Richard Skinner on landscape and setting

Richard Skinner is a novelist, poet and creative writing teacher that runs the Faber Academy fiction programme. He has been involved in many Retreat West writing retreats and competitions and the focus has often been on landscape and setting in a novel, so here’s what he had to say about it in answer to my questions on this important element that we need to get right.

Creating a believable world for our stories is so important but how do you think writers can find that balance between enabling the reader to see the world the characters inhabit and overloading on too much landscape and setting detail?

For me, the best way to try to evoke the sense of place is to do so through character. The tempting thing to do is to describe, describe, describe, but the reader will be much more connected to your setting if it is evoked because of what the characters are seeing or doing rather than in spite of them. What you’re after is a kind of fusion between character and setting. Make it feel like your character is ‘touching’ the setting and your reader will be there.

A good example of this is Albert Camus’ The Outsider, as he steps onto the white sand beach: “The sun was crashing down onto the sea and the sand and shattering into little pieces.” When he is handed the gun, the sun “glinted off it” and “the whole beach was reverberating in the sun and pressing against me from behind”. At the decisive moment, when Mersault is about to shoot the Arab, he says, “All I could feel were the cymbals the sun was clashing against my forehead … The sea swept ashore a great breath of fire. The sky seemed to be splitting from end to end and raining down sheets of flame.”

This example of Camus’ famous ‘white prose’ is stripped down and directly connective between character and setting.

What other stories/novels do you think have got that balance right and why?

Could we possibly imagine Ulysses without its Dublin setting, or if Kafka’s The Trial wasn’t set in Prague, or Faulkner’s novels without their setting in Yoknapatawpha County? All these places are ‘local’ to these writers and their books would be unthinkable without their strong sense of place. I have a real love of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native because of its wonderful Egdon Heath setting.

But, for me, the novel whose story is most indistinguishiable from its setting is Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. The evocation of place in that book is phenomenal and, in the character of Heathcliff, we get its perfect, total embodiment. In the book, Heathcliff is less a person and more a force of nature and, to reflect this, he is named after the landscape itself. Heathcliff IS Wuthering Heights.

Which novel would you say has left the most impression on you for the way the landscape and setting was portrayed? For me, Dirt Music by Tim Winton left indelible images of Australia’s diverse landscapes in my mind and was also relevant to what the characters were going through.

Along with Camus’ The Outsider, one of my favourite novels is Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky and one of the main reasons I love it is for its incredible Saharan setting. The desert is as much of a character in the book as any of the people. Port and Kit’s journey starts at the coast, in a well-populated city, and goes directly inland, stopping at places that become fewer and further between and less and less well-populated until, ultimately, they arrive in the middle of nowhere. The desert takes on an increasingly claustrophobic, ‘emptying’ role, smothering love and hope until all that is left is sand and wind. This doomed journey into the desert is a subtle, sophisticated metaphor for their relationship.
Many thanks, Richard.
What do you think about landscape and setting and how it has to tie in to your narrative arc? What books do you think do this really well?

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