something that was very much confirmed when I reread it recently. Once again, the Welsh valley setting feels positively alive, with the landscape playing a pivotal role in the story. From the outset there is a sense of gathering menace: this is the kind of place where rugged beauty can very easily pitch into ugliness, and where ancient legends bubble just beneath the surface. What begins as an ordinary family holiday – an attempt to unite two step-families – soon becomes far more than that, as the novel’s three unwitting teenage protagonists are drawn into a struggle between supernatural forces that ultimately threatens their own survival. Garner plays with his setting, showing how a single landscape can be inspiring, chilling and stifling by turns, and exploring with considerable deftness the close relationship between nature and myth. Although published in 1967, the novel feels timeless, and I think the setting plays a big part in this.

The Crowfield CurseI originally picked up Pat Walsh’s The Crowfield Curse – runner-up in the 2008 Chicken House/Times competition – because it spans the same historical period as my own novel. Set in the 14th century, it traces the fortunes of Will, an orphan who is taken in by a monastery to serve as an apprentice. Before long, Will stumbles across a strange creature that he calls The Hob, which in turn leads him to uncover sinister secrets relating to the abbey and its inhabitants. The historical aspects of the story are handled with a wonderful lightness of touch, but what struck me most was the way that Walsh brings her setting of Crowfield Abbey and its surrounding countryside to life. It’s a lively read with a great cast of characters, and I’m very much looking forward to catching up with the sequel, The Crowfield Demon.

How about you? Are there any books that have stayed with you because of their especially vivid or atmospheric settings?

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6 thoughts on “Capturing the Castle

  1. When I first arrived in London from the Philippines 25 years ago, I was reading Great Expectations for the first time. Dickens is quite precise in his descriptions and I was able to take the book and follow the meanderings of the characters all over London. It was a great way to get to know my new home!

    • Yes, Candy, I definitely agree about the Dickens – I’m not always the biggest fan of his writing style overall, but I do think his novels are unfailingly atmospheric, and Great Expectations especially so.

  2. This is a luxuriously rich and incredibly thoughtful, useful piece of writing Zoe. I am inspired to return to more YA and I’m impressed by all that you discuss here, insights gathered from your own experiences of reading, teaching and studying for the MA – as well as your own creative writing and watching young people write. I’m not surprised that you were awarded a distinction for your MA. This is a remarkable piece to have cobbled together on a non ski day! This ought to be published in TES .. and in the book pages of all major newspapers. I shall be sharing your book reviews with my teen girl. You’re a brain box. xxx

    • Oh wow – thanks so much for that Jo; comments like that really make the whole blogging thing worthwhile! I guess when you’ve genuinely enjoyed reading something it’s easy to find things to say about it, and ‘I Capture The Castle’ is definitely a longstanding favourite. Would be interesting to hear your daughter’s thoughts too (and any reading recommendations from her to add to my list!). Hope to catch up with you soon x

  3. Thanks Zoe – great post!
    Dramatic backdrops are great and I love your description of where you are halfway up a mountain! Completely agree that environment (and weather!) will influence writing though not always directly.
    But I’m also interested in a how a convincing and engaging setting can be created out of the very ordinary by how characters interact with it. Though I do do beaches, the kind of settings I more often go for are places like under the duvet, locked in the toilet, on top of a rubbish heap. This could well be where I’m going wrong!

  4. Thanks Jan! I definitely agree with you insofar as a sense of place comes from the interplay between setting and character. Even the most vividly described setting will be sterile and dull unless it is inhabited by interesting characters. Nothing at all wrong with characters getting stuck in the toilet – in fact, I’d argue that there’s a lot of dramatic potential there! Or on a rubbish heap, for that matter – look at ‘Stig of the Dump’…

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