Your characters are acquiring quirks and foibles. You’ve got an arc, however wobbly, from beginning to end. A couple of twists are lurking in your sleeves and you’ve got a sentence, or maybe more, that sings. But your setting’s an empty stage, or weighed down with enough clutter to break the boards. Perhaps it’s time for a real-world site inspection visit to check out what your novel does and doesn’t need. Read on for my reflections on how best to go about it, stemming from my (not-so-)recent trip to Cumbria to soak up the atmosphere and check a few facts for my hopefully third novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home.
A general orientation to the area early in the writing process with a second fact-checking mission towards the end seems ideal, but we’re not always gifted ideal conditions. We’ll be constrained by finance, and the rhythms of the rest of our lives. I was on my fifth draft of Matilda Windsor when I decided to relocate my characters to Cumbria, where I grew up. But it was another eight months before I drove north and across the Pennines to the shores of the Solway, even though it’s only 200 miles from where I live now.
Or it could be that it’s impractical or less pleasant for you to stay away from home without your significant other(s). With friends and family in the area, I doubted I’d be lonely when I booked a little cottage all to myself. Although not actually planned that way, and I had offers of other options, I relished walking around one small town on my own and another with my sister.
How long do you need? How long have you got? It’s easy to estimate how long you can afford (psychologically as well as financially) to stay away and to list the places you need to go and the people you need to meet. But it’s also worth scheduling time for reflection and processing so you’re not overwhelmed, and for any other tasks you need to keep on top of while you’re away. (And, incidentally, are you better off with an internet connection that will help you stay in touch or without to reduce distractions?)
I booked five nights away, with two evenings and an extended afternoon set aside for friends and family, but could have used a little more. Alongside my research, I managed to continue reading and reviewing, although at a slower rate than at home, composed and posted a 99-word story and responded to comments on my own blog (which isn’t too arduous) and dozens more on my guest post on branding hosted by Charli Mills. I also assured myself of time for contemplation with daily walks of at least an hour through fields, streets, hill and beach with varying associations to my novel.
I composed a list of my impressions as I went along, from topographical features to the coconut scent of gorse bushes along the coast to how the softness of the water made me wish I’d used less shampoo; things my social-worker character Janice might have noticed when she moved to the area. But despite my story’s setting in a longstay psychiatric hospital in the late 1980s, I decided against driving up to Carlisle to see the site of the former county asylum as Google maps made clear it’s now a housing estate.
Looking around Workington, Allonby and Maryport for examples of the style of house where Matty would have lived in the 1920s and 1930s (from one room in a slum with an outside toilet and no running water to a three-storey gentleman’s dwelling with a daily woman to cook and clean), I became fascinated with small-town architecture in a way I’d never been before. But although I found several near-misses, and so many photos the locals must have thought I was scouting for some house-renovation TV show, I never found a house that exactly fits my story. No matter, it’s fiction, I can make it up.
In fact, very little of what I observed on that visit is likely to make it into the novel, even if I need to do another draft. But I believe it was worth checking. Similarly, although Janice’s visit to the Pencil Museum in Keswick consumes only a few words in the manuscript, I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent there – and got a blog post out of it.
I stared and stared, praying for God to reward me. To grant me a glimpse of that celestial spaceship carried in the comet’s tail. But Marshall’s vision was sharper than mine. And his faith.
When the time came, we swallowed the elixir, pocketed the interplanetary toll. We lay on our bunks, veiled in purple cloths. We waited.
The pain was my soul struggling to escape the bonds of my body. The moans were angels serenading us to the sky. Paralysis signalled I was becoming transhuman. And yet.
What if Hale-Bopp were simply a comet? What if Marshall were wrong?