THE SPACES WE LIVE and INTERACT in are much more than MERE BACKDROPS, says best-selling novelist MIKE NICOL – THEY ARE PART OF WHO WE ARE.


IN FICTION, readers need SPECIFIC DETAILS. The room must be a place they can see.

“IN A WARM HIGH ROOM ABOVE THE SEA” is the second line of William Plomer’s poem, “The Shortest Day”. That line has haunted me since I first read it decades ago; I now realise the poem taught me a lot about writing, about stories and about the characters that make those stories worth reading. Without rooms, without the scenes we set in rooms, so many novels would not resonate the way they do.

In Plomer’s high room you don’t learn much about the furnishing­s, but you do learn about the view from the window and about the emotional vibes. My imaginatio­n has filled that room with leather couches, Persian carpets, Anglepoise floor lamps, a bookcase of novels, modernist paintings, ceramic dishes and, scattered on surfaces, bric-a-brac collected over a lifetime.

And yet there is none of this in the poem. All we know of the physical room is the “fume of fine food and room-warmed wine”. There is the “aroma of living”. Yet these few allusions allow the imaginatio­n to supply physical details. But what works in poetry doesn’t always work in fiction. In fiction, readers need specific details. The room must be a place they can see.

As the author David Mitchell has remarked, “Scenes need spaces to happen in. What those spaces look like, and what is in them, can determine how the action unfolds. They can even give you ideas for what unfolds.” And in truth, I have used magazines – VISI being one of them – to help me imagine rooms where scenes can happen.

There needs to be furniture of a sort. Take a kitchen with a rugged oak table stained with rings of red wine, two characters sitting opposite one another on straight-backed chairs, eating macaroni and cheese from Willow-pattern plates. The floor is terracotta tiles, the sink is porcelain, the countertop­s cluttered, a Bialetti coffee pot on the gas hob. The decor is simple, rustic even; the lighting is subdued. And the characters are at ease. Surfer-dude and private investigat­or Fish pours wine from an unlabelled bottle into (former spy) Vicki’s long-stemmed glass.

How they banter and tease one another is determined by the homely setting. She leans over to wipe cheese sauce from his chin. In turn, how they react says something about the room. As the writer Joan Didion put it, “When I talk about pictures in my mind, I am talking, quite specifical­ly, about images that shimmer around the edges… The picture tells you how to arrange the words, and the arrangemen­t of the words tells you – or tells me – what’s going on in the picture.”

If writing a novel is about creating pictures and filling them with scenes and details, then (as Mitchell says) the story is how the characters act and react in those places. So often I have found that, to understand a character, I first have to know where she or he is at home: see the furniture, the rugs, the paintings, the oddments that make up the rooms they live in. Only then can they be characters. Only then can readers live in those rooms.

Hammerman, A Walking Shadow, the latest in MIKE NICOL’S crime-fiction series featuring Fish and Vicki, is published by Umuzi in April. When he’s not writing crime, he mentors writers on his popular The Writers’ Masterclas­s (writeonlin­ – or you might find him in a high room above the sea, drinking wine.

 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa