Friday, July 13, 2018

A Sense of Place

Just yesterday, I was talking with the writer Robert Goolrick, whose latest novel, The Dying of the Light, is the subject of my next New Books in Historical Fiction interview (on which, more next week—or perhaps the Friday after that, depending on how many interviews are in the queue ahead of me). Although as writers and as readers, we tend to focus on characters and plot, The Dying of the Light reminds us that setting, if properly invoked, expresses and motivates the first and drives the second.

Place grounds us, influencing our experience of the world in ways so fundamental that we often don’t recognize their force. In my own novels, the crowded streets and tightly packed houses of sixteenth-century Moscow breed different expectations from the vast borderless grasslands of the steppe or the equally vast and borderless yet somehow confining forests of the Russian north. My characters feel these differences, sometimes with joy—as when Alexei has a chance to return to the steppe for a summer, even if it means leaving his family for a war that may prevent his return—and sometimes with dread, as when Nasan stands in the Kremlin Cathedral of the Archangel Michael, surrounded by the decaying corpses of Moscow’s royal princes.

The Dying of the Light opens with a wonderful line: “It begins with a house and it ends in ashes.” And indeed it does: the Virginia estate of Saratoga, as important to those who live there as Pemberley or Tara. The Cookes of Saratoga can trace their ownership of the house back to the eighteenth century, but by the time the novel opens more than 150 years later, the house has become both a burden to those who live there and an essential part of their being.

The estate costs a lot to maintain, you see, and the Cookes are land-rich and cash-poor. They have one asset besides the house and their name: their beautiful daughter Diana. So they put her on the market—the marriage market—and force her to choose between their estate and her happiness.

What happens after that is the subject of a future post, but today’s point is simple. Saratoga—its river and its fields, its people and the race relations that bind and separate them, its disasters and moments of recovery—both challenges and rewards its residents. It pushes the plot in unexpected directions. It forces the introduction of new characters, who in turn develop new relationships even as they twist existing ones in different directions, sometimes to the point of destruction. And the history of the house, so closely tied to the person of the protagonist Diana Cooke, ultimately reveals the theme hidden in this wonderfully lyrical and fascinating book.

Take this one short example from p. 106. “They” are Diana and her cook, Priscilla.

They heard the crack and crash of a tree outside, in the garden, struck by lightning that lit the room like daylight, like noon in July. They felt the chill air that suddenly filled the room, blowing in from the library, and thought the same thought at the same moment. “The books!” Diana jumped up.

They ran into the library, forcing open the broad double doors, to find the giant half tree that had been split by the lightning and crashed through the diamond panes of the windows, destroying everything, letting in the slashing rain, pulling books from the shelves, the soggy pages flapping in the wind, the rug soaked, the ruination of all that Diana held most dear.

Now, that’s a sense of place.

On another note, my summer plans are proceeding apace. The Golden Lynx, 2nd ed. is available on Amazon and Kindle, and I’ve approved it for distribution via Ingraham. The rest of the Legends novels, despite yet another copyright challenge, have received their updates. The first of two box sets is out on Kindle, and Kindle Unlimited users can borrow all the Legends novels for free (others pay $2.99 per book or $6.99 for the set). And the e-book of The Shattered Drum releases on Monday, but you can preorder it now. The print version should appear in seven to ten days. That leaves only the second box set, which I hope to complete this weekend and release around the same time as the print version of The Shattered Drum.

After that, I will be back to writing—a whole new series waiting to be born!

Images: Apollinary Vasnetsov, A Street in the Kitagorod (1902), public domain via Wikimedia Commons; warriors in the steppe, screen shot from Nomad: The Warrior, dir. Sergei Bodrov (2005).

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