Let me give you an example: One of my favourite stories is that of Romeo and Juliet, and yet I don’t like the musical West Side Story. Why is that? In a word: Setting. Last year I saw an excellent production of this musical, but I still felt the same vague dissatisfaction I had felt as a teenager when a helpful teacher showed us the movie of West Side Story in an effort to help us understand the plot and passions of Shakespeare’s masterpiece.
The story of Romeo and Juliet – to me anyway – belongs in an historical, romantic Italian setting, and no amount of great dancing, fantastic music and memorable songs can sway it for me into the world of warring gangs whose passion and cause is probably even more poignant than those of the Capulets and Montagues. Sorry, Leonard Bernstein – I know it’s just me, but I can’t change the way I feel.
People often ask me: “When you start a new novel, do you think of the story first and then find characters to fit, or do you think up some characters and weave a story around them?” I can’t answer that, because I have come to realise that I start with the setting: a place that moves me, and then I build both characters and plot around it.
I am a great believer in that old chestnut: Spirit of Place. I love to visit new places and soak up the atmosphere, the weather, the history, and the invisible threads that weave it together. A while back I realised that if I am going to be a writer for the rest of my life, I need to travel to exotic, faraway places and set my novels there.
Sadly, I just can’t afford to do that on my salary and with my country’s diabolical exchange rate, so I have to rely on past memories. I was lucky enough to travel when I was younger. In my wild impetuous youth I also changed jobs every three years or so and started life anew several times in a different city in my beautiful country. Some of the jobs I took involved plenty of travel and in each place I visited, I made copious notes and took loads of photos.
What shines through the most when I look back on these is the memory of how each new place made me feel on first contact, and it is this essence that a writer needs to capture in order to provoke a similar response in the reader. I can’t write about Russia or China because I haven’t been to either. Armchair travelling – books and television documentaries and staring down at Google Earth from above cannot give you that spirit of place that an actual visit can. You need to breathe its air and wonder why it feels different. For example, I have noticed that favourite foods in one place are ignored in another – for no logical reason – and that new tastes acquired along the road often lose their flavour in the next destination. Why? I don’t know but that’s how my senses respond.
A while back I dreamed up a complex plot involving a sojourn in the high remote mountains of Peru, because my best friend had been there. Six chapters into writing the first draft, I found that no amount of quizzing her and reading travel guides could make my words ring true because I had never been there. Since I couldn’t afford a trip there, I had to find another setting – one that I knew.
The answer was on my doorstep. A mere two or three hours from where I live is the magnificent Drakensberg mountain range on the western border of KwaZulu-Natal. Not only is it a world heritage site, but I have been there many times, taken numerous photographs, soaked up the atmosphere of wild beauty and dreamed countless dreams about those mountains on my return home. In fact, I even bought a plot of land up there a few years back for when I retire, because I love the place so much.
A slow process of transition began to take place in my manuscript as my characters and plot adapted to their new environment. Two weeks later I was back on track and clocking up a word count faster than I had done on any of my previous novels. Just over a month later, I wrote those magic words “The End” and my first draft was complete.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there. I have been busy on it for another year and written another six drafts since then. Hopefully all will be revealed in the next few months.