Tanya Byrne talks about how she wrote For Holly, her new book!
My name is Tanya Byrne and I have no imagination. It’s okay. I’ve made my peace with it. I’ve even managed to write three books without one. I daydream, of course, which is one of the cooler parts of this job, that I can lose an afternoon daydreaming about spending the summer in Paris and call it work, but my daydreams rarely stray further than my own experiences. They don’t feature dragons or wizards or talking dogs. That’s what I mean when I say I have no imagination.
I only write what I know.
I’ve always admired authors who can build worlds from nothing, particularly the ones who not only make me believe that their world exists, but make me want to live there. But while I was writing FOR HOLLY, I realised that all writers do that in some way. Our books may not include dragons or wizards or talking dogs, but we still have to make wherever we’re writing about real, so that the reader wants to live there, even if they already do.
That was my challenge with FOR HOLLY: to tell a story set somewhere familiar and still make it interesting. Everyone knows Paris, right? Even if you’ve never been, most people have an idea of what it’s like: black coffee and rain and pastel-coloured macarons. That’s what I expected the first time I went there and it didn’t disappoint.
So why bother writing a book about a city everyone knows? Well, that’s kind of the point. Some authors create wild, wonderful worlds with yellow brick roads and whomping willows, and others challenge your view of the world you already live in. That’s why I set FOR HOLLY in Paris, because I wanted to take something most people have probably dreamt about – spending the summer in Paris – and make it feel brand new. First, Lola doesn’t want to spend the summer there, her father is making her, so she’s furious, especially as she ends up spending most of her time alone. Plus, there’s a heat wave. Parts of the city are literally melting, so Lola isn’t the only one who’s miserable, everyone else is too. Lola’s Paris isn’t the dreamy, hopelessly romantic place you’ve seen in films. It’s hot and sticky and unwelcoming in every way.
Be brave. When you’re deciding where to set your story, choose somewhere familiar but describe it in a way that is unfamiliar. Make the reader feel like they’re visiting it for the first time. Like in FOR HOLLY, there’s just enough of the city – the Seine, the Musée d'Orsay, Les Deux Magots – that it’s recognisable, but it’s seen through the eyes of an unhappy, lonely seventeen-year-old.
But how do you write about somewhere you’ve never been? You should try to go there, if you can. I know that isn’t always possible, so, if you can’t, find films and books set there. Also, put a shout out on Twitter or Facebook, find someone who has been there. Ask them to describe it to you and tell you where they had a really good cup of coffee or how long they queued to get into a museum. Google Maps is great and will prove invaluable when you’re trying to get a character from one side of a city to the other, but it can never capture the energy of a place.
Which leads me neatly onto my next point: if you can’t picture a location, your reader never will. So even if you’ve never been there, you have to make the reader believe that you have. How, though? This is why research is so important, whether it’s stuff that you’ve learnt from actually being there or from talking to someone who has. A lot of it you might never use, but as long as it helps you understand the place you’re writing about, it’s not wasted.
Don’t ‘info dump’, though. It will be tempting to, given the amount of information you’ve gathered about your location, but remember: it’s a story not a guide book. Don’t slow things down with lengthy descriptions, no matter how beautifully written they are. You have to be brave but you must also be brutal. You just want to give the reader an idea of a place, so if it interrupts the flow of the story, get rid of it. That doesn’t mean you can’t be specific, but when you are, be sensory. What does the train a character is on smell like? What sound does it make when it pulls up to a station? Is the carriage empty? If it is, how does the character feel when a man gets on?
Good writing is more than just describing a location; it’s also about describing how the characters react because every reaction will be different. The way Lola sees Paris as an unhappy, lonely seventeen-year-old is very different to how she would see it if she was in love.
Ask yourself which story you want to tell.
Can't wait to read it? Buy For Holly here.