In a recent interview, I was asked whether I visited the sites in my stories. Living in Australia, I’m many air-miles from the sites about which I write, and the cost of visiting those places annually would send me into debit rather than credit with my friendly financial institution.
What to do?
But I’m lucky to have travelled to Europe and Asia and to be the kind of person who writes diaries, and so from the age of nineteen onward I’ve kept a record of things visited and experienced. Those diaries have travelled with my husband and I as we moved to many houses in the course of his profession.
The diaries retain a huge relevance because they jumpstart my memories. But even better, they jumpstart my sensory memory and the sensory memory is the one that really does anchor a protagonist in his/her setting and therefore anchors the reader.
So when I talk about the way a church might arch its superb stone ribbed vaults over me and the way the lady chapel might sit behind a screen and become lost in questionable shadow, the way candles dance and dive as one walks past or that the candle smoke creeps up one’s nostrils…
or that a monk disappears around a cobblestoned corner, his scapula flying in the wind whilst in his hand he grasps a bottle of wine through which the sun shines liquid gold – then it is because I’ve seen these things and they are in my diaries.
When the verdant shadow of an English forest-glade jibes in a breeze or the silence is broken by a foot stepping on a dry leaf, it is because I have been there and it’s in my diaries.
When I mention the way parchment crackles in a desultory way and vellum feels soft under one’s fingers, it is because I have held things and noted it down.
The feel of a Venetian breeze against my skin, the stone of an old Roman villa under my palm, the fragrance of flowers and herbs, the salt taste of Greek cheese, the sour taste of peasant wine, the smell of anchovies and sardines, of garlic and woodsmoke, of body odour in a continental market place. The beautiful resonance of church bells as dusk settles. The way one’s hair stands on end as a Gregorian chant might fill a basilica (this one happened in Saint Peter’s way back in 1970 when crowds were few and one could walk the sacred colonnades and basilica without being crushed and ordered around)
Smelling, seeing, listening, tasting and touching are all there in writing that has changed from a pre-20’s curlicew to a post-50’s scrawl.
My single regret is that I haven’t visited Istanbul – once the mighty Constantinople.
So how have I managed to convince my readers that they are flies on the walls, that Tobias is indeed inside Sancta Sophia in that Byzantine city?
I have a dear friend who lives in the city and who understands the power of the senses completely, being a writer herself, and who sent me copious notes filled with the details I needed. They were almost diary entries themselves.
I’m glad I kept my diaries because in the last seven years, as I moved to become a published writer, they have truly become more valuable to me than diamonds as they help my books garner reviews like this:
‘(Batten’s) writing style is the most mesmeric, flawless, silken and almost poetic. She could write up the minutes of a meeting of a county council’s session and make it sound like a ballad…’
All I can say is ‘Thank you, diaries!’