When authors are interviewed about their novels, they usually talk mostly about their characters. There’s a good reason for this: characters are what readers relate to most easily; they are the emotional route into the story. But there are other dimensions to a novel too, one of the most vital being setting.
When, in 2004, I started writing what turned into a pair of science fiction novels called My Future in the Past, I thought about how I could bring a new twist to stories about time travel. Before I’d even written the first chapter, I decided that I must first have a vivid sense of place, and that place needed to be unusual — something different from New York City or London, or a space station or future metropolis from central casting. I found that not only did my choice of setting provide background — a place for the characters to act out their story — but it started to fundamentally alter my original plan for the novels.
My previous story had been about a tsunami striking Boston. Thanks to the internet, I could recite locations, give the name of taxi companies, and write about the Big Dig. I even had a critique partner who had lived in Boston and corrected my Bostonian speech. Perhaps I did a good job on the Boston setting, but I could never know for certain because it wasn’t somewhere I could go.
For my new novel, I wanted somewhere I could visit easily, somewhere contemporary where I could hide a time station without anyone noticing. Tricky! I settled on Elstow Abbey. One of the useful things about Elstow Abbey is that it doesn’t exist, not any more. Henry VIII dissolved the monastery in 1539. What if I brought it back? After all, you can play such tricks with time travel.
My wife was born and bred in Elstow and told me of the stories they used to tell when she was a girl, of the ghosts of the nuns who still guarded the monastery’s treasure buried deep underground. Well, what if that wasn’t entirely nonsense? What if there really was something underground: a time station?
So I set my story in Elstow, a tiny village that is being slowly swallowed by the neighbouring big town of Bedford. Other than the abbey, there is one other thing Elstow is famous for: John Bunyan, who lived and preached there. I knew about Bunyan, all right. When I moved to the Bedford area twenty years ago in search of work, everything in the area was named Pilgrim this or Progress the other, after Bunyan’s famous book. I even used to meet my friends in a pub called the Pilgrim’s Progress, which featured a cupola with a stained glass frieze of scenes from the book, and cask-conditioned De Koninck (but that’s another story entirely).
As I wrote the first draft, I made the appalling mistake of slipping in annoying facts about Elstow and Bunyan.
See the children playing tipcat on Elstow Green, just as Bunyan did when he felt the call from God. And, by the way, did you know this is where the original Vanity Fair was held? Marvel in my research!
You know the sort of guff. Well, I grew out of that phase and cut out almost all of these facts. But I did keep one thing. As I wrote about Bunyan and his Pilgrim’s Progress, I felt an uncanny resonance. I read Bunyan’s book and was spooked by the parallels with my own. Bunyan’s character, Christian, was facing similar challenges to my own characters. Instead of splitting the books into parts, I now split them into stages, just as Bunyan did, naming the stages after his. One of the key characters in the sequel to the Pilgrim’s Progress (yes, they had sequels even in the 17th century) was Mr. Great Heart. It’s no coincidence that my publishing business is called Greyhart Press, though to explain more would be giving far too much away...
One of the strangest things to explain to non-writers is the exciting feeling we get when a novel starts to write itself. It sounds like sloppiness, like a writer not in control of the story. In reality, it happens when the characters, setting, plot, and themes become so vivid that the writer sees new connections and enticing possibilities that were hidden when the story was first planned out.
And now my story was telling me to rewrite, to emphasise the thematic parallels with The Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan’s book set an obstacle-laden allegorical path for the main character to follow, with spiritual fulfilment as the ultimate destination. And that is now the theme for my novels. They feature two main characters, one human and one not, who exist in parallel worlds. Each faces similar challenges on their path from Slough of Despond to Celestial City. Except a happy ending would be too easy. These parallel realities are at war with each other, and by the end of the books, one must be erased from existence. That’s now woven in as an integral theme that, hopefully, leads to some powerful scenes as the reader begins to suspect that one set of characters is doomed.
So thank you, Elstow. If I hadn’t chosen you for a setting, my novels would have been poorer for it.
The first volume of My Future in the Past will be published by Greyhart Press early in 2012. Check www.greyhartpress.com for announcements.
You can find more about Tim at www.timctaylor.com or tweet @TimCTaylor