This blog is a new venture and since I’m talking newness, I thought I’d write a little about the novel I’ve recently started. Despite having done a fair amount of reading on the Ottoman empire in the early twentieth century, I’m finding I have great big holes to fill. Alice, my heroine, travels to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1907 in search of a missing sister. I’ve got her there without too much of a problem, but the next stage is proving knotty. She arrives at the front gateway to the Topkapi palace and this is where my knowledge runs out.
I visited Topkapi many years ago but I’ve only the haziest memory of it now. In addition, only thirty rooms out of literally hundreds are open to the public. There are an awful lot of blanks to fill. What do those imposing entrance gates look like (I can find a contemporary image but did they look the same in 1907), how many courtyards does Alice have to traverse until she reaches the harem (probably the same number then as now), and what do the women’s quarters look like when she gets there?
I’ve downloaded a map showing the layout of the palace and I’ve read a number of contemporary travellers’ accounts. It isn’t ideal, but it’s the best I can do to create a place that readers will believe in. And that’s crucial – if the setting isn’t convincing, the reader will lose faith in the story. And it’s not just a matter of how long it takes to get from A to B, but how it feels getting from A to B. What does the character smell, hear, taste, touch on the way?
Setting done well can be a great revealer of character. The space a character inhabits, the possessions they choose, say a lot about them. So, too, their reactions to their environment which may change over time and depend on their mood. At first Alice is overawed by the immensity of Topkapi, but as she is driven further and further from the entrance gates, she begins to feel oppressed, almost claustrophobic.
The usual advice to writers is that they should visit the place they’re describing. It’s seen as a kind of gold standard, what a real writer does, as though it’s cheating if they don’t. But visiting a particular place might be beyond a writer’s purse. And for certain genres, there’s a limit to how much a visit will gain.
David Nicholls makes the point that for writers of historical, fantastical or futuristic fiction, physical distance from their setting is part of the challenge they set themselves. A train ticket, a notepad and camera isn’t going to help much if they’re trying to conjure up Wolf Hall, Westeros or the Republic of Gilead.
Sometimes then, all a writer can do is dig up as much information as possible and let their imagination fly. Now back to that map of the harem!