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?’

© Rosanna Ley
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