On Writing: Belinda Jeffrey on Setting

There have been many times when I’ve been walking through places, whether they’re spots I’ve never been before or places I go every day, when I think: “There has to be a YA book set here!”. I swear my phone is full of pictures that I’ve taken in the spur of the moment because I’ve felt inspired to tell a story about them. Just recently I was walking around my home town and I found a set of steps that I’ve only ever walked down once and I realised that, beyond a doubt, it was going to be where the final scene of my current WIP was set.

To me, setting is one of the most important parts of a YA novel. Whether it’s a complex fantasy series, a dark dystopian world or a contemporary set down the road from you, it’s the backdrop to which everything is set against. If you don’t get it right, you’re risking your story being unbelievable, two dimensional or worse – completely generic.

Brown Skin Blue

Ever since I read Brown Skin Blue by Belinda Jeffrey, I have had the worst, most unspeakable envy. Well, not unspeakable as such seeing as once I’m started, I won’t stop bemoaning the fact that I can’t write settings like Belinda Jeffrey.

Brown Skin Blue, if you’ve never heard of it, is one of my favourite contemporary stories and one that I frequently go back to. It’s set against the dusty and (seemingly) bleak backdrop of the Australian Outback and if there was ever a perfect setting for a story like Barry Mundie’s, it’s this one.

It seems to be a cliché to say that a setting is so real and vivid that it almost becomes a character but in BSB and, in fact all Ms Jeffrey’s books it’s really true. And they soon became one of my favourite characters.

So there wasn’t really anyone else I could think of to ask about writing settings…

Belinda Jeffrey

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Sometimes when I’m out and about and I see a street or a strange looking building or a gorgeous view I find myself thinking: I have to write a book set here. My first question might seem a bit wishy washy but it’s something that I’ve always been interested in. So, how do you choose where to set your story or do you think it’s a setting/place that makes stories take form? What do you think comes first: the story or the setting?

Well for me this process is kind of linked and conjoined in many ways. With Brown Skin Blue I was actually on the croc tour when I felt an overwhelming buzz that there was a story here. And then all these ideas, the scenes I was taking in gathered around in my mind and the character of Barry appeared. I then saw the Northern Territory with different eyes and began gathering other visuals, ideas and senses to flesh out the story. With Big River, Little Fish I had grown up at Big Bend on the river and it was so magical that it just flew out on to the page one day. I had often said that a story really had to be written about a place called ‘Big Bend’ though.

When you’re actually writing your books, have you ever decided that there’s an aspect of your story that doesn’t fit within your chosen setting? How open do you think people should be to tweak elements of the setting for the story to work?

Hmmm this is a tricky one and has made me really think. With One Long Thread I had to really consider where I could believably link Tonga, Melbourne and Darwin together. Even thought I felt Ruby had to run away to Tonga – and have the story set partly there – for many reasons, it did take a little tweaking to make the transitions believable. When it comes down to it I recommend an intuitive approach. Write first, go with your gut, then use your head and cognitive side to really consider what belongs and fits and what doesn’t. Actually I have just written quite a few words of a current novel which I then stopped and looked at and realised was totally run off course. Back to the beginning….

How do you start researching your backdrop? Are there any resources you use to find out more about the setting?

Just go to the places if at all possible. There are so many things we don’t know we don’t know. To really immerse yourself in the sensory experience of a place opens up connects and possibilities and sensibilities to characters you may not fully experience in the vacuum of your imagination. Google is a great substitute of course.

Your stories are always set against such a unique backdrop that I bet a lot of people from different countries (and other parts of Australia!) might not have experienced anything like it before. How do you find the balance between setting the scene so your readers can picture it but not clog up your story with paragraphs upon paragraphs of description?

I try to have everything anchored to the character’s experience and journey and allow the descriptions of setting to feel connected to that journey, and, if possible, to allow observations and descriptions of setting to reflect something of the character also. That way the character is a mirror to the wider landscape: physical, social, historical and psychological , and those are also a mirror or reflect back into the character.

My favourite thing about your stories, in particular Brown Skin Blue, was the way you used the harsh and bleak Australian backdrop to explore and examine Barry’s tangled emotions and how he sees the world. Was this intentional? And if it was, how important do you feel it is to develop the setting as a way of delving deeper into the characters’ thoughts and emotions?

To a large extent this was natural and just unfolded as I was writing, but it was also something I wanted to achieve. I like to think of landscape or history or culture – depending on the story – as almost a character itself with personality. I think that choosing settings that match a story allows the story to speak at a level without too much explanation.

In my review, I mention that I can’t imagine Brown Skin Blue being set anywhere except this place, do you agree? How different do you feel your stories would be if they were set in a different setting?

Well thank you very much. I absolutely agree. I think there is a fusion between setting and character that, if done well, cannot be changed. It’s like an externalised part of the character. They just belong together.

What is it about a place or scenery that inspires you the most?

Different settings speak different characters to me. They reveal personality, psychology, they have so much to say about how a person has been influenced and shaped.

And finally, what are you Top Five Tips for writing settings in YA fiction?

1. Read lots and lots of YA fiction.
2. Write from the heart and tell the character’s story, not your own.
3. Avoid over-emotion. Let the story speak for itself
4. Start with a killer beginning
5. Don’t stop until you know that story is finished.

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One of my favourite things about this interview is the answer that Belinda gives about the link between her characters and the setting. Like her, I believe there will always be a link between these two. Setting affects the character so much. Are they happy where they are? If not, why not? Do they want to get out of the place they’re in? Or have they already got out and now they’re in a new unfamiliar place?

I absolutely adore the way she describes the character as a mirror to the setting and vice versa. 

A huge thank you to Belinda Jeffrey for helping me out with this interview. 

So what about you? How did you choose where your story is set? Did you already have your characters have in mind when you chose the setting or did that come first and you moulded the characters around that? Do you have any particular problems with settings? Or is it your favourite thing to map out?

Let me know in the comments!

[For more On Writing interviews & posts click here!]

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One thought on “On Writing: Belinda Jeffrey on Setting

  1. Setting is such an important factor for me as a reader. Obviously I adore Australian settings, but any that are done well, appeal to me as well.

    Lovely interview with Belinda, it reminded me that I am still yet to read her earlier books.

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