Laura Barnett: A Sense of Place in The Versions of Us

Laura Barnett: A Sense of Place in The Versions of Us

Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that the pink house would one day find its way into my writing. We writers are magpies: we collect images, thoughts, scraps of information, intrigued by their sparkle and gleam, and put them away in a drawer for later use. This is especially the case, in my experience, when it comes to choosing the places in which to situate our characters, and their stories: the houses they are born and grow up in; the countries they travel to; the cities in which they work and live.

We may feel, as we write, that these decisions are random – that the characters lead us to this place or another; that we simply cut the backdrop to fit the demands of the story. It’s only later, when we look back, that we can see how many of these places have sprung from our own experience, refracted and filtered through the prism of fiction.

This, at least, is how it seems to me now, looking back over the writing of my debut novel, The Versions of Us. The initial idea came to me quite suddenly, one spring morning in 2013: I woke up knowing that I wanted to tell the story of one couple’s relationship, from beginning to end, in three different ways. Each version of the story would, I decided, branch off from one key moment – one small decision that would bring them together, or would not.

Soon after that came ideas about the two main characters, Eva Edelstein and Jim Taylor: their looks, backgrounds, personalities, aspirations. And I knew right away, too, that I wanted their story – their three stories – to elapse in real places; places that I would name and describe. Places that, given the novel’s sixty-year timespan (it would begin in Cambridge in 1958, and end, though I didn’t know this then, in Cambridge and London in 2014) I would also need to be able to pinpoint in a particular moment in time.

When I began writing, I had only a rough idea of where the three versions of Jim and Eva’s story would take them – I knew they would meet while studying in Cambridge, and then move to London, and that Jim would return, in some versions, to Bristol, to live with his mother; and I had a vague sense that Eva might move abroad, perhaps to France or Italy. The rest was up for grabs: waiting to be discovered, really, as I moved with the characters through the three versions of their lives, together and apart.

Many of the places Eva and Jim took me to – New York; Los Angeles; Cornwall; Suffolk; Greece – I did not expect to visit when I set out on the journey with them. But many of them do bear some relationship with places I know. Like Jim, I studied at Clare College, Cambridge; I spent a year in Rome as part of my degree, living in an area called Monteverde Vecchio, where Eva’s apartment is situated; I have relatives in Bristol, where Jim’s mother Vivian lives. Eva’s family home in Highgate is based on my late step-grandmother’s house in the same area; and that salmon-pink house on the hill became, in one of the three versions of the story, Eva and Jim’s first London home.

Other locations – a glass-walled house in Los Angeles; a commune in Cornwall; a Fleet Street newspaper office – are entirely invented, and even those places with their roots in reality are fictionalised, to greater or lesser degrees.

But I did take pains, when locating the story in a real, named place and time, to make my description of it as accurate as possible. One key scene, for instance, takes place outside Heffers bookshop in Cambridge. Now, it’s a well-known landmark on Trinity Street, but I discovered that this was not always so: in 1959, when the scene is set, the shop was on the other side of the city centre, on a street called Petty Cury. Knowing this, I felt I had no choice but to move the whole scene across town.

Research, then, is key to building a sense of place, whether the location is real (or partly real, anyway) or entirely fictional. While writing The Versions of Us, I immersed myself in novels, films, plays and TV programmes of the various periods, and interviewed people who’d had first-hand experience of the places I was drawing on for the story. The Observer journalist Katharine Whitehorn offered me some fascinating insights into what it was actually like to work in a Fleet Street newspaper office in the ’50s and ’60s; and my friend Matt was able to correct several inaccuracies in my description of the interior of Ely Cathedral, where he performed many times with our college choir.

Before starting to write each new scene, I sought out photographs of that particular place and time, drawing especially on Google Images, Instagram and Pinterest (you can view Pinterest boards for some of the locations in the novel at versionsofus.com). There, I was able to find photographs of everything from the interior of the Algonquin Hotel in New York in 1962; to cube-like, modernist houses like the one Jim buys on a Cornish clifftop, three decades later.

Other details – the look and feel of Bristol’s docks in the mid-’60s; the precise names of the flowers and plants native to the Cornish coast – I found in articles, newspaper reports, blogs. I often plotted a particular route taken by one of my characters on Google Maps – making sure, of course, that the streetscape wouldn’t have changed too since the time in which the scene was set (I was on safe ground, I felt, with historic cities such as Cambridge and Paris, where most of the important buildings have been around for centuries).

Getting these small details right became something of an obsession: I started to think enviously, as I progressed with the book, of sci-fi writers, liberated from the shackles of realism by inventing their own, entirely fictional worlds.

I wonder, now, if my fixation on placing my characters in real places springs, in part, from the ten years I’ve spent working as a journalist: I still can’t quite liberate myself from the conviction that I shouldn’t really go round making things up.

Or perhaps it’s simply that the novels I love best, as a reader, are those that take the real, tangible world around us – places with which we are familiar, or would like to be – and renders it strange, special, particular. That, surely, is one of the key wonders of reading, and writing, fiction – a novel transports us to places that we know, however carefully researched and constructed they may be, aren’t entirely real. And yet we believe that they are, and that we are there with the characters, breathing in those sights and sounds and smells; seeing the world through their eyes, for as long as the story lasts.