Setting and The Piano Player’s Son

It’s six months now until the launch of ‘The Piano Player’s Son’ on 25th October in Worcester!

To try to contain my excitement between now and then, I’m going to blog from time to time about aspects of the novel – characters, plot, themes, settings, and next week, I’ll be revealing the cover – so make sure you’re here for that.

There are several significant places in ‘The Piano Player’s Son’, but today’s post will focus on just one of the settings. First, though, a few thoughts about setting in fiction. There’s a tendency in modern writing to neglect setting for fear of boring the reader. Writers in the past had no such worries. We’ve only got to think of Hardy’s descriptions of Dorset, the wild moors of Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, and the London that Dickens evoked. But the argument that today’s readers are not interested in descriptions of place and will either skip those bits – or worse abandon the book altogether – is enough to frighten writers off.

But I think this is a mistake. Characters need to be rooted in place, as ‘real’ people are. Whether we’re by the sea, on a mountain peak, in a kitchen, in an operating theatre, in a hot place, a cold place, a prison, at an airport, in conflict with or at home in our setting, our moods will be different. Different things will happen to us. We will meet different people. We will be different people. Without a strong sense of place, it’s hard for a writer to fully realise character, and to achieve suspense and excitement.

The problem is not with the descriptions in themselves, but when they go for too long, or when they are disconnected from character. The key is to make descriptions dynamic and brief, to be selective, giving only a few vivid details, and to integrate setting with character and action.

Thinking of the questions – who, what, when, where, how, why – setting answers at least two – where and when (and possibly others indirectly) – and is therefore very important.

So, on to ‘PP’s Son’. The first thing a writer has to decide is whether to make their setting real or imagined. My settings tend to be based on real places, mainly because I like to use places I know and love – as I described in my recent post, written in Venice. I love the island of Ischia, in the Bay of Naples, in Italy, an island, known for its health-giving hot springs, but often overshadowed by its more famous neighbour Capri. I’ve spent several holidays there, and it didn’t take me long to decide one of my characters in ‘PP’s Son’ would live there. (image

The character is Grace, one of Henry’s four grown-up children. At the beginning of the novel, Henry dies, and gradually secrets emerge which overturn the family’s view of the past and their parents’ relationship. Grace wasn’t there when her father died – she hadn’t made it back from Italy in time – and she struggles to cope with this, especially when she returns to Ischia, where she and her Italian husband run a ristorante.
The ristorante looks out over the sea towards Castello d’Aragonese, a dramatic and compelling place with a rich history which Grace is fascinated by. This is almost the view of the castle from the ristorante.


The following extract from ‘The Piano Player’s Son’ describes the morning after Grace’s return from England where her father’s funeral took place:

Chapter Ten

When Grace woke, the shutters were ajar and a sliver of light slanted across the room. She stretched, easing her limbs into the cool reaches of the bed. There was no sign of Franco.
She turned on her back and listened. The ristorante was gearing up for another day. The familiar sounds calmed her, like waves breaking on shingle. It was the end of the season and a lot of the hotels were closed, but the ristorante had a regular clientele, especially at weekends when Neapolitans arrived on their fast boats. Franco’s parents’ pizzeria in Naples was famous, and people came to see what il figlio was up to.
From outside came a harsh grating noise as the door of a van slid back. A man’s voice called ‘Giorno! Giorno! Permesso! Permesso!’ and Grace recognised Giuseppe, who delivered the fish Franco selected from the morning’s catch. The bedroom was above the kitchen and she heard the clatter of pans, the sound of Maria’s high-pitched singing.
Grace would usually be busy preparing the restaurant at this hour. She liked the feel of the crisp white tablecloths and the scent of the nosegays adorning each table. In winter the glass doors were shut against the winds that blew off the sea, but for much of the year, they were folded back and tables were set out on the terrace which overhung the Bay of Cartaromana. She’d persuaded Franco to redecorate in pale cream with dark green floor tiles. A richly quilted canopy in a darker shade of cream hung across the ceiling. The wood-burning stove was a new addition for cool evenings.
She slipped from the bed and crossed to the window. She pulled back one of the shutters. The sun was shining and the light glinting off the sea was sharp and clear. It was a shock after the leaden skies of England. She drew a cardigan over her flimsy nightdress and stepped out onto the balcony.
Her eyes sought Sant’Anna’s rocks, sturdy tuffs rising steeply out of the sea. On summer mornings, while it was still quiet, she liked to scramble down the steep path to the beach and swim across to the rocks. Franco had attached a rope to one of them so that she could haul herself up. She’d found a spot, where the sea had washed the rock smooth. She could sit in it, almost like an armchair.
She lifted her gaze from the rocks to the castello, her favourite place on the whole island. Like something from a fairytale, it stood on its cone of volcanic lava, mysterious and compelling. Grace had lost count of the number of times she had crossed the bridge and climbed up to the remains of the castle cathedral, where in the sixteenth century the poet Vittoria Colonna’s wedding was celebrated. She always took her copy of Vittoria’s poetry with her and read in the shadows of the high vaulted arches. To her it was the most romantic place in the world, but Franco scoffed at her obsession with that old ruin.

I hope that short extract might have interested you in Grace, and given you some insight into her character, situation, as well as – of course – an idea of the place in which she lives. And don’t forget, next week – the cover!

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  1. Ah, an Italian setting. Great! I like the variation in pace, even in this short piece.

  2. Christine says:

    I think it’s a question of whether or not descriptive passages are necessary. In the past I have definitely skimmed over them if they don’t appear to be adding anything to the story or to a character. But I find myself doing that less often now and I suspect it’s because modern writers have found the correct balance rather than because I’m more patient or tolerant. In the hands of a skilful writer, descriptions of setting won’t feel like they’re holding up the story but rather enhancing the experience of it. And your passage certainly does that. The area looks beautiful by the way!

  3. Lindsay says:

    Thanks, Becky – glad you like it. It’s a bit scary giving it an outing. And yes, I’m drawn to Italian settings – beautifully evoked in your ‘liar Dice’.

  4. Lindsay says:

    Thanks, Christine. I’m glad you think this description of setting works.
    Totally agree with you that done well, settings enhance the story. An example that springs to mind for me is ‘The Siege’ by Helen Dunmore where the descriptions of Leningrad (St Petersburg) during the 1941-1944 siege are the story!

  5. Polly says:

    Oh yes, I am interested in Grace ~ can’t wait to read PP’s Son ~ just CAN’T WAIT!!

  6. Lindsay says:

    Thanks, Polly. I’ll be posting little snippets such as this one over the next few months, but otherwise it’s another six months, I’m afraid – and no, I can’t wait either!

  7. Caroline says:

    Great to have a character who is reading poetry. I approve.

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