Saturday, 17 May 2014

Writing and Place: How Santa Barbara Sunshine Led To a Tale of Wolves and Snowy Woods – by Emma Barnes

I’ve just come back from a visit to Santa Barbara.  It was wonderful to revisit old haunts – the Daily Grind coffee shop, Chaucer Books – and to spend time watching the dolphins and pelicans from Arroyo Burro beach, smell the roses near the Mission, and most of all, bask in California sunshine after a long, cold, Yorkshire winter. 

It also made me think about the relationship between writing and place.

It was while I was in Santa Barbara I got a message saying that my book Wolfie had won a Fantastic Book Award (voted for by children across Lancashire).  This seemed fitting, as it was actually while I was staying in Santa Barbara, five years ago, that I wrote Wolfie.  And that made me think how odd it was that a book about wolves and deep winter woods (so atmospherically brought to life in Emma Chichester Clark’s illustrations) should have been created in such a completely different environment.

cover: Emma Chichester Clark
I remember the process well.  I’d walk my daughter to preschool – passing rows of jacaranda trees, an open air swimming pool and banks of creeping rosemary.  Then I’d go home and open my laptop and plunge into a world where a wolf appears in an ordinary British neighbourhood, and takes the heroine into a snow-filled world of adventure.  Maybe it was the contrast itself that got my imagination going?  I was certainly driven: tapping away intently, working against the clock until pick-up time.  

illustration: Emma Chichester Clark
 Of course many writers are inspired by their particular environment and its familiarity.  But I wonder how often writers are inspired to write about a setting precisely because it isn’t there?  Quite often, I suspect.  In some cases, this might be tinged with homesickness, or nostalgia for a place and time lost.

Certainly, one of the most evocative children’s books that I know, in terms of creating a setting, is Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising – part of the famous fantasy series of the same title.  This book is set in rural Berkshire near Windsor, and Will’s house, the village, the manor and the surrounding landscape are brilliantly portrayed: so real, so immediate, but also echoing with the years of history that lie behind.  When Will sets out into the woods he may meet a Smith from centuries past, or a tramp who has travelled through time, or the mythical Herne the Hunter: somehow the place can contain them all.  This capturing of landscape is also a feature of Cooper’s other books – the mountains of Wales in The Grey King, and a Cornish village in Greenwitch.

These books capture perfectly a British place and time (and I say time because I suspect the “present day” Berkshire that Cooper portrays has probably now been lost as totally as her Medieval or Dark Age versions, under the pressures of modern development).  Yet they were written when Cooper was far from her original home, living on the East Coast of the US.  In interviews, she has described how she was cross country skiing (a thoroughly un-British activity) when the idea of The Dark Is Rising came to her.

I’m certainly grateful for my time in California.  Towards the end of my stay I also went to the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, which was stimulating in a different way.  And I enjoyed happy hours running on the beach.  But mainly those months were a warm, calm, interlude: a bubble in which I managed to write a book.

Maybe one cold, winteryYorkshire morning I will sit down and find myself writing a tale of sunshine, sand and dolphins…

Emma's new book, Wild Thing,  about the naughtiest little sister ever (and her bottom-biting ways), is out now from Scholastic. It is the first of a series for readers 8+.
"Hilarious and heart-warming" The Scotsman
"Charming modern version of My Naughty Little Sister" Armadillo Mag

 Wolfie is published by Strident.   Sometimes a Girl’s Best Friend is…a Wolf. 
Winner of 2014 Fantastic Book Award
"A real cracker of a book" Armadillo 
"Funny, clever and satisfying...thoroughly recommended" Books for Keeps
"This delightful story is an ideal mix of love and loyalty, stirred together with a little magic and fantasy" Carousel 

Emma's Website
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Emma on Twitter - @EmmaBarnesWrite


maya said...

"But I wonder how often writers are inspired to write about a setting precisely because it isn’t there?"

I was actually thinking about this a couple of weeks ago, after I realised that two books which are (to me, at least) very atmospheric and evocative of England were written while their authors were abroad: I Capture the Castle when Dodie Smith was living in America, and Rebecca when Daphne du Maurier was in Egypt.
Maybe it's just a coincedence, or maybe that's the secret to writing an evocative novel - move away from the place in which it's set!

Sue Purkiss said...

Very interesting point. Perhaps a lot of writing is about trying to recapture something that's lost - a time, a place, a person.

Penny Dolan said...

Santa Barbara sounds such a wonderful place to be, Emma, and that Conference is such a renowned event. Wow! Maybe not just "homesickness" but also that when the writer is free of the real-world frets of a familiar place they can them emotionally afford to use it as a setting? Lovely post and photo.

Emma Barnes said...

Thanks very much for those examples, Maya. When I was first thinking about this post, I thought of other examples besides Susan Cooper, but by the time I came to write it I'd forgotten them!

Eloise said...

Bit late to be commenting on this, but it was food for thought for me. I think I'm quite similar, in that I've been living in some years in Mexico, and that has certainly sharpened and deepened my appreciation/love/nostalgia/etc for Britain. The book I'm writing (or attempting to write) is set in a parallel Victorian London, and lots of the other stories I dream about are very English in their settings. I think I daydream about all that I miss in order to escape to it. But on the other hand, there are some daydream-stories that are very much rooted in particular places I've visited here - like the old house that was so obviously the home of a rather sinister magician. So I think there are two potential and opposing processes... and too many different stories flitting about in my brain!

Emma Barnes said...

Hi Eloise - I just saw your comment. An interesting example of contrast in place you live and place written about - I hope your daydreams will keep feeding your writing.