I’ve long been a fan of Deborah Lawrenson’s writing, ever since reading ‘The Lantern‘ in 2011. Her latest book 300 Days of Sun was published both in e-book and paperback earlier this year and I’m delighted to welcome Deborah to the blog with a guest post.
A Sense of Place
I never set out to write novels that were particularly known for their sense of place. I set out to write stories that rang true and that transported the reader into another place and time, drawn into authentic surroundings, experiencing what my characters were seeing and hearing, smelling and tasting.
As Simone de Beauvoir tells us in her autobiographical Force of Circumstance: “I do not mention the colour of the sky, the taste of a fruit, out of self-indulgence (…). Not only do [these details] allow us to apprehend a period and a person in flesh and blood, but by their non-significance they are the very touch of truth in a true story.”
It’s an important insight. How do you make a setting of a novel seem truthful and vivid to someone else? One way is to remind them of what they already know, even if that’s subconsciously. In fact, stirring subconscious memories is a crucial part of it. It is an appeal to the senses, reminding readers of the time they visited the South of France, or Italy, or Greece, calling on dormant memories. We are all fascinated by reading what others think about places we know well, feeling that familiarity, wanting our own experiences to be reflected and yet looking beneath the surface for new insights, too.
The obvious way to appeal to readers who have never been to these places is to write visually, to describe what the place looks like. But underneath that, you have to try to capture the essence of a setting.
In my novel The Lantern, set in Provence, the sense of place is strengthened by the scents of the landscape. The interesting thing about lavender and other aromas is that part of the brain seems to be able to recreate the smell in the imagination. Many people have written to tell me that while they were reading the book they felt they could almost smell the lavender. I think that’s because when we think of lavender, we not only instinctively call on our memory of its distinct perfume, but we see it, either in bunched of dried stems, or waves of purple fields, or distilled in a cologne bottle. Our own experiences and memories do much of the writer’s work.
A description of wild thyme releasing its scent in the heat will bring the scrubby hillsides of garrigue to the mind’s eye. A café setting will be enhanced by the mention of the rich aroma of continental coffee. Cigarette smoke inside is now strictly for historical sections! As Simone de Beauvoir says, it’s the small details that bring a scene to life, making the story seem real.
Scents and perfumes came into their own – along with the character of Marthe, the blind perfumière – in the central novella of my next novel, The Sea Garden. The story is told across three separate but carefully linked novellas.
In atmosphere, the three novellas are sharply defined. The first, The Sea Garden, is set in the near present on the island of Porquerolles. It’s all colour and blossoming trees, plants and turquoise sea. But there’s a dreamy quality about it too, almost hyper-real, the explanation for which becomes clear by the end of the book. The third novella, A Shadow Life, is set in a bomb-blasted London, during the second world war. It’s monochrome: darkness and moonlight and unease. The rare splashes of colour are intended to stand out and highlight links to the other sections.
In the middle novella, The Lavender Field, there’s a real challenge. I had to imagine what Marthe’s life might have been like in Manosque in the 1930s. She is apprenticed to a small factory that makes soaps and eau de toilette from local ingredients, as many local lavender distilleries still do today. There was another challenge to writing about Marthe, and that was that she lost her sight as a child. And I write from her point of view. However, I discovered that writing non-visually was not only possible, but recalled the landscape in a very intense way – by sound, by smell and taste and touch, using all the senses except the visual sense. I had to focus on the way that lyrical prose can convey subtle messages and layers of meaning.
The seeds of my new novel 300 Days of Sun were sown when I went to Faro in southern Portugal to accompany my 17-year-old daughter. She wanted to apply to study Spanish and Portuguese at university and had enrolled in a two-week Portuguese language course in the town.
While she got to grips with a new language, I wandered around the old town with my notebook and camera, and let my imagination flow. The following observations appear as Joanna’s experiences in the novel.
“My first few days in the country, I was astonished by how many Russian tourists there were here, chattering in the shops and streets. Then I realised: to the uninitiated, Portuguese sounds like Russian. The language is nothing like the soft singsong of Spanish or Italian. The sounds shush and slip around like the shining, sliding cobblestones under your feet.”
“The temperature was climbing. The air was heavy with orange dust from the Sahara that fell like a sprinkling of paprika powder over the town’s white sills and ledges. I walked down to the ferry, needing to get out over water to catch some fresh wind. As the boat ploughed through green salt marshes, I did breathe more easily.”
Joanna is a journalist who travels to Faro looking for breathing space; she meets Nathan, a charismatic younger man who challenges her expectations and leads her to a dark story of past consequences. Superficially, these are simple impressions of a place – a real place. But on closer examination, several recurrent themes of the book are embedded: the mistaken impressions; the unstable ground; the entrapping heat of the south; the difficulty, despite Joanna’s hopes, of finding a breathing space; the constant movement and crossing of borders.
The story emerged from my researches into the fascinating years of the Second World War when Portugal, as a neutral country, was a cauldron of intrigue, spies, enemies, opportunists, and double-dealers, especially around Lisbon. Since then, the dramatic, rocky Algarve coast has become known as a wonderful, friendly place to spend time in the sun – three hundred days of it a year – but there have been some dark events there too, in particular, cases of child abduction, including one notorious one.
In the writing, this novel took on a thriller-ish quality, and found the lush and atmospheric sense of place seemed to heighten the tension: these events should not be happening in a sunny, supposedly carefree place. I looked to two of my favourite romantic suspense writers for inspiration: Mary Stewart and Daphne du Maurier, who both knew how to combine an exciting story with an evocative setting – and went with the flow.
About the Book:
Deborah Lawrenson’s mesmerizing novel transports readers to a sunny Portuguese town with a shadowy past—where two women, decades apart, are drawn into a dark game of truth and lies that still haunts the shifting sea marshes.
Travelling to Faro, Portugal, journalist Joanna Millard hopes to escape an unsatisfying relationship and a stalled career. Faro is an enchanting town, and the seaside views are enhanced by the company of Nathan Emberlin, a charismatic younger man. But behind the crumbling facades of Moorish buildings, Joanna soon realizes, Faro has a seedy underbelly, its economy compromised by corruption and wartime spoils. And Nathan has an ulterior motive for seeking her company: he is determined to discover the truth involving a child’s kidnapping that may have taken place on this dramatic coastline over two decades ago.
Joanna’s subsequent search leads her to Ian Rylands, an English expat who cryptically insists she will find answers in The Alliance, a novel written by American Esta Hartford. The book recounts an American couple’s experience in Portugal during World War II, and their entanglements both personal and professional with their German enemies. Only Rylands insists the book isn’t fiction, and as Joanna reads deeper into it, she begins to suspect that Esta Hartford’s story and Nathan Emberlin’s may indeed converge in Faro—where the past not only casts a long shadow but still exerts a very present danger.
About the author:
Deborah Lawrenson grew up in a diplomatic service family, living in Kuwait, China, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Singapore. She studied English at Cambridge University and worked as a journalist in London before she began writing novels. She lives in Kent, and spends as much time as possible at a crumbling hamlet in Provence, France, setting for The Lantern, which featured on the Channel4 TV Book Club. Other novels include The Art of Falling, which was a WHSmith Fresh Talent pick, and Songs of Blue and Gold, loosely based on the Mediterranean life of writer and traveller Lawrence Durrell.