Public Places, Private Memories
In a film made during the swinging sixties, a young Irish woman called Cass walks into a deserted seaside pub and writes on the mirror: I WAS HAPPY HERE. It’s a poignant act. Married to a man she doesn’t love, Cass has returned to her coastal roots, only to realise she no longer belongs. Like many teenagers in search of excitement, she once believed her future lay in the city, far away from the sleepy town where the only thing that changed was the turn of the tide. Instead, working in a London garage by day, sitting alone in a rented room at night, Cass is cast adrift from everything she loves, including her Irish boyfriend who refuses to follow her.
Now, as Cass wanders across the clean sands of her childhood, she has to come to terms with the knowledge that the past has gone. Her old boyfriend is engaged. She must move on. But she was happy here, and just being in this place stirs up her former feelings. The eponymous film, I was Happy Here, starring Sarah Miles as Cass, is typical of many stories in which setting, characters and experience are inextricably intertwined. The Yorkshire moor, for example, mirrors the wildness of Heathcliff and Cathy’s passion in Wuthering Heights. Every year thousands of visitors walk the craggy fells to soak up the atmosphere.
Do they hope to see Heathcliff? Probably not, but in the imagination anything is possible. Some believe that places are capable of retaining the psychic fingerprint of people who have been there. According to John Steinbeck in Travels with Charlie, personality even seeps into walls and is slowly released. Whether you believe this or not, there is no doubt that places do have power to elicit feelings. In my home town of Winchester, for example, we have several themed bars. Go in one and you’re in Ireland, in another medieval England. Walk a bit further and you can be in New Orleans. What’s being sold here is a kind of imaginative nostalgia, something of which American entrepreneur Kathy Kriger was well aware when she borrowed $1 million to open ‘Rick’s Cafe’ in the Moroccan city of Casablanca. (For pictures, see www.rickscafe.majabout.htm) The original cafe appeared in Casablanca, the film that immortalised Humphrey Bogart as the slick-talking Rick. Kriger meticulously studied the movie to capture the detail and atmosphere. There is even a piano player willing to ‘Play it, Sam’ at customers’ request.
It’s perhaps not surprising then that many fiction writers use setting to get their imaginations into gear. ‘I choose the part of the city I want to write about, and just walk around absorbing the atmosphere and getting a feel for the lie of the land,’ says Maggie Craig, whose family saga novels are all set in Glasgow. ‘At the same time I take lots of photographs, and write my impressions in a notebook on the spot. Once I get back home, I start what I call my inspiration board.’ She then pins up a few of the photos to give her a sense of place.
Although writing in a very different genre, P. D. James finds that place is the trigger: ‘For me the novel invariably begins with the setting and this has been so since I wrote Cover Her Face. After the setting come the characters, and only then do I give thought to murderous intentions, suspects and alibis, and the mechanics of the plot.’
This power of place to stimulate the imagination may be connected to the ways in which our brains store emotionally-arousing material. An extreme example of this is our memory of dramatic events. I was in America, queuing for breakfast, when I heard about the death of Princess Diana. Someone was holding a copy of USA Today and the headline jumped out at me. The image of that moment is frozen in my mind: the trays of chocolate chip muffins on my left, a man drinking coffee on my right, the jugs of orange and grapefruit juice, the packets of cereal in a wicker basket. Similarly, a great many people can remember exactly where they were when they heard about the destruction of the World Trade centre, or the assassination of President Kennedy.
Psychologists call this ‘flashbulb’ memory, an intrinsic characteristic of which is a detailed recall of ‘place’. It could be that this is a fading relic of what might once have been an important survival facility. In evolutionary terms, it makes sense for our brains to recognise certain places. If an area was dangerous, for example, our ancestors would have wanted to avoid it in future. If it was good for food and friendly, they’d want to know that, too.
Of course, we’re no longer hunter-gatherers, but it takes time for our cognitive hardware to adjust. In evolutionary terms, a few thousand years is neither here nor there. If Jung was right about the collective unconscious, this would certainly help to explain those vague ‘feelings’ we sometimes get in old houses, and which are the staple ingredient of romantic suspense literature. For a recent example, check out Light In Shadow by Jayne Anne Krentz whose heroine can ‘feel’ emotions in the walls.
Even if you’ve never had a spooky experience, you still have evocative memories of certain places, and such memories can be a fruitful source of story ideas. We all have these private associations, and we’d be fools if we didn’t use those settings in our fiction. In his wonderful memoir, On Writing, Stephen King talks about one of his own favourite places:
A block down the hill, not far from Teddy’s Market and across from Burretts Building Materials, was a huge tangled wilderness area with a junkyard on the far side and a train track running through the middle.
This is one of the places I keep returning to in my imagination; it turns up in my books and stories again and again under a variety of names. The kids in It called it the Barrens; we called it the jungle.
To explore your own associations, try the following exercise.