A Sense of Place

Last month, I went on holiday on my own to a far-away Scottish island.

I'd never been on holiday by myself and it was absolutely wonderful. Day after day of just walking around the island, looking at the sea and watching the birds. As the schools were not yet on holiday, I pretty much had the place to myself. This being a Scottish island, the weather varied from sun-dappled warmth to driving winds and rain, not just in the same day but in the same hour. One day I was eating my breakfast outside and lingering over my walks; the next, going outdoors was like a stress test for waterproof clothing.

I had no real plan for the holiday - just walking and breathing the air and maybe seeing some puffins. My only concrete objective was to write every day. I had some ideas for Will the Wayfarer short stories and what better place to work on them than a delightful house on a headland, surrounded by sea and sky? I wrote ever day for four or more hours and, as I write pretty quickly, I finished off a short story and got started on a second one. I was excited about this second story as it was to be set on a fictionalised version of my holiday island. What could be finer than to spend a week on an island, writing an adventure story inspired by your surroundings?

It didn't quite work out like that. I got started on the story and wrote tons of words on the first draft but, as I was writing, I found the story growing. I had originally intended it to begin, proceed, and end on the fictionalised island, but once I started writing, I found myself really enjoying setting up why Will would travel to this remote place. As my holiday came to an end, Will was still some way away from arriving on the the island. This didn't bother me too much but it did remind me of an age-old creative question: do we evoke a place better when we're in it or when we're remembering it?  Can we more effectively pass on the sense of a landscape, a city, a house or a culture when surrounded by it? Or does some distance - in time and space - help?

There are good reasons for both. Remembering a place helps us to distil it down to an essence. Rather than being overwhelmed by detail, distance detaches us from the place and permits the writer to encapsulate his or her sense of it in fewer words. Brevity aids story telling, and a few well-chosen words can take the reader where the writer wants them to be more swiftly and powerfully than endless paragraphs depicting every hill, stream and pathway. Memory gives a sense of potent clarity that immersion can't. In a sense, memory allows us to better understand and transmit the meaning of a place, even if some of the details of how it feels are lost.

Yet it is detail that immersion provides. With sufficient discipline from the writer, immersion generates an immediacy in your words and can provide some unexpected images or symbols. Over a month after returning home, my memories of the island are increasingly general: impressions, feelings, over-arching vibes and mental pictures. I find it hard to summon up the wind on my face, or the clattering of the seabirds, the smell of the heather. Immersion delivers these experiences in a way that distance can't. I made a few notes when I was on the island - a habit I really need to develop - and these notes contain details that I could never come up with by memory alone. Such details can be very unexpected: the shape or colour of a cloud, the way the silhouette of a house is against the skyline, wind-blown sand scouring over a half-buried seashell.

By the time I left the island, Will had not yet arrived, so my writing about it was all memory and a few notes. Indeed, a good deal of the way the story ended up was inspired by a brief stopover on a nearby, bigger island - one with a cathedral and a castle and largish towns full of people. A trip to the local museum gave me loads of inspiration for some of the characters, ideas I had not had when I started on the story back on my holiday island. As the islandscape around me changed, and as I read more of the history of the place, so the direction of the story changed with it. Immersion inspired the tale, just not in the way I had expected. Had Will come to the island while I was still there, still building the story, I have no doubt the nature of the tale would have been very different. 

One day I'll go back to the island and have another holiday on my own. When I do, I'll write a story entirely embedded in that landscape, drawn from my daily experiences of the wind and the waves and the rain. I suspect it will have very little plot and very few characters, but if it can take the reader to that island, pass on even a hint of what it was like to be there for that one, sublime week, then I will have achieved something good.