What is the UKYA Extravaganza? It’s a party for YA authors and their audience, at Waterstones Nottingham, on October 7th at 1pm… and the UKMG Extravaganza will come to Nottingham’s Central Library the following Saturday. You’d better get your tickets quickly – they’re selling out fast. We’re excited to be hosting two of the authors on the pre-event blog tours – today it’s Lisa Williamson, and on Sunday 11th October it’ll be Ruth Symes, who also writes as Megan Rix. So, without further ado, here’s Lisa’s post…
Whenever people ask, I always tell them the settings in my debut novel for young adults, The Art of Being Normal, are fictional. When I was writing the book, I wanted anyone who read it to be able to imagine the events unfolding in their town or neighbourhood and it’s always a huge compliment when I meet a reader who is utterly convinced the book must be based on their hometown. I’ll let you into a special secret though; The Art of Being Normal is based on the city I was born and grew up in – Nottingham – and if you look closely enough, there are clues scattered throughout its pages. Young adult novels novels are, in essence, origin stories, so perhaps it’s not a big surprise I keep coming back to the place I spent my teenage years for inspiration.
The Art of Being Normal tells the story of two teenagers, David and Leo, whose very different worlds collide when Leo is transferred to David’s school under mysterious circumstances. David comes from a ‘nice’ neighbourhood (Eden Park), full of tree-lined streets and cafes serving babyccinos. Meanwhile, Leo lives on a sprawling and struggling housing estate (Cloverdale). Geographically, the two neighbourhoods are barely a mile apart, and yet couldn’t be more different. This disparity was based very loosely on the close proximity of the Meadows estate, north of the river Trent, and the affluent and firmly middle class West Bridgford, just over a mile South. I was fascinated by how two neighbourhoods can exist almost side-by-side and yet be so astonishingly different. Although the main theme in The Art of Being Normal is gender identity, unconsciously it became as much a novel about social class and the impact this has on young people on either side of the class divide, something that’s rarely explored in any great depth in YA fiction.
My dad grew up in the Meadows and his parents lived here until their deaths just over ten years ago. The maze of cul-de-sacs and the narrow windowed houses were direct inspiration for Cloverdale and the layout of Leo’s house itself is based on my grandparent’s home. Likewise, although I grew up in Arnold, not West Bridgford, I couldn’t help but imagine my old school (Redhill) as I wrote the numerous school scenes in the book. The canteen in which David and Leo first meet in based on the canteen where I ate my lunch for five years, and the English classroom in which Leo tries and fails to resist the charms of gorgeous Alicia is (for some bizarre reason) my old Geography classroom, right down to the number of desks and view out of the window.
An abandoned local swimming baths are a major location in The Art of Being Normal. Their inclusion came out of my dad driving me around the Meadows on Boxing Day, 2012. He pointed out the Portland Baths and described how he used to pay two shillings to have a bath there back in the sixties. I was struck by the imagery and immediately knew I just had to incorporate them into the action. I’m naturally drawn towards abandoned places and soon found myself googling images of Nottingham swimming pools over the last century. It was a combination of old photographs of Portland Baths, Radford Baths and Victoria Baths in Sneinton that resulted in the creation of Cloverdale Baths. The scenes at the swimming baths ended up being some of my favourites in the book and I’m always overjoyed when readers agree.
Here are my top five tips for creating a sense of place:
1. Don’t leave the reader placeless
There’s nothing more frustrating that starting a chapter and not having a clue where the characters are. The reader doesn’t require reams of description, just a few clues to help anchor them in place so he/she can relax and enjoy the scene.
2. Get arty
Try drawing a map of the most important locations in your book. You need to know the settings in your fiction as well as your main characters do and I’ve found a map force you to consider details that may otherwise pass you by. A lot of the action in my second novel takes place in a rather cramped family house. A floor plan helps me keep details consistent (e.g. whether a character would be able to see all the way through to the garden if the front door was open, and logistics of my protagonist having a cigarette on the roof!) and forces me to keep my details both specific and authentic. Don’t worry if you’re not great at drawing. These are guides for you and no one else. However, if you really don’t fancy getting the felt tips out, Google Earth, Images and Street View are amazing resources.
3. Use all five senses
As well as eyes, readers have a nose, ears, fingers and a mouth, so take care not to neglect them! One of my favourite things about writing the abandoned swimming pool scenes in The Art of Being Normal were the numerous opportunities for sensory description – the lingering smell of chlorine, the stiff leftover towel, the squeak of David’s trainers on surface of the empty pool etc. Mood, smells, sounds and tactile elements create depth and most crucially, atmosphere.
4. Be selective
Once you’ve decided where you’re going to set your story and you’ve done your research, it’s so tempting to stick it all on the page at once. This is where Hemingway’s famous ‘iceberg theory’ comes in. Most great stories are great because they know what to leave in and, most importantly, what to leave out. A few carefully chosen details usually tell us so much more than a dense description and, paradoxically, help create a far fuller picture than telling the reader absolutely everything.
5. Use place as a setting for action
Place and action should work together (this is where the maps will come in handy!). In the Art of Being Normal, Leo’s claustrophobic house intensifies his clashes with his mum, and a dramatic scene in which David reveals his gender identity struggles to Leo, is heightened by the drama of the abandoned swimming pool setting. When David and Leo travel to the south coast to track down Leo’s wayward father, the faded seaside town they visit (a mash-up of Southend-On-Sea and Margate) and its long and lonely pier in particular, reflects and emphasizes the weekend’s unexpected events. Think outside of the box and use place to make your scenes stand out. Instead of having a couple break up over a coffee, stick them on fairground ride, or lock them in a department store for the night. Most importantly, have fun with it and (hopefully!) your readers will too.
Lisa Williamson was born in Nottingham in 1980. She spent most of her childhood drawing, daydreaming and making up stories in my head (but never getting round to writing them down). At 19 she moved to London to study drama at university. Following graduation, she adopted the stage name of Lisa Cassidy and spent several happy and chaotic years occasionally getting paid to pretend to be other people. Between acting roles she worked as an office temp and started making up stories all over again, only this time she had a go at writing them down. One of these jobs was at The Gender Identity Development Service – a specialist NHS service for young people struggling with their gender identity. The patient stories she heard inspired her to write The Art of Being Normal.
Keep an eye out for other UKYA Extravaganza blog posts… and keep scrolling down for lots more information about the Extravaganzas (or check out their website).