Friday, 15 October 2010

Settings and Favourite Romantic Places


The question of what comes first, character or plot is often posed. However, for me, settings are just as, if not more, important.

I start with a pen portrait of my characters, but putting them in a particular environment really helps to stimulate my imagination so that I can develop them more fully. Setting defines the context within which the characters behave and creates an instant atmosphere. The culture, the scenery, the architecture, the people, the climate all play their part in building a mood, influencing what the characters do and hence plot.

For example, imagine a scene set in wild, rugged countryside and one set in Venice. Both are romantic , but the atmospheres they evoke are totally different and the way characters behave will differ accordingly.

I tend to write about places that I know and with which I feel a strong emotional attachment. If I can visualise a place, feel it around me, absorb its ambience, then put my characters there, it seems to kickstart my imagination and the plot follows.

In The Path of Innocence I used London suburbia, East Anglia and St Andrews in Scotland as the settings. The suburbs of London are neither sexy nor romantic, yet the very ordinariness serves a purpose in painting a portrait of a heroine with strong, parochial family values. It also sharpens the contrast with the hero who comes from an inherently more enigmatic, rural area with chocolate-box villages and large country estates. The setting of Fiona’s small, cosy suburban house compared to Roger’s large, cold, country manor fills in a lot of unspoken information about the background of the characters and we instantly know that one is the antithesis of each other.

Scotland is more readily identifiable as a romantic setting and this description of Crail Harbour taken from The Path of Innocence is the perfect setting for falling in love:

She listened to the soothing sounds of waves lapping gently against the old stone harbour walls extending like protective arms around a cluster of small fishing boats, and she swallowed a deep lungful of air so fresh that you could taste its purity. Squinting against the sunshine, now brilliant in the clear, blue sky, her gaze spun over the red-roofed cottages which crowded down to the water’s edge, some whitewashed, others the warm, natural shades of sandstone, grey flints, green and blues, all huddled together in a kaleidoscope of colours.

I do not generally write long descriptions and often a few details might be enough to give the reader a flavour of the scene, but in my mind I will have a very clear picture of where they are at.

Some places, like Italy, which happens to be the setting for my work in progress, are inherently romantic. Others that have inspired me to write include Normandy in France and Snowdonia in Wales, the former possessing a quiet charm and a certain sense of timelessness, whereas the latter with its wild, rugged mountains and fast running rivers provides a more dramatic backdrop. What happens and how the characters behave is influenced greatly by where they are.


Having recently blogged about the importance of settings in creative writing, I would like to share one of my personally favourite romantic places.

As a lover of mountains and open spaces, Austria with its cable cars and rack and pinion railways, its musical associations with the Sound of Music and Mozart, is a firm favourite. However, a lesser-known gem is its southernmost province, Carinthia, offering a more tranquil setting with the added benefit of plenty of sunshine.

This is a province of over a thousand lakes, of which the largest is Lake Worthersee at 17 km long. The water here is reputedly so clean that you can drink it and, at summer temperatures of 25 C, as warm as a tepid bath. To simply find a shady spot and sit gazing over the expanse of water glistening like a blue-green diamond is so mentally restoring. Every now and then, a splash will confirm a body plunging into the water for a cooling swim, an occasional water-skier might flash past, or a rowing boat drift languidly by, and above it all the horn of the lake steamer intermittently cuts though the air like a trumpet fanfare. A feeling of serenity lifts you to a different plane as you absorb the atmosphere and sense all your cares tangibly ebb away.

The lake became a favoured summer retreat for Austria’s aristocracy in the 19th century and it still attracts the rich and famous with some exclusive hotels and romantic lake villas. However, my preference is to stay in a landhaus in a slightly elevated position which affords beautiful views over the landscape on balmy summer evenings. Eating out on a flower-bedecked terrace, gazing across the lake towards the floodlit Gothic church at Maria Worth nestling on its peninsula, is a magical sight renowned for inspiring many composers by virtue of its sheer beauty. Small wonder that couples from all over the world travel here to get married. The distant backdrop of mountains form a spectral outline and, to the north, the resorts of Velden and Portschach glitter like jewels, although their promise of night life holds little temptation when there are such riches here.

The continental climate translates into a Mediterranean atmosphere - very friendly, welcoming people and excellent cuisine, essentially rich and flavoursome, yet also mild. A typical meal in the landhaus might be mushroom soup with cream and herbs followed by melt-in-the-mouth roast veal with a side buffet and then perhaps a bilberry dessert. Pleasantly replete, guests sip after-dinner coffees on the terrace and the gentle hum of their voices melts into the soft background sounds of a folk music CD . A few children might play on the grass then, as night falls, disappear indoors to play a board game. Some couples might drift away, perhaps to bed, or maybe to take a boat to a night club or the casino. Others, like us, remain to sit beneath the stars and drink in the intoxicating alpine air. There is an almost ethereal quality which is perfect for the melding of souls.

All around the province are mountains offering a dramatic contrast, notably Grossglockner, Austria’s highest mountain, and the old city of Klagenfurt offers many cultural attractions, with its beautifully restored Renaissance buildings and their charming arcaded courtyards that provide an esoteric setting in which to enjoy the mandatory kaffee und kuchen.

It is a truly magical region which, mercifully, has escaped the clutches of mass tourism. Hopefully, it will remain one of Austria’s hidden gems for many years to come.
Photo of the church at Maria Worth:

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