Spirit of Place

It’s hard to define the ‘spirit of place’ which is the subject up for discussion at Bridport Library on Sunday 3rd November 2019 as part of the Bridport Literary Festival.

The authors who will be discussing the ‘spirit of place’ are myself, Maria Donovan author of ‘The Chicken Soup Murder’ who has just been named First Prize winner of the Bridport Prize in the category of flash fiction and Gail Aldwin author of ‘The String Games.’ Place is an important element for all of us in our writing.

Speaking for myself, I am a keen traveller and my interest in other countries and cultures has led me to write many ‘destination’ novels in which I explore places such as Italy, Spain, Cuba, Burma and Morocco through the eyes of my character(s). This involves a lot of research about the history/ legends/ cultural practices/ people/ politics/ food etc before I even go there to (hopefully) find the true flavour.

I go to these places to walk the same pathways as my characters, to see the place as they would see it, to eat the same food and so on. Once there, I can watch, listen and observe. I can choose more specific venues there – for example, houses in which my characters might live, places in which they might work or walk to; settings in which certain scenes might take place. I can make notes and take photographs and then when I eventually write the scene, I can hopefully get as close as possible to the experience. Ideally, I can write some of my scenes while living in that place too.

Perhaps many of us want change; even to be ‘transported’ somewhere by a piece of writing, to feel that they are living for a brief time in a different world?

Stories come from places and from people; from the landscape and the culture. For me, a place might be my choice because it fits in with a theme I want to explore in a novel (for example in ‘Her Mother’s Secret’ I wanted to write about an island and how islands can be both claustrophobic and also somewhere to escape to – Belle-ile-en-mer off Brittany, France, fitted the bill completely). It can be part of the story already as Burma was for me in ‘Return to Mandalay’ a book in which I explored a fictional version of my late father-in-law’s true life story. Or it can be a place that means a lot to me, in which I want to spend some time (like ‘The Lemon Tree Hotel’). It is more than another character in a novel. It is the setting and creates the mood, the atmosphere, the all-important ‘feel’.

The ‘spirit’ of a place can draw us to visit and to eventually live our lives there. I spent many years visiting and writing about West Dorset before I moved here and made it my home.

But what is it that draws and interests us? Is it the people, the landscape, the pace of life..? Or is it something much harder to define that speaks to our soul and makes us feel that this is truly ‘home?’

Writing at Finca el Cerrillo – seven reasons for a group leader to host a Writing Holiday

There are plenty of reasons for writers to go on a writing holiday or retreat – some of which can be found here on my Writing Retreats and Events page. But why do full-time working writers (like me) want to host a writing holiday?

You might think the reasons are obvious – especially if you have visited the finca el cerrillo. But the writing holiday to be held here in July 2020 marks ten years of bringing a writing group to Andalusia, and since I love a list, I thought I’d make one.

The seven reasons:

  1. Going away to write with writers is a mark of intent. I am not going away to research a new novel. I am not going away on holiday or to spend time with a loved one. I am going away to think about writing, to talk about writing, to be with writers and maybe even do some writing myself. Hurrah!
  2. A Writing Holiday is just what it sounds like. It is for writing. But it is also a holiday – a chance to take a break from the rest of my life. I will work hard all week (honestly) and I will try to do my best for every member of the writing group, to help ensure that everyone has a good time and achieves what they want to achieve. But the writing holiday will also give me space in which to relax and find some me-time, some reflective time, some meditative time.
  3. This ‘me-space’ comes about because Sue, Gordon, Alison, David and all the team at the finca are brilliant at organising the day to day practicalities. Which leaves me free for the writing stuff. The most we have to worry about is what dishes we may choose from a menu, whether or not we will have a massage or where we will go on our day off. Ha! (Lovely, eh?) All the food is provided, all the transfers organised, taxis are waiting to swish us off to the local restaurants we visit. A smooth-running and established routine combined with a welcoming and friendly atmosphere allows us to relax and to write.
  4. I love talking about writing! And there’s plenty of opportunity here…
  5. Other writers are inspiring. I have always enjoyed working with writers in creative writing workshops over the years and the writing holiday groups are no exception.
  6. I have made good friends and I enjoy meeting up with them here in Andalusia at the writing holiday. There are names on my booking list for July 2020 that were there in 2010, while others have come and gone and sometimes come back again. Each year there are a few new faces and the group evolves and changes in a fascinating and wonderful way!
  7. The place is both tranquil and inspiring. The finca is a restored 200 year-old farmhouse situated close to the traditional Andalucian villages of Canillas de Albaida and Competa, high in the foothills of the Sierra Almijara, Southern Spain. It has been carefully restored to preserve the charm and character of old Andalucia whilst providing the modern comforts of a small and charming hotel. The rooms are individually styled, spacious and air-conditioned and there are plenty of places inside and out to sit and write or just relax and enjoy the peaceful surroundings. The terraced gardens with carob and palm trees surround both sunny and shaded patios, the Finca has its own olive grove, and the swimming pool and deck areas have stunning views – as you can see from the photos on the web site…

Yeah! So… Tranquillity and inspiration are sometimes hard to find. Because I find them both here, because I love bringing writers to this special place, because I so enjoy getting to know these people and their writing, because the writing holiday gives me the space we all need sometimes, and because I love being a ‘writing tutor’… I shall continue coming here for as long as I possibly can! Oh, and if you ever want to join us, just get in touch.

Summer Reading – 8 books to add to your summer tbr pile

Here we go then – eight books I have enjoyed reading this summer…

A Summer Reunion by Fanny Blake

A warm and uplifting summer holiday read. Four old friends (though their relationship is somewhat more complicated than that…) meet up for a reunion in the holiday home of one of them (Amy). They are all at a turning point in their lives, all for different reasons. Each one of them needs time for reflection and has something they need to address from the past.

By a lucky coincidence (!) the most prominent person from their past happens to also be in Mallorca at the same time, though they barely recognise him at first. This enables three of them at least to give him a piece of their mind and come to terms with some of the past experiences that continue to affect their lives.

Meantime they resurrect their friendship – more or less – and find ways to move on. The women are all in their early sixties, (although they do often seem much younger, but perhaps that’s just me…) and the island of Mallorca sounds heavenly. Read this with a large glass of something suitably fizzy while at the poolside or beach on holiday. It’s escapist fiction that will keep you turning the pages.

Too Close by Natalie Daniels

A much meatier read is this interesting debut by Natalie Daniels, a novel of psychological suspense or domestic noir. This is a fascinating portrayal of a close female friendship – and what can happen when two friends and their families get ‘too close’. In this case the narrator Connie is writing from some sort of mental health facility, so it doesn’t seem to be good news… The friend in question is Ness, whose marriage has recently ended in divorce, leaving both families out of balance with one another. We don’t get to hear Ness’s POV which makes her motivation rather intriguing. But clearly this friendship has been pushed to the limits.

The other narrator is Connie’s psychologist Emma, who, against the odds becomes involved in her life and her story over and above in her professional capacity. Connie, her situation and her razor-sharp perceptions brings all the flaws and problems in Emma’s life to the surface.

Gradually, Connie’s story emerges. We learn what happened to her and her family and why she is where she is. But the question remains – will she be able to find the resources to move on? This is a cleverly written book which had me gripped from start to finish. Highly recommended.


The Botanist’s Daughter by Kayte Nunn

As soon as I read the blurb, I was keen to dip into this dual narrative dual timeline story. I’m a keen plant enthusiast and amateur gardener and I love the botanical paintings in Kew Garden which apparently inspired this story. Elizabeth, a Victorian botanist’s daughter, takes on her father’s dying request to travel to Chile to search for a rare plant that is important for medical research. She loves to paint plants and flowers and is eager for the adventure – but she must beware; her father warns her that there is a dastardly rival at large also searching for the plant in question and he will stop at nothing in order to be the first to find it. Consequently, when Elizabeth travels to Chile she finds rather more than she was bargaining for.

Meanwhile Anna, a gardener in present day Australia, finds a mysterious box hidden in her late grandmother’s cottage. It contains a sketchbook with stunning paintings of plants and a small bag of seeds. Who did the box belong to and can their stories be connected? Well, yes, they can and they are. Anna travels to Cornwall to find out the rest of the story and faces a few of her own demons in the process.

This is a charming read. Both stories are fluently written though I preferred the rather more exotic story of Elizabeth. Richly evocative of place and highly descriptive. I also loved the cover!


Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while and am glad I finally caught up – it has been hugely successful and I can see why.

Eleanor is a self-sufficient introvert who never steps outside her comfort zone and who has complete control of her life. She has worked in the same office for years but hardly ever talks to her colleagues unless absolutely necessary. She does the Telegraph crossword, eats pizza once a week, drinks vodka to get through the weekend and hardly ventures beyond the local Tesco. She has her own view of life and her voice is an extremely witty one. Behind this humour lies the real story – one of a damaged childhood, emotional frailty and huge loneliness and it is this contrast that makes the book both hugely funny and deeply moving.

Things change for Eleanor the day she meets Raymond, a bumbling colleague from IT. An unlikely friendship begins when they find a man, Sammy, collapsed near the office and gradually develops until Eleanor reaches breaking point and confides in Raymond. He – and regular visits to a counsellor – help Eleanor to finally acknowledge and deal with her past and move on.

An excellent read. Highly recommended.


I Am I Am I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

As a fan of Maggie O’Farrell I was really looking forward to this one. It is autobiographical – O’Farrell chronicles 17 of her own ‘near misses’ as in near death experiences (the title is taken from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar). These include a haemorrhage during childbirth, childhood encephalitis, dysentery and having a machete held at her neck in Chile! These episodes are not written chronologically, but offer us glimpses of the author as an adult here, a teenager there, a child later on, and are self-contained essays titled with the body part most at threat in each particular case. Some are dramatic, some are thoughtful, some are life-changing.

I enjoyed reading these – often shocking – shapshots of O’Farrell’s life, though ‘enjoyed’ hardly seems the right word, and it is a fascinating book to dip into as there is no particular thread that links the stories apart from that of truth and near-death (a strong thread when you come to think of it). The beauty for me is in the author’s prose style: sparse, sophisticated and elegant. And I finished reading with huge admiration for her resilience. Anyone who is struggling – whether with a ‘difficult’ baby or with their own physical frailty might well be heartened by reading this book.


Watching You by Lisa Jewell

Lisa Jewell holds another masterclass on how to write a cleverly constructed, twisting and turning thought-provoking domestic noir with what seems like consummate ease.

There are three viewpoint perspectives. Joey, sister of Jack, an eminent surgeon, has recently married lovable hippie Alfie, and the couple have moved into Jack and wife Rebecca’s charming painted house on Melville Heights in Bristol. But Joey cannot settle and pretty soon she becomes hopelessly infatuated with Tom Fitzwilliam, charismatic headmaster of the local comprehensive who lives two doors away. He and his wife Nicola have a son Freddie who has undiagnosed Aspergers and spends most of his time taking pictures of teenage girls. The cast thickens… Freddie and Joey own the first two viewpoints. The third belongs to teenager Jenna – one of Tom’s pupils and one of Freddie’s subjects of mild obsession. Jenna’s mother is convinced that Tom is somehow gang-stalking her and that everyone is mistaken about him – he is not a pillar of the community at all. But is this paranoia, mental illness or simply a case of mistaken identity?

All these complex characters are connected as the story begins and ends with the same grisly murder. But how are they connected? Lisa Jewell will keep you guessing as she weaves her narrative – because she is simply brilliant at what she does.


The Love Child by Rachel Hore

Rachel Hore’s writing is warm and uplifting and her characterisation so fine and detailed that the reader lives their experiences with them and feels their happiness, their loss, their pain.

The Love Child is a story about adoption. Alice is ‘adopted’ by her stepmother and misses the love and easy affection of her late mother. Whilst working as a nurse during the first world war, Alice falls in love, gets pregnant and loses her beloved fiancé to war. Her stepmother is horrified to hear of her pregnancy and insists she has the child adopted. Little Irene grows up similarly with a mother who having later had a natural born son does not fully appreciate or love her.

Can Irene and Alice make a success of their separate lives, will they find happiness and will they ever find one another again? Rachel Hore explores society’s changing attitudes towards women – their career and their chastity – during the 1920s and 30s. Highly recommended.


The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

An inspiring and true story of one couple’s decision to walk the South West Coastal Path. Moth and Ray have made a bad investment that leads to them losing all their money and the home that they have built up from nothing. At the same time, Moth is diagnosed with a debilitating disease that could and should lead to death within a few years. What should they do? What can they do?  For some reason even they don’t fully understand, they decide to walk the South West coastal path as backpackers, wild-camping all the way.

The book follows their journey. It includes interesting snippets of information about places they pass on the way and insightful comments about homelessness.. But primarily it’s the story of their emotional and physical journey and how losing everything (material) enabled them to find something even more precious.

By its nature, there is a repetitive feel to this story, an onward slog, and experiences that are similar to those gone before. I also found myself questioning the authenticity of the writing since Raynor wasn’t actually writing this journal whilst walking, but much later. Nonetheless, it is impossible not to be in awe of this couple’s achievement and to admire their spirit of determination. And the integral message of living life in the moment, being kind to people and living for love, is one (or three) that we can all take heed of.

© Rosanna Ley
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