When I begin a novel, it isn't the setting that comes to mind. In my latest novel. The Last Photograph, I wanted to explore the psychology of a photojournalist: someone who visits conflict zones as an observer, rather than in combat. I researched recent wars to determine which one I wanted to explore. Finally, I settled on the Vietnam War as it was the last major war in which journalists were able to roam about the country freely (at least at the beginning), altering the course of the conflict through their coverage of it.
The conflict in Vietnam raged twenty years before I was born, in a place thousands of miles away from where I grew up. Would I be able to set a novel there effectively? People I spoke to about my ambition asked me why I wanted to make things so hard for myself. I’m not the first author to do this: Sid Smith’s award-winning first novel Something Like A House was meticulous in its evocation of its Chinese setting, despite the author never having visited China.
I wondered, at the beginning, whether it was necessary for me to visit the country. I spent weeks pouring over books on the history and topography of Vietnam, but I found there was only so far I could get with secondary sources. I needed to go there myself, to set foot on Vietnamese soil, to get a sense of the place and its people. So I embarked on a whistle stop tour, visiting the most popular tourist areas as well as a few off-the-beaten-track locations where the war had rampaged. At the beginning, I found frustration wherever I went. I found it hard to imagine the country of fifty years ago, altered so much by the war, the American influence and then by Communism. Once I arrived in the more rural area of the Central Highlands, less altered by modernity, it became easier to see how the country had changed. I met some English-speaking natives who were able to help. But I was still far out of my comfort zone. As someone who had little visited Asia at all, I started to have doubts.
How did I overcome them? I spent more time in the country. I returned to Vietnam later that year for three months, staying near to the locals who had helped me. I asked lots more questions. My friend had been there during the war, and was able to take me out further into the countryside, where there were traditional houses like those that would have existed in the pre-war days. More than anything, I fell in love with Vietnam and with its people. That passion for the country made me want to do it justice on the page, and work harder to do so.
Recreating a real living and breathing place in a novel is a balancing act. It’s about observing, about using your senses, about noticing details and recording them. At the same time, it’s important not to layer on the detail too heavily. The reader should be there with you, but not lose sight of the characters, of the plot, of the engine driving the novel forward. A good setting heightens the action, without directing attention away from it.
Writing is an act of faith and confidence. I switched off those doubting voices in my head. My main character was an outsider to Vietnam as well, and I told myself that I was seeing the place through his eyes. I focused on each detail, on building up a picture of one area of Vietnam, seen by one particular character, at one particular time. Word by word, page by page, my novel began to take shape. That’s the thought that kept me going: go slowly. I didn’t allow myself to think about the bigger picture, for fear it would overwhelm me, stopping me in my tracks.
Setting isn’t just about physical environment. It’s also about the context of the times – social, economic and political. A writer needs to know the background, but not to ram it into the book: it needs to hang in the background without being overbearing. The way to achieve this is to understand that context yourself as the writer, and you must do this before you write a word of the novel. You need to know all the necessary details to make the world of your novel realistic. Try not to lose yourself in this knowledge hunt however: your aim isn’t to become an expert on a historical or social period, though you will inevitably become that. Your research needs to underpin the book, not overwhelm it. The way to tell if you’re overdoing it is to ask whether the information you are including is necessary to the plot of your book: if it doesn’t enhance either the story or the character development, remove it.
While I was writing this novel, making the myriad tiny decisions that led to each word being put on paper, the most amazing thing happened. Not only did my novel start to take shape, but I found a second home and a second family amongst the open-hearted Vietnamese people who helped me. By simply keeping my eyes and ears open to the sights and colours of that beautiful place, I let in a wealth of other things too.
Emma Chapman will be leading a masterclass on Research, Atmosphere & Setting as part of our 10-week writing course From First Draft To Final Draft.
Emma Chapman is a British writer, currently living in North Yorkshire. She was born in 1985 and grew up near Manchester. She studied English Literature at Edinburgh University, and completed an MA in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, where she was taught by Susanna Jones and Andrew Motion. In 2013, her first novel, How To Be A Good Wife, was published internationally to critical acclaim, with reviews in The Guardian, The Financial Times, and The New York Times, amongst others. It was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and was chosen as a Target Book Club title. Hilary Mantel called it ‘an impressive debut from a writer who shows insight and power’.
Her second novel, The Last Photograph, about a British photojournalist’s experiences during the Vietnam War was published last July. Emma also runs the charity Vietnam Volunteer Teachers and is the co-founder of Your Editors, a business offering academic and fiction editing service.