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Why Place Matters to Writers (And readers)

You can take the boy out of Newcastle…

Writers and a sense of place

I’m a Geordie. I wasn’t born in Newcastle (in fact, I was born on the south coast and you can’t get much further away than that without leaving the country) and I don’t live in Newcastle now, but I’m still a Geordie. Just like other people might still be Brummies, Glaswegians, Cornish or Cockney, wherever they happen to have moved to. Does it matter? Well, it does to me, obviously – I wouldn’t be writing this post otherwise, now would I? If I think about why it matters, the answer seems fairly obvious. I’m a writer, and I write about places.

As it happens, I know quite a lot of places to write about. I’ve lived and worked on every continent except Antarctica – and there’s something Geordie about that. There was a song when I was young that went, “Wherever you gan, you’re sure to find a Geordie,” and I think that’s true and in many cases the reason isn’t a pleasant one. From the time that coal owners decided to live somewhere else on the money their coal-rich lands in the north provided them with, the average earnings in the north-east have been lower than in some other places. One result of that was that, if you wanted a better life materially speaking, you knew you had to move. But money wasn’t the driver for me – I always knew I wanted to be somewhere else.

I’ve told this story before but it probably bears telling again. I have a very clear memory of a number of occasions when, as a small boy, I sat on the netty (that’s an outside lavatory to those of you whose upbringing was more polite) with my pants around my ankles and the door wide open. I don’t doubt, looking back, that people thought, “What a disgusting child,” but I wasn’t being an exhibitionist. In my head, I was driving a gypsy caravan down a dusty road towards some place I didn’t know because I hadn’t been there. Yet. That was the spirit in which, when I was 21, I went to the Bahamas to work. I’d never been there, and so… From there I went to Libya and from there… Well, it’s a long time since I was 21 and there aren’t many places I haven’t been now.

And now I live in Shropshire and my travelling is just about done. But not in my head. When I wrote Darkness Comes, I wrote about some of the places in Europe and Africa that I’ve spent time in. But the book begins in Newcastle. As did I. (Forget about the south coast – I was so young when I left there I have no recollection of it at all, though Bournemouth, the nearest town of any size and the one where my birth was registered, makes a guest appearance in Darkness Comes). Newcastle also has a key role in The Making of Billy McErlane.

And then there’s my historical fiction, which is set in the north-east of England in the 1760s. Being descended from coalminers and agricultural labourers myself, it was natural for me to write historical fiction from the point of view of the people at the bottom of the social heap. If you’re looking for tales of wayward dukes and the women who scheme to capture them, I’m afraid you’ll need to look elsewhere. I may be kidding myself, but I think my books are shot through with the culture and mores of the north-east, which – unless you, like me, are part of that tiny number who speak the only completely pure and unaccented form of English on the planet – are almost certainly different from yours.

And that’s why where I come from matters. Writers need a sense of place. Readers need to feel that they know and understand where the book is set. If I’d made Billy McErlane a Brummie, say, he’d have been a different person. Not better or worse, but different. Or, of course, I could have put him in Sunderland. But, really, I couldn’t – I like him too much to do something like that to him.

Place. Of all the items in a writer’s toolbox, it just may be the most important.

If you want to read more about my books, go here and here.

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