Writers And Their Chosen Settings – Jim Murdoch

“So much of who we are is where we have been.” – William Langewiesche

On Tuesdays, I post a guest blog by a writer about a special setting, real or imaginary, they chose for their work.

Today’s guest blog is by Jim Murdoch, author of Living With The Truth, Stranger Than Fiction, and the soon to be released Milligan And Murphy

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 A Country Road. A Tree. Evening.

A place for everything, everything in its placeBenjamin Franklin

Writers are frequently asked to talk about what inspires them. It’s a difficult question for me to answer because I don’t believe in inspiration, not in any Romantic sense of the word and I never talk about my muse. I believe in ideas. My definition of inspiration is a good idea. And I can get a good idea anywhere.

I had a religious upbringing. It didn’t do me any harm but I can’t say my world view has not been affected by what I was taught. I never really got churches, though. Or graveyards. The idea that you need to go to a specific location to talk to a god or to remember your loved ones never made sense to me. You never got Jesus dashing off to the synagogue so he could commune with his heavenly father and why would I want to drive forty-odd miles to stand around in a graveyard my parents never went near in their lives simply to remember them?

I’m not big on place. That doesn’t mean I’ve never been to places. I have. Loads. And what I learned from going to all those different places is that none of them is that different. I’m sure I inherited that attitude from my father who never wanted to go anywhere. He used to say, and I never argued with him, that “contentment is being happy with whatever you had at any given point in time.” He never said, “…and space,” but that was implied.

There is, of course, no right way to be a writer. As a young boy in sixties Scotland I was exposed to the poetry of fellow Scots Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns along with a selection of English poets like Wordsworth, Tennyson and John Masefield. By the time I got to secondary school I was sick to the back teeth of babbling brooks, vagabonds and fields of daffodils and it took the war poetry of Wilfred Owen and the bleak verse of Philip Larkin to make me realise that there was much more to this poetry malarkey than nature poems. The poem that made all the difference to me was ‘Mr Bleaney’ by Philip Larkin and one of the things I liked about it was its descriptions. The poem opens:

This was Mr Bleaney’s room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him. Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,

Whose window shows a strip of building land?
Tussocky, littered. ‘Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand’
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook

Behind the door, no room for books or bags —
I’ll take it.

His depiction of the room is reduced to a checklist and I liked that; it respected me as a reader and allowed me to use my own imagination. One of my personal writing edicts is: Say what you have to say and get off the page. That doesn’t mean all I write is flash fiction but it does mean I’m come to appreciate how little you can get away with when it comes to descriptions.

Have you ever seen the film Dogville? Essentially it’s all filmed on a sound stage. The buildings of the town are represented by a series of simple white outlines on the floor and a church spire suspended above the ground. Even the eponymous ‘dog’ is present only as an outline. No dramatic backdrops, or exquisite realistic period trimmings. All you are left to look at are a few tables and chairs. Oh, and the actors. Not everyone’s cup of tea but I loved it.

When Amy asked me to write this article she suggested I include a section of my own writing. It wasn’t easy but I came up with this description from my first novel:

The town of Rigby had been built piecemeal over the years. It nestled itself uncomfortably in a sheltered escarpment not quite the archetypal seaside town it purported to be. But it did its best. Its architecture ran the full gamut from the seventeenth century on, though you’d be hard pushed to call what remained from that time Georgian. They were functional cottages when they were built; practical. Now, they were empty, but no one would commit to doing away with them out of some misplaced sentimentality. Most of the residential part of the town was of solid Victorian stock, though they’d been building ever since. It always smelled of paint and seaweed. It had a cenotaph with eighty-three names on it (eighty-four if you counted the graffito), a sizeable park complete with pitch and putt, a duck pond (but no ducks) and a statue of someone long-forgotten covered in bird-do. There were public baths, innumerable guest houses and B&B’s, a retirement home or two and a Town Hall, with a library grafted on at the rear. Its promenade was an austere place on days like this, when the holiday crowd was back working away wherever they came from. Most of the shops had been boarded up for the winter and it seemed like winter was getting earlier every year and lasting longer. He half-expected that one year they’d forget to open up at all and no one would notice. The shorefront was comprised of a huge arc bordered by a great stone wall a yard across. He’d walked the length of that more times than he cared to remember.

That description was not in the first draft of the novel and it was a chore to write. All I said in that first draft was that Rigby was a seaside town in the north of England and really that says it all especially if you make the connection to the Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby – “All the lonely people / Where do they all belong?” To my mind that’s all the information you need to conjure up the town in your own mind. It’s really an amalgam of every seaside town I visited as a child, although, I suppose, primarily the Scottish towns of Ayr, Troon, Saltcoats, Ardrossan and Largs. That said, I’ve seen enough films and programmes on TV to realise that there’s much of a muchness about all seaside towns, places to retire to and die, take for example the titular town in the recent BBC series, Sugartown (Filey) or the resort in the Michael Caine vehicle, Is Anybody There? (Chalfont St. Giles which also doubled as Walmington-on-Sea in Dad’s Army). But I could never say that any of those places inspired me. I needed to have my protagonist live somewhere and that was the right kind of place to put him.

My third novel is set almost exclusively in a park. The park I used as a model was the one at the end of my street, Victoria Park in Glasgow, but very little of the actual park makes it into the book, for instance:

The pond was shaped like a giant kidney bowl. It was something he noted every time he came to it. He also remembered that the Bible said the kidneys were the seat of the deepest emotions, not the heart.

The pond is not shaped like a kidney bowl. I wanted to include the remark about the kidneys and so the shape of the pond changed. I also added benches because I needed a bench for my protagonist to sit on. The swans were there already though. Bottom line, it could have been any park anywhere; I never mention it my name nor do I even say what city he is in not that it’s hard to work out.

Most of the action in my last novel takes place in the flat I live in at the present. It gets a makeover in the novel but the structure is still the same: three bedrooms, kitchen and bathroom. Not that I do much describing of anything. All we learn about the protagonist’s bedroom, for example, is that when her father moved house (while she was at university) he had taken photos of the layout and replicated the room to the best of his ability in his new flat. The only things I even mention are in the room are her bed and an Eyes of Laura Mars poster that she decides is creepy now and needs to go.

If I was to think of a word to cover all my writing, the poetry, the stories and the novels I’d probably go with ‘chamber pieces.’ Okay, that’s two words. The road that the two brothers walk down in Milligan and Murphy is just a road. I don’t even mention that the road is in Ireland. It’s obvious where it is and why state the obvious?

So do I have places that I have an attachment to? Not so much. I accept that there are different mes depending on who I am with but I’ve never been able to perceive a different me based on where I am.

Bioregional animist psychology is focused on a concept of oneness, not unity per se but specifically oneness as unity indicates there are two things that are united or BECOME one. The difference on this point lays in that you do not become what you already are but you can become aware of what you are. – Self and Place, Bioregional Animism, 9 July 2010

I get that. I could wander down to the Clyde and watch the water and enjoy a few minutes of calm but I think too much can be made of the physical journey and location. Why can’t I simply imagine being there? I have access to that level of awareness anywhere. What if the Clyde wasn’t there or Wordworth’s Lake District or R.S. Thomas’ Wales? What if they’d been born in Brisbane or Seattle and I’d been born in Johannesburg?

Place is unavoidable unless you write purely dialogue and the more I write the more I’m drawn to that mode of expression. My radio play, Vladimir and Estragon are Dead, for example, takes place in limbo – there are only the two characters, no props, no scenery – and in my novel, Left, a large section of the book takes place in cyberspace and is presented as a simple chat log. I’m not the first writer to do that kind of thing, in fact entire novels have been written as pure dialogue: Delores Claiborne, by Stephen King is one that might surprise most people – the story opens with a quote that does not close until the very last page of the book – but there have been other novels written in dialogue before: Nicholson Baker’s Vox springs to mind, although it’s not completely in dialogue, and there’s also Corey Mesler’s Talk. I’ve personally written two short stories completely in dialogue, ‘Just Thinking’, which was published in The Ranfurly Review and ‘Ugly Truths’ which appeared in Ink, Sweat and Tears. It’s quite refreshing actually to be able to forget about those boring descriptive passages.

I don’t think writers who feel the need to go to specific places to charge up are weird. Okay, I do think they’re a little weird but I respect their right to be weird just as I understand that there are those writers who need to write with their lucky typewriters (just ask Isaac Bashevis Singer or Cormac McCarthy about that). It takes all sorts to make a world. We need poets who know how to write a decent haiku and storytellers whose verse can quieten a class of eight-year-olds, we need writers who can recreate a place on a bit of paper for all of those who will never have the chance to visit and we need writers capable of unflinching inner vision, too.

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A big thank you to Jim Murdoch, from Glasgow, Scotland, author of Living With The Truth, Stranger Than Fiction, and the soon to be released Milligan And Murphy for sharing this guest blog about the use of setting. To find out more about Jim and his writing, visit his website http://www.jimmurdoch.co.uk/, his blog http://jim-murdoch.blogspot.com/, and follow him on twitter as Jim_Murdoch.

4 thoughts on “Writers And Their Chosen Settings – Jim Murdoch

  1. Jim, this is one of the best articles I have ever read. Judging by what you say, I think we are similar as writers. Despite writing about foreign places I have to say that I include very little physical description, instead I prefer to let my readers imagine for themselves what the places are like. I think most people would agree that unless the physical description moves the story forward, there’s no point writing it.

    • Thanks for that, LK. I don’t know if you follow my blog but this is the short version of the article. I have a longer version (another 1500 words) which I’ll be posting some time. In probably about five months looking at the stockpile of articles I have waiting to go up.

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