The theme of settings for books has unveiled a treasure trove of responses. Here’s one you’ll really enjoy, from new author Maria Mellins who has chosen an island. Welcome, Maria!
Thank you very much for hosting me Jane! And what a fantastic topic.
Having recently finished my first novel, Returning Eden, I am very keen to ponder the idea of just how important setting is to an author. I have heard authors, much more experienced than I, talk about the process of writing a novel and how at times the characters begin to make decisions above and beyond the author’s original intentions. Before you know it, these domineering, unruly characters have got you into all kinds of strife through no (conscious) fault of your own. Well in my story, I did certainly get a sense of this, but it was actually the setting and the overall world-building, that really seemed to exemplify what I can only term as a Frankenstein effect. Locations, architecture, weather, all seemed to take on a life of their own.
My novel is set in the fictional island of Cantillon. The island itself is heavily influenced, appearance wise anyway, by the American prison Alcatraz and a visit I had to San Francisco in my twenties. There isn’t anything new about a story, tinged with horror, being set on an island. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is testament to how creepy and atmospheric such a setting can be. Islands are ideal. The beasties can be unleashed and the characters escape routes are very limited. There is also something primeval about islands, they are as old as the earth and who knows what creatures lurk there. Like the ocean, islands present an uncanny element of the unknown. They make chilling settings. I guess my spin on the island setting that appears so ancient and almost magical, was to introduce characters who are thoroughly modern.
A theme in Returning Eden and in many novels and films that I loved growing up, is the clash between old and new. I have never been too keen on period fiction, tending to prefer my novels and movies to straddle ancient and modern worlds both thematically and visually. I love the idea of college kids, dressed in the latest fashion, wandering around labyrinthine architectures from the eighteenth century, or being dwarfed by gargantuan stone fountains in the shape of mythical sea gods. The Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris contain this lovely blend of ancient history, vampirism (that is archaic) but with contemporary characters. Films like Wes Craven’s Scream from the nineties contain beautiful, overbearing landscapes, with a teenage girl running around in corridors in the dark. I wanted to recapture this theme of anachronism in Cantillon Island, and create a world that is looking backwards and forwards simultaneously. So at the centre of the island is Cantillon College, an eighteenth century castle that oozes over the entire grounds, but its student body are a bunch of contemporary British teenagers.
Cantillon College is the main focal point of the novel, both in terms of action and atmosphere. It is a gothic castle that I can’t fully separate out from my own experiences studying and now lecturing at St Mary’s University, home of Strawberry Hill House. Many a stormy night I’ve spent walking the hallways after lectures, thinking how lucky I am to be able to dwell in such a beautiful, gothic environment, and especially one that is so steeped in history of the gothic novel. Strawberry Hill House and gothic writing go hand-in-hand. Horace Walpole transformed the site in Strawberry Hill into his ‘little gothic castle’ in 1747. It was on these premises that he wrote A Castle of Otranto, which is commonly regarded to be the first gothic novel and an influence for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Needless to say inspiration comes easily when you are surrounded by such a place.
(Above) The Oceanides, York House, Twickenham. A direct influence on the fountain scene in my novel.
Alongside the architecture and the gothic tone of the novel (it rains a lot!) I have to say that the ocean is the most inspiring of settings. I think part of the reason that I wrote Returning Eden, and this will become more apparent as I continue with the series, was in attempt to recreate my experience of watching films like Jaws for the first time. I love horror stories and these sea-baddies have always given me the heebie-jeebies, especially as a kid. Even now, any film that includes underwater footage immediately piques my interest. Taking Jaws as an example, the story includes that ancient sense of creation, of the prehistoric, in the form of a man-eating shark. Jaws doesn’t present an actual real-life shark that should be respected and protected, It presents a fantasy man-eating sea monster (hell-bent on revenge if you watch all the Jaws movies) that can legitimately threaten any given number of modern scenarios, as we can wonder – what if? It is just within the realms of reality. If 95 percent of the ocean remains unexplored then what can be lurking out there? I wanted to write something that addressed this question and made me feel terrified and excited all at once.
Maria’s Professional website: http://www.stmarys.ac.uk/arts-and-humanities/staff/maria-mellins.htm