Doug Johnstone: Using Setting as a Character

Doug Johnstone: Using Setting as a Character

This is partly, I think, down to my upbringing. I’m in my forties now, so grew up through the 1970s and 80s. I’m part of a generation of people who were for the first time as much influenced by film and television as any other form of storytelling.

And that applies to writers too. I’m probably even more influenced by watching Doctor Who or Close Encounters of the Third Kind as a kid than I am by the books I was reading at the time. So, without even thinking about it, when I come to write a book, the visual impact of that book is paramount, it underlies everything. And that visual impact comes, in large part, from the setting.

My eighth novel, Crash Land, has just come out. Over the course of eight books over the last decade, I have written contemporary thrillers all set in modern Scotland, all set against dramatic backdrops, whether they are rural or urban. Crash Land is set entirely in Orkney, and concerns the aftermath of a tragic plane crash. Orkney is an amazing place, where the past resonates with the present across a number of dramatic settings. I first visited the place twelve years ago, before I was ever published, but I knew even back then that I wanted to use it as the setting for a novel.

So Crash Land hopefully gets across the spirit of the place on the page, taking in historic sites like the Tomb of the Eagles and the Ring of Brodgar, but using them in an ultra-modern psychological thriller plotline.

In previous books I have used Arbroath cliffs as a backdrop, or the distilleries of Islay, or the Forth Road Bridge. My three novels set in Edinburgh all manage to use place distinctly, hopefully without resorting to the clichés of the tourist traps the city is best known for. So Gone Again is set mostly around Portobello Beach, while Hit and Run takes place in the shadows of Arthur’s Seat.

The trick, I think, in using setting like a character, is to have the actual characters interact with the backdrop as much as possible. Don’t just paint a canvass for the characters to interact in front of, make them get down and dirty, right in the thick of the place where the drama is happening.

This is probably most obviously the case in my last novel, The Jump. Set in South Queensferry in the shadow of the Forth Road Bridge, that massive construction is more than just a backdrop – the plot revolves around attempted suicide, someone throwing themselves off the bridge, and the main character Ellie visits the bridge all the time as a sort of pilgrimage, a way to cope with the loss of her teenage son.

And that interaction happens in my latest Crash Land too. The main character Finn is a young student who survives a plane crash but gets involved in some terrible stuff afterwards. He seeks solace and refuge in the ancient tombs and relics of Orkney, hiding out in the Tomb of the Eagles with the old bones of the dead, trying to commune with the spirits at the spiritual Ring of Brodgar.

A trip to St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall for a memorial service sees him suffering badly from post-traumatic stress and survivor guilt, and ends with him getting beaten up. And so, hopefully, the book progresses from dramatic set-piece to dramatic set-piece, until a violent climax at the Churchill Barriers, the wartime defences built to protect the British fleet in the harbour of Scapa Flow.

All of this, I hope, goes some way to establishing the action visually in the reader’s head. If I’ve done my job well enough, then I’ve made the setting into a character that the reader engages with, and made the story more vivid in the process.