A Sense of Plaice

If you feel that there is something fishy about the title of this blog, then you may well be right. My wife and I have an apartment in Edinburgh, Scotland. Its address is Portland Place and there is a fish and chip shop below which we would dearly like the owners to call “Portland Plaice.” Actually, come to think on it, it’s now an Indian restaurant, so that doesn’t work anymore. Damn.

All of which fustian tarradiddle convinces me that I should get to the point. Right from the moment at which I first considered writing a novel, standing outside a beach locker on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay with Joe The Dog looking at me as if to say “let’s just get home, pal, I haven’t had breakfast yet,” the color and smell and shape of places has been a big part of what I write and how I write. I usually go in for short sentences, too.

It’s tempting, of course, to make up locations. You can have them just the way you want and let your imagination create the plaice. Sorry, place. What I discovered, as the first novel blundered into existence, was that I like using the real thing. In particular, I like using places that I have visited or know well. Even then, the kind of detail required, especially when action scenes are concerned, requires more information than my old memory can possibly muster. This is where Google Maps, Earth and Street become invaluable.

For example, I needed to locate a tower block in London, suitable for landing a helicopter and near to MI5 HQ. I flew Google Earth to the banks of the Thames and hovered near to my area of interest. Bingo! A building called Millbank Tower fitted the bill. Then followed some background research on the actual building (how many floors, nature of construction, helipad included? etc). Finally, Google Street allowed me to put together what my characters would see as they emerged from the building. Here is part of the relevant text from The Butterfly & The Bull.

Colin and I were still crumpled from sleep when Lynn arrived, transformed from scary MI5 agent by faded jeans and a blue fleece. She led us up dark stairs and we emerged into an unresolved April morning. A threadbare covering of cloud struggled to obscure the eager Spring sun. Across the road and below the embankment’s edge, the Thames drifted past, a constant, noisome token of the collapse of good intentions. The building behind us rose glacially in the cool air, steel and glass levels thirty-three high perched on a single floor extending on either side of the base of the tower. Supporting columns at street level formed a cool, shadowy arcade. As we turned to our left and slipped in under the canopy, I caught a glimpse of a corner of Thames House peering bluntly at us. MI5 HQ. 

Detail is often important to bring places alive for the reader.  To achieve this, personal knowledge can be invaluable.  In this extract, the hero and his companion are sailing across the Irish Sea to the Island of Jura off the West Coast of Scotland.

Homecoming. Six months previously that would have involved walking up Virginia Avenue and smiling at Theresa as I headed across the foyer of our apartment block. Now, in the light of a new day, I was sailing towards another, older home.

I could have closed my eyes and imagined almost perfectly the unfolding animation of sea and land as we sailed north. Frame by frame, its pattern was deeply etched in my mind. I could feel memories crowding and jostling for attention, vivid and visceral.

As the purple and green and tan landscape unfolded on either side of the shimmering sea, I felt a reconnection with the people and the land I had loved and left. It brought strength and pleasure, and a little sadness.

Synchronous kittiwakes flowed past us in blissful formation and I called John to watch a trio of puffins clatter by, all frantic wing beats and clownish looks. In my case, “home” was a moveable feast. Born on the island of Lewis, many miles to the north, I spent much of my childhood and adolescence in Oban, a fishing town in the county of Argyll. My friendship with Colin McKay changed that focus. He came from the island of Jura and was a boarder at the high school when I met him. We spent weekends and holidays on Jura and his parents were a second mother and father to me. The island and the seas around it became ours.

Craighouse is situated at the south end of the big bite taken out of Jura low down on its east side and is partly protected by a string of islets called The Small Isles. We doused the sails and motored in through the southern passage between the mainland and the first islet. As we came into the bay we could see, from our left: a big wooden jetty with a couple of fishing boats moored alongside; the Isle of Jura Hotel with the distillery behind; the little landing jetty with the island store just by it and the houses of the village strung out along the shore. In the foreground, several boats were moored to red metal buoys. Behind it all, the bulk of the Paps, slopes darkening as the sun retreated to the west, quartzite summits glowing. 

Finally, here is an extract from the sequel to TBATB, called Flight of the Butterfly. The sense of place here comes entirely from intimate personal knowledge, acquired over many years of attending meetings in the City Chambers in Edinburgh.

Marion McInnes crushed another unsuspecting sheet of paper in her hand and decided that she hated the picture of Nelson Mandela hanging on the wall opposite her desk. As the pale scrumple described an arc to join its fellow travellers in the waste bin, she became convinced that the great man’s expression had gradually changed over the years, from serene wisdom to naked disapproval.

She could hardly blame him. He had been witness to a slide in moral standing unprecedented even for local politics in the City of Edinburgh. Marion well understood the part she had played in that. Her robust defence of the leadership she had carved out amidst financial and social collapse was based on pragmatism. The wily old politician turned shark. Sunk from the down and dirty predictability of politics to dealing with mobsters, gang leaders, community militia and criminals of all colours. She knew that she was more than a match for her fellow inmates in the council chambers, whether they were for her or agin’ her, but these other forces were a different matter. Some days, she could feel the city slipping between her fingers.

Marion looked down at her hands, resting on the old oak desk. Fleshy hands, with the blotchy stains of freckles inherited from her mother and the stubby fingers from her father, the left ring one still with its pale indentation.

She opened her laptop, realised the futility. The power was out, the office lit only by the thin January light from the old sash windows. She sighed and stood up. The room was an overblown manifestation of Victoriana: overwrought woodwork, over-piled carpet, humourless furniture. Marion felt the ambiguity of it: raddled familiarity versus anachronistic stuffiness.

She walked to the window, gazed out over the gap-toothed canopy of Waverley Station. Beyond, the grimy flounces and fripperies of the Balmoral Hotel. The snow of past days had melted and frozen on buildings and streets and pavements, a translucent carapace. She pulled her wool coat around her and shivered.


So. There you have it. A sense of plaice. To give your novel real sole.

4 Comments

Filed under Writing

4 responses to “A Sense of Plaice

  1. Clive

    I’m with you in every way, Stuart, excepting brief sentences of course. My appetite has been truly wetted, and so I await the new volume with impatience, I cod you not.

  2. Excellent! And salmon chanted evening to you, my dear man. A pun a day keeps the blues at bay etc. 🙂

  3. Great tips! I especially liked the description of Marion’s hands, a unique way of describing her character that makes me want to know more about her. Clever last line as well!

  4. Thanks, Eileen! Marion is based on a former Edinburgh politician (now sadly dead). She wasn’t the easiest person to work with, but she was a hell of a character!

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