A Sense of Place in Your Writing: My Cornish Travels

I’ve just got back from a mini break “staycation” with my girlfriend. It was a much needed break for both of us. I’ve had a lot of work on the last few months as mentioned in previous posts and we’ve barely had time to breath until relatively recently. The one thing we were determined to do though, is not let our first summer living together simply waste away.

Exploring the Cornish Landscape

We booked a hire car and set aside a few days here in the middle of July to spend some time travelling this gorgeous Cornish countryside and coast. And oh boy did we choose the right time for it. Cornwall is subtropical and is warmer on average that the rest of the UK. Although Friday was a little overcast, between Saturday and Tuesday the country was hit with a mini heatwave. Today, Wednesday, it is still hot but it has clearly cooled down a little.

There are many tropical plants as you can see from this shot from Trebah Gardens near Falmouth. It’s not much of a stretch of the imagination to believe you are actually in the Caribbean sometimes. Remember, this is southwest England. Tropical plants such as Monkey Puzzle and Palm Trees grow freely in most house gardens. You don’t need to visit a garden like Trebah to see them.

There is one street in Falmouth where the houses are designed much like they might look in the deep south USA. Mostly wooden with wooden verandas, you can just imagine a Confederate Flag hanging from the rafters while an old man plays a banjo on a hot Saturday afternoon.

Trebah Gardens Cornwall
Copyright MG Mason 2016

So now I have finished offending all of the American South, on with the story. We travelled down to Lands End, one of the two furthest points of mainland Britain. The other is John O’Groats in Scotland. I was keen to travel to the very tip of the country because this is where my novel Salmonweird is set. I realise I have not discussed it for quite some time. It is still going strong, although hopes of finishing it this summer have evaporated. It is some 45,000 words long at present and I think another 15-20,000 will probably round it out quite nicely.

Site Visits Are Important When Writing Fiction

Anyway, I wanted to visit the peninsula to get a real sense of place for the rural landscape. I imagined the landscape around the village of Salmonweir to look a little rugged, like heathland. I was delighted to see that the Lands End AONB westerly point did indeed look as I imagined (see below). Beautiful and rugged with heather clinging to rocks. I visualise the upper levels of Salmonweir to be up on a rocky coastal area with most of the houses sitting in a dip cascading towards the dock. The book is set in October-November so imagining the wind swept rugged terrain was not all that hard. This is one of my favourite shots from our trip to Lands End.

Getting sense of place right in your novel - Lands End, Cornwall
Copyright MG Mason 2016

In an early scene, the ghost of a woman whose husband died about the HMS Hood when it sank in 1941 sits atop a cliff looking out to sea. I don’t imagine it looks much different from this image except, obviously, with more houses. This is what I feel the village of Salmonweir will look like on the headland. But what about in the heartland of the village? I admit I hadn’t had much experience with harbour towns having been born and lived most of my life in a big town.

Imagining Salmonweir

Getting the actual village right is proving quite tricky and I already identify weaknesses in the text. I was never happy with the layout of the town and when I come to edit it, I will give some serious thought to how the town will exist. This may be too much detail too soon, but I need it to feel right in my head. I have the rural landscape set out quite nicely in my mind, but now I need to set out the small urban centre, particularly the dock. This is what I have in mind.

Copyright MG Mason 2016
Copyright MG Mason 2016

This is Charlestown, just south of St. Austell – the fifth largest town in the county and probably the busiest. The road through St. Austell always seems full of traffic no matter the time of day or day of the week. Yet just a couple of miles south is this sleepy little village with its historic buildings. When I visited in March (yes March, just look at the sunshine!) I knew I had found my Salmonweir docks. The other side of the dock is just as interesting. This tall ship set my imagination running wild.

Copyright MG Mason 2016
Copyright MG Mason 2016

How Important is a Sense of Place?

For me and for Salmonweird, it is vital. I am a recent migrant to Cornwall. A county I explored very little before meeting my other half. I lived in Devon for five years and only ventured into Cornwall about four times, three of those were to go to Eden Project. I want it to feel right, especially if I intend to attempt to sell the book (firstly) to local book sellers, whether through an agent or self-publishing.

As somebody with a background in landscapes, mapping and a little GIS, it adds authenticity in my mind – and depth. When I read books set in places I know, I get irritated if I cannot picture where it might be in relation to landscapes I know and all the more absorbed if I can visualise the places where the character(s) go and imagine myself going there with them. It may not be important to other readers, but my MA in Landscape Archaeology has deeply ingrained the sense of place that I now have and I can’t, and do not want, to shake it.

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