In writing novels, I used to puzzle over the dictum that setting should be a character in your story. How can a place be a character? Perhaps they mean the setting can establish the mood or say something about your characters. Or, even cause people to act in a particular way. I suspect they simply mean that your setting should be vivid as you can make it and with that I cannot disagree.
Two of my novels have been set in Venice—first, A Trial of One, the third in The Osgoode Trilogy and now, The Drawing Lesson, the first in the Trilogy of Remembrance.
We all have to choose a place [and also a time, I suppose] for our story to happen. Why did I choose Venice? A little personal history.
I start to think what that city means to me, personally. As a grade five child, I remember my dark fascination with a picture in my social studies book of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. The picture was so shrouded in mystery, I decided— I’ve got to go there.
Have you ever had the childhood experience of making up your mind about doing something as a grown-up and making it come true? If you have, I bet that was your own personal daimon talking. You know—that part of you which secretly knows all along what you will become, but doesn’t necessarily let you in on it. I think that’s what happened to me.
I’ve been to Venice several times—once alone. There’s something about travelling on your own. Most people aren’t crazy about it, but I like it. It gives me more time to quietly absorb everything and mull it over. I really like to photograph on these kinds of trips. When I was in Venice in 2002, I spent my time walking everywhere, photographing and writing.
Here’s an example of things that can happen. I was seated at a cafe on San Marco for lunch. Behind me and completely out of my view was a British couple. All through lunch, they nattered at each other. After all, they probably had forty years of practice and knew every subterfuge and hot-button. I got out my notebook and began to scribble. As they bantered back and forth, the volleys became increasingly more serious—some aimed with deadly precision. At one point, the woman rose from the table [I could hear the sniffling] and she marched off to find the loo, but was back within a few minutes. Surely a strategy for her to regroup her forces. Interestingly, they always seemed to know just where to stop. I completed my notes.
The result? The birth of two very important characters in The Drawing Lesson—the old couple, John and Gloria Cummings. Here they are on the Orient Express, in The Drawing Lesson.
John’s thin neck protruded from a navy silk cravat tucked neatly into his white collar. The brass buttons on his blazer gave him a military appearance. In her blowsy, floral dress, Gloria wheezed with every step down the aisle. The maitre d’ rushed to assist them with their seating.
Wainwright touched the waiter’s sleeve. “A celebration for the couple?”
“Mais oui, Monsieur. Forty-five years of marriage.”
“Just think, John, forty-five years ago tonight, we were off on the train for our honeymoon,” said the old woman. “Such a lovely time we had at Sussex-by-the-Sea, didn’t we?”
“Sussex?” John looked up in surprise. “Gloria, we did not go to the seaside.”
“Of course we did.”
John shook his head. “You are mistaken, Gloria.” She took a roll and when she offered the basket, he pushed it away. “We spent the weekend in London. The seaside was later.”
“I’m terribly sorry, darling, but you’re wrong,” she persisted. We thought about London, but we didn’t have enough money.” She sniffed and reached for her napkin.
So, here’s a photo of the cafe in which they were “born.”
It turns out that both Gloria and John were such strong characters that they have continued on into the next novel in the Remembrance Trilogy, provisionally entitled The Fate of Pryde. Actually, John died in The Drawing Lesson, but he lives on in everyone’s mind and still has his influence [at least at the second draft stage.] Gloria is now in a retirement home and this gives me the opportunity to write about the treatment of the elderly—something of which I know quite a bit. Much of my law practice dealt with eldercare.
But have we strayed from talking about place as a character? Perhaps not so far. I find that the settings which rise up around me come from my life, character and experience. And, as in this case, the setting seemed to spawn these people. Yet again, perhaps it was just my mood and circumstance. Can a place be a character? Maybe so, but only indirectly.
After I left this man and woman to their own devices, I wandered off to photograph the Grand Canal as you can see in this photograph.