Northerners! Know Your Place

In this guest post, Jacqueline Saville describes how her native West Yorkshire and other areas of Northern England have influenced her writing. She muses on the use of accents, the trope of the angry working man as well as ways of evoking northern-ness in characters without designating their setting.

Photo of Ravenglass AnchorThere are degrees of place in a work of fiction. There’s the short story backdrop in the writer’s head that isn’t mentioned explicitly – take a kitchen, any kitchen, and populate it with people speaking standard English. There are stories that may still be short but have room for the odd specific, a nice marker for those who’ve been there but hopefully not off-putting for outsiders – perhaps a steep river valley is required for some turn of the plot but it’s only convenience that makes the author use a valley nearby or one plucked from childhood memory. Then there are the stories that dictate their own setting, relying on some historical fact or modern by-law, local custom or legend. There are also the longer works where the place is the story itself and a character within that story, and an aspect of the other characters too. I’ve used the whole spectrum over the years, and most of mine are somewhere in the north of England.

The north of England is, if not quite my anchor, then at least my attractor – I’ve moved away a couple of times, but it draws me back. Although there’s a chunk of my native West Yorkshire with a special place in my heart, I’ve wandered all over the north. It’s my go-to place for those unnamed settings or the ones that could have been half a dozen places, partly through convenience – it’s either right in front of me or at the forefront of memory – partly because it’s mine. When I began writing a crime story called The Dovedale Affair I had in mind a house with a large garden and an overhanging tree. When I next walked along the local riverbank I saw the perfect place so I merged that into a memory of a North Yorkshire market town and it became the anonymous setting for the story. My version of that unnamed riverbank or market town, or even of Leeds or Carlisle making an appearance as themselves, might not be exact and it might not be the same as someone else’s, but it is real, shaped by my experiences and associations.

For years I struggled with the idea of overtly using real locations in fiction. How detailed does it have to be for a stranger to know all they need to? Is a small northern town actively off-putting to a potential reader who has preconceptions? Ben Aaronovitch writes a brilliant urban fantasy series, Rivers of London, and when I read those books I feel like I’m being taken on a guided tour of the city by someone who loves the place. He gives just enough explanation for me, completely unfamiliar with London, to grasp the significance of a location without laborious descriptions. Whereas some literary authors, who shall remain nameless, seem to assume everyone knows the relative placings of streets or areas of London and can fill in the gaps themselves. Eventually I decided to try and be as light-touch as possible, so as not to inadvertently use street names as a crutch – if I should ever fail to achieve this high ideal, I hope someone will point it out.

The north of England is not just an area on a map, of course, it’s the people who live here. There are investment bankers, teachers, cleaners, solicitors just the same as there are elsewhere. There are still hill farmers, though not so many textile workers, shipyard workers or miners these days. However, there are retired miners, former shipyard workers, and my characters tend to be rooted in their industrial or farming heritage, making my Bradford-based accountants in Wasted Years – I hope – not simply interchangeable with accountants from Surrey. If a character’s age and location means they would have grown up during the miners’ strike or watched all the mills shut down in their town, it will surely have left its mark. If the farm they grew up on got wiped out during the foot and mouth epidemic fifteen years ago it doesn’t matter that they’d long since moved to the big city to work in advertising. Geography and history shape communities, and communities shape a person’s outlook, politics, priorities. Not to mention the way they speak and the words they use.

How do you know a character’s northern without seeing their accent written out? The same way you know the guy in a T-shirt in the middle of a Newcastle winter is a native Geordie before he opens his mouth. Ever since reading a classic children’s book thirty years ago where the maid speaks in garbled sentences of mangled English to show she is both lower class and from Yorkshire, I’ve had an aversion to written-out accents and heavy use of dialect in stories. Where the writer doesn’t speak like that themselves it can come across as patronising, and where they do they can easily make it impenetrable. I collected nine of my short stories together as The Little Book of Northern Women, no prizes for guessing the theme. I rarely used dialect words in those stories but I used the rhythms of speech, word order and the like, to hint at accent and I hope that from those hints, and their attitudes and situations, they are clearly northerners, like poor put-upon Amy in Mother Knows Best:

Despite being the only child of Grandma’s eldest daughter, Amy had sacrificed her place in the matriarchy twenty years ago when she went too far with the lad from the milk bar.

Occasionally I want to set a story on Tyneside. There is such a widespread retention of dialect round there, so many recognisably Anglo-Saxon words in everyday use that I can’t get away without using some. If you leave the dialect words out of Geordie speech and rely on rhythm alone, you end up with a character who could be from Whitby, so there’s nothing for it but to pick a reasonable spelling convention and throw some significant words in. My early attempts, after only four years living in the area and a further five living with a Geordie elsewhere, were excruciating according to my partner, so I kept trying. I finally nailed it recently, so he says, with an as yet unpublished World War One story set in North Tyneside. Perhaps it’s easier to forgive inconsistencies if it’s set in the past.

I’m increasingly drawn to writing historical fiction, and when I do it has to be set in the north of England, no question. Again it’s partly that feeling of ownership, that this is my history to tell, but it’s also the plain fact that this is the history I’m entranced by and it feels closer to me than all the histories I’ve read that concentrate on London, interesting as they are. London didn’t have the Luddites, for a start.

When I write historical fiction there’s usually at least one angry, oppressed working-class northerner in it and there’s no more potent symbol of that than the Luddite. Skilled textile workers whose livelihood and way of life was being taken away by mechanisation at the start of the nineteenth century, they took to breaking the new machines and intimidating the mill-owners who installed them. The authorities cracked down and it became dangerous even to be part of a large crowd in the affected areas in case the powers-that-be decided you were a Luddite mob. I’d always found them interesting but the more I looked into the part of my family that in the early 1800s were hand loom weavers in an area particularly associated with Luddites, the more stories I wrote about them. There’s a fine line between passion and obsession, but at least I’m getting inspiration.

Family history research has provided a fair bit of that over the years, and it spills over into local history research anyway because it pays to put things in context. And I can’t resist an old newspaper. My ancestors are fairly solidly West Yorkshire but my partner’s family spans the north, pretty much coast to coast from the north of Northumberland right down to Staffordshire. For at least fifteen years I’ve been learning about registration districts and shifting parish boundaries, the growth of industry and patterns of migration across the north, particularly the old counties of Westmorland, Northumberland, Durham and all three Ridings of Yorkshire. I’ve spent hours looking at old maps and trade directories. For a few villages and small towns I’ve spent so long poring over the local papers and scans of handwritten parish registers or bishop’s transcripts, that I feel like I know the place better than I know my own family – although of course, in many cases they are my own family. These are the places whose stories, past or present, I yearn to write.

Bradford by Tim Green

Bradford by Tim Green

Having said that, past and present are not the only options and I write both science fiction and fantasy when the mood takes me. These are the stories where I’m most likely to stray from my northern comfort zone, but even then I’ve used Leeds as the pseudonymous template for harsh urban settings in the future, and the moorland near my home for fantasy landscape. I have even explicitly lodged near-future sci-fi in the streets of Bradford, in Self-Aware and Living in Bradford (first published in Kzine issue 6), where one of the androids being studied by a team at Bradford University appears to become self-aware. More subtly, I hint by giving characters names like Priestley or Armitage, rooted in the north. In a Kafka-esque story called Waiting for Boothroyd, the only location is the inside of a weird building, but it’s a gruff northern weird full of taciturn men in tank tops:

He says try maintenance,” announced Tony, without revealing his source.

But I’m planning,” said George.

Tony shrugged.

Same difference. You have to plan what you’re going to maintain, don’t you?”

Hadn’t we better wait for Mr Boothroyd?”

Who?” asked Tony distractedly. “Come on, I’ll show you where maintenance live and then I’ll be shut of you.”

For the truly spectacular use of a location you can’t beat the fantasy genre, where you can if you wish personify a river, a wood, a whole region. So if you’re a Tolkien fan who thinks the north of England is special and magical, and when you stand in the high places and gaze across the valleys it often takes your breath away, the landscape is likely to demand that you set a fantasy novel there. In my case it’s my current major work in progress The Northern King, in which one former mortal (angry and working class, naturally) now a guardian of the north lands, uses the power in the earth and stones in an epic elemental battle to save the region. I’m only a quarter of the way through the first draft so far, but it’s giving me an excuse to read even more than usual about Cumbrian shepherds, Northumbrian history, the geography of the Pennines. It feels like a novel I’ve been doing the background reading for all my life, picking up ideas every time I’ve walked up a fell or across a northern moor. It’s the product of a lifetime of musing, starting in a primary school classroom in Cornwall where no-one sounded like me or knew the places I did, on what is the north, what are its stories and who are its people.

William Cobbett, contemptuous of supposedly educated young men at the turn of the nineteenth century who knew all about Chinese customs or Greek history but nothing about the part of England they didn’t reside in themselves, said that they should learn as much as possible about their own country before they started worrying about the rest of the world. I’m still learning about the north of England, still fascinated by it, and I still have plenty to say. Long may that continue.

Photo Credits

Bradford by Tim Green. Reproduced under a CC License.