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Monday 27 March 2017

Tuesday Talk: The Spirit of Place

By Lorraine Swoboda 

How do you choose the setting for a novel? You may know the who, and the when, but what about the where?

I set my novel in 1817, at a difficult time in British history. I had men who had left the army after Waterloo, and who were still looking for their place in the world of peace, and a heroine who lived detached from society, isolation being a theme; and I didn’t want grand houses or great wealth or status. These were ordinary people living through extraordinary events – fiction as life heightened - and I wanted my setting to suit them.

When I first began to write what eventually became Mrs Calcott’s Army some fourteen years ago, I knew where the events should take place.  I lived then in Wimborne, Dorset, a market town which still keeps its medieval street layout. Gentlemen’s houses abut thatched cottages, ancient houses hide behind slightly more modern shop fronts, and the Minster stands at the centre, with the Quarterjack marking the passage of time over the green that used to be a graveyard. Once the figure of a monk, to celebrate the founding of the Minster as a female (and later joint female-male) monastery, this had been altered to that of a Grenadier guardsman during the Napoleonic Wars; and that provided the military link between the setting and the male characters.

Wimborne Minster Wikipedia
The rivers Stour and Allen run round and through the town, and there are two parallel roads entering on one side; West Borough, which once led directly to the West door of the Minster, and East Borough, known locally as Crooked Borough.

More important to me, however, was what isn’t there anymore. I lived at Leigh – pronounced locally as lie – in what was originally a pair of thatched cob cottages built in the 1780s. A century later, a second pair of brick cottages was tacked onto one side, and the roofs slated, so they escaped the scrutiny of developers who cleared all the other cob buildings on Leigh Common, deeming them unfit for human habitation. An elderly neighbour gave me a postcard of one of them, with milk churns outside and a cow in the lane. When the livestock market was held, drovers stopped overnight on the Common with their cattle – a scene that appears in the book.

One day I came across a stall selling old photographs of local views. My house featured in one of them, not because it was especially picturesque, but because it stood next door to a sprawling thatched inn, the Horse and Jockey. It was a vast and ancient place of dubious reputation, lying just outside the town boundaries. Records show that at one time the landlady lost her license for selling beer on a Sunday. I was told by one who did the work that in the 1930s gas supplies were fitted into chalets at the back of the inn, whose purpose was not to be mentioned in mixed company.  Digging in the garden, I turned up a gaming token which, from date and style, attested to illegal gambling there in the 18th century. There was the stub of a wall with a hinge where a gate had hung, which once led to the well at the back of the inn. The right of way remains, though the purpose is long gone.

At the time that I was writing, banks and mortgage companies were getting rid of bundles of old deeds – far too much paperwork for them to keep when everything was computerised. I asked for ours, and they made fascinating reading because the cottages had belonged to the inn which in turn had belonged to local nobility; and that fact meant that there was a huge amount of documentation. I found that before it was the Horse and Jockey, the inn had been called by other names, including The Flower Pot.

Putting the sound of the place– Leigh/lie – together with illegal gaming and a feminine name for the inn, I had the scene for part of my novel. The Stour plays its role, and I have adapted some areas to accommodate other (imaginary) houses, but it was the inn which started it all.

Wimborne – indeed, large parts of Dorset – had a history of smuggling, which is mentioned in the novel in relation to the inn and to the hero’s disreputable great uncle, whose house he is visiting. It’s part of the backstory, and may one day come into its own in another novel.
The town is still famous for its market, which has been held there since at least the 13th century.  I placed this in the centre of town, on the site of a medieval Market Hall, though at various times it had been moved out to the perimeter because of the noise and the nuisance.
I used the facts as I knew them, but it was the spirit of place that mattered most to me. I needed to be able to plant the characters against a real backdrop, and to give a flavour of the town as it would have been in 1817.

a typical Dorset thatched cottage

Places change: in the years since I left, the town has undergone something of a makeover, but it’s just one of many that have happened in the course of its history. For the purposes of the novel, there’s a glimpse of one moment in time; and that moment started right outside my own door, with a token found in the soil, and a picture of what used to be.

buy the book 

Twitter  @LorSwob


  1. What a treat to have the background to Lorraine's book! It is an excellent read and, although I am only a few chapters from finishing it, I still cannot guess the ending. A must read.

    1. Thanks for dropping by Liz - when you discover the ending sshh no spoilers - mum's the word!

  2. Late to the party - blog, that is. Now off to Amazon to download.


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