A sense of place – Judith Heneghan

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By Judith Heneghan

Snegurochka is a novel about a city, Kiev, in 1992-3. I had lived there with my husband and our baby for a while, so when I started writing the novel I made it easy for myself by giving my main character, Rachel, the run of our flat. ♥

It’s a work of fiction, and Rachel isn’t me, thank goodness, but she does walk in my shoes. After all, I’d spent a year staring out of our window on the thirteenth floor. I could retrace every step of my walk up to the monastery and, if I closed my eyes, I could still remember how the air smelt before it snowed.

Nevertheless, while the setting for the novel took shape from memory, I knew this wasn’t enough. I toyed with the idea of returning for a short visit, but there was something so particular and fleeting about Kiev in the early 90s that I worried I’d lose this quality in the rush of new impressions.

Fortunately I’d kept my old photographs. For weeks I pored over a dusty album from that time – indeed, the album itself was a Ukrainian affair with a padded vinyl cover that brought back a rush of memories. The photographs are pretty basic, by anyone’s standards. Light leaks onto the film, or I’ve cut someone’s legs off, or a car rushes past just as I clicked the shutter of my little Instamatic. They are snapshots of queues and kiosks, kitchens and balconies, shops and tram rides – the ordinary business of other people’s lives. Perfect for any novelist.

I didn’t find my old diaries until the novel was nearly finished. I assumed they were lost, but when I moved house I discovered them in an envelope in the loft. I say ‘diaries’ but really they were just sheets of paper ruled with squares on which I’d scribbled odd impressions as I looked after my son.

There was the collection of hats I’d drawn – a clumsy homage to the many styles worn by different generations of Kievans. There was the anecdote about the boy with cherries in his ears. There, too, was a detailed description of the bus ride to the Botanical Gardens and, to my joy, the actual bus number. None of these details changed my story, but they gave me confidence. They allowed me to layer my novel with a more convincing sense of place.

Now, as I begin to research a novel in a new setting, I’m mindful of the following:

  • Focus on ‘local’ as much as possible – establish the intimate neighbourhood of the story.
  • Make notes. Always. Sit in cafes and jot down snippets of real conversations or, if you don’t understand the language, note its cadences and rhythms. Scribble down train stations and shop names and prices. Consider the quality of the light, the smells and the sounds.
  • Take photographs of ordinary things. People on the street. House interiors. Advertising hoardings. Fences. Feet.
  • Pay attention to obstacles or difficulties of any kind, however insignificant. Story comes from conflict.
  • Tune in to local news or popular TV programmes. Scan the small ads. Keep menus and bus tickets.
  • Visit a chemist. It’s amazing how often our characters have need of the local brand of paracetamol or sting relief!
  • Ensure the maps and guidebooks you pick up for research purposes were published in the period you are writing about. In Kiev, many streets have been re-named since I was there in 1993.
  • And, perhaps most importantly, keep a note of how each new place makes you feel. After all, without emotion, it’s just description.

Judith Heneghan is a writer and editor. She spent several years in Ukraine and Russia with her young family in the 1990s and now teaches creative writing at the University of Winchester.


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