EWein Special Ops: A Sense of Place

For the last guest post for EWein Special Ops, we have the Elizabeth Wein herself sharing something about her writing. Plus an exclusive artwork that hasn’t been published anywhere else before.

YAY, EWein! *claps enthusiastically*

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A Sense of Place
by Elizabeth Wein

I’m writing these words from Scotland, on the western edge of Europe. I don’t know where Chachic will be when she posts them for the world to read: Manila in the Philippines? Singapore? Somewhere on the Asian side of the Pacific Rim, anyway. I know for a fact that two of the contributors to this wonderful and flattering celebration of my books are based in the United States and one is based in Canada. Never mind the content of this week’s Book Nook postings—just think about the origins. What you’re reading here this week is coming from random points all around the world, and you’re reading it at a different random point somewhere else on the face of the global map. I think that’s pretty cool.

I am not a cartographer and I am not really a map nerd, but I have never written a novel—or even a short story—without referring to a map. A real one. I drew my own maps for my Aksum books, and I am extremely proud of them, especially the one of South Arabia which appears in The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom.

You can read the books without the maps, though. They don’t really matter, except in that they are a physical and visual manifestation of the setting. It is the sense of place that counts.

My favorite books have always been those that have a strong sense of place. When I think back to the fantasy writers who shaped my teenage reading, the ones that leap immediately to mind are Alan Garner, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Ursula K. LeGuin, and guess what? The books I loved best by these writers all include maps. Garner’s show a landscape based on a real place; Tolkien’s and LeGuin’s show imaginary countries, but that doesn’t make the settings for their fantasy worlds any less real in the context of their books. The world almost becomes a character in the novel itself. Setting shouldn’t just be there as a backdrop; a good sense of place will make a setting, fictionally speaking, into a living, breathing organism like our own planet, and the author’s love for and familiarity with the world of his or her creation guides us through the unfamiliar landscape like a virtual map.

The fictional worlds I love best stand on their own, even after the story’s characters have moved on to Westernesse or the Dry Land. You could set your own story in any of these places, celebrating the world the way fanfiction celebrates fictional characters.

ewein alderley edge 1984

That’s pretty much what I did with The Winter Prince. I set my first novel in the same landscape where Alan Garner set his first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Alderley, elder lea, Elder Field—“the Edge over Elder Field” is “Alderley Edge,” get it? To be fair, I claim some right to this landscape myself. I lived for a year in a house which still stands on the “site” of my fictional Arthurian “estate at Camlan.” My father read Garner’s Weirdstone aloud to me before I could read, under the shadow of the Edge itself, and this magical landscape got under my skin and stayed there. My ancestor did not carve the Wizard’s Well or design the stone circle there, as Alan Garner’s did; I do not have Garner’s blood right to that landscape. But as Lleu comments when Medraut shows him the rippled roof of the caves under the Edge for the first time (just as my father long ago showed them to me), “Dare anyone say he owns this?”

Lleu and Goewin’s fictional Elder Field of The Winter Prince is not Susan and Colin’s fictional Alderley of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, any more than Alan Garner’s childhood is my own. But Garner’s connection to the real world he lives in, and the way that connection shapes his imaginary fictional worlds, became a lifelong influence on my own writing.

It’s interesting how “place” can also influence the creative process as I’m shaping a story. When I was writing Code Name Verity, I reached a point where all I really wanted to do was write about Scotland, where I live now. None of the action of Code Name Verity took place in Scotland at that point, and there wasn’t any reason for it to. But I was letting my Scottish narrator have quite a bit of free rein with the telling, and there was much about her that I didn’t yet know, so I figured we could both write about Scotland for a while and see where it went. The scene-setting—with its branch line railway and haunted castle and the one flight in the book that I actually made myself—was sheer indulgence. The plot points that came out of it—a key character recruited to RAF Special Duties—were integral to the novel. I hadn’t seen either narrative device coming. But how wonderful, and amazing, that they can work together like that.

Goewin and Lleu. Artwork by EWein.

Goewin and Lleu. Artwork by EWein.

It seems appropriate, when so many people have come together from such immense distances to celebrate my work here, to have had this chance to celebrate and share with you some of my thoughts regarding the notion of place within the story.

I also want to thank Chachic for bringing together this stellar group of writers and readers and friends who have spent this holiday week, in various corners of the world, thinking and dreaming and writing about the worlds I have described in my books—some of them harsh, some surprising in their beauty, some embellished by my imagination, but all of them rooted in truth. It is just humbling to read your words of praise and encouragement. It means that my own words are not just being thrown out there into a vacuum. You are passing them on.

Happy new year to all readers all across this world!

With love & gratitude, E Wein

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Thank YOU, EWein! I love the sense of place that well-written books can give its readers. And I love maps in books. I even took a picture of the one inside The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom:

Lion Hunters map

This concludes EWein Special Ops. I hope you all had fun going through the posts. The giveaways are still open until next week, click here to check them out.

EWein Special Ops

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15 thoughts on “EWein Special Ops: A Sense of Place

  1. “The world almost becomes a character in the novel itself. Setting shouldn’t just be there as a backdrop; a good sense of place will make a setting, fictionally speaking, into a living, breathing organism like our own planet”

    Oh, I love this! Books with a sense of place are definitely some of my favorites, from Deep Valley to Dalemark or Barrayar. It adds such a wonderful texture to the stories that it’s hard to imagine those books without them.

    • I love novels where the setting is so well-developed that it becomes like a character. It makes it easier for me to sink into the story when there’s a strong sense of place like that.

  2. Pingback: Post-Christmas Linkage | Me and My Books

  3. The world as a character, I have never really thought of it that way. But it makes great sense. Just like Middle Earth is almost like a character in LOTR. A strong sense of place is really key for a full immersion into a story. I think CNV does that. There is a vividness to it and it’s pretty detailed too. It’s almost like they happened for real, in history. It’s also funny how in fantasy, you are creating imaginary worlds but then you have to make them realistic/believable as well. 😀

    • Yep, the setting usually stands out in books that have a strong sense of place. It’s always a pleasure to read a book that makes you feel like you’re right there with the characters because of the vivid setting.

  4. …And also – thanks for posting that picture of the Lion Hunters map, my favorite one! I remembered you’d posted it but couldn’t remember where – I spent a long time hunting for the link before I gave up and moved on.

    This has been such an amazing week for me – THANK YOU!

    • It’s such a pretty map! I posted in on Instagram and Tumblr previously and I thought it would be perfect for this guest post. LOL sorry to hear that you had a hard time looking for it though.

      Thank YOU so much for writing wonderful novels!

  5. I do love books with maps! I think it’s always amazing when an author manages to whisk us away into a fantastical world, whether it’s a real place or a place of their own making. The more authentic the setting feels, the more invested in a story I become. Great post!

  6. Pingback: Amour et Florand: A Strong Sense of Place | Chachic's Book Nook

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