Sense of Place

When scouting for a new novel, or just out and about, I love to collect sensual details.I enjoy experiencing the feel of clambering up ancient marble and hanging onto broken tiles incorporated in the masonry of an abandoned Ottoman castle, the pungent almost medicinal smell of the arid scrubland and the squidgy icing-sugar dusted pleasure of lokum.

I aim to use this sort of detail to locate the reader in a specific place quite economically – without breaking their concentration on the point of view character. The details must be integral to the action of the character, or they become distractions, mere showing-off. So describing a decayed, hand-built door with its intricate handle that our heroine goes through is legitimate – but one that she just passes – no.

I could also use the physical sensations encountered in a given place to add to the mood of a scene – the so-called  ‘pathetic fallacy’. A character on the run across the maquis above the Gulf of Izmir will feel the harsh spines of the grey thorns and perhaps bark their shins on a rough volcanic outcrop.On the other hand, a reflective moment might give them chance to appreciate the red lanterns of autumnal pomegranates and feel the tiny downdraught of a hummingbird hawkmoth.

The details have to be those that the character focuses on in accordance with their emotional state.

Another use of the specifics of an area is to suggest back-story. When showing the initial status quo of the central character, elements of their past can be summoned by the location. Jason Goodwin does this successfully, and in fascinating detail, in his Yashim books – both for Yashim and Istanbul herself. Similarly inherent conflict with secondary characters can be shown – the house with the rusting bike chucked up on the stone walls of the old town as against the modern apartment close to the new marina.It doesn’t take a great deal to suggest differences in culture, social status or wealth.

But the aspect of location that really matters is its relationship with plot. I need to seek out the geography of action: those things that the heroine could experience, those things she might do. I might have her sodden by unexpected rain whilst minding her mother’s stall in the Friday market – the pide is ruined and there will be trouble, or she collects broken boxes after the street market and breaks the thin wood across her knee to feed their fire because the Anatolian winter has come early.

All these things, however exact they may be, are only any use if they add to the story. If it doesn’t help tell the tale, it’s only padding.

I need to be a magpie,collecting the shiny and the attractive everywhere I go – but I need to realise only some of my hoard is true treasure.

Istanbul not Constantinople

  1. Book your preferred restaurant for a Friday or a Saturday night – even in the low season. The best places serving mehanes (a kind of Turkish tapas) fill up fast.
  2. The Grand Bazaar is big, busy and bewildering: try the smaller Spice Market also known as the Egyptian Bazaar instead.
  3. The Fish Market down by Galata Bridge is fascinating, smells of the sea and is full of free entertainment.
  4. Istiklal Caddesi is long, and full of life. Every evening there is a procession of people; you might see a Balkan band dressed like the Mafia, a political protest or the crowds parting like the Red Sea for the Nostalgic Tram. If it gets too much, seek solace in the fabulous Denizler Kitabevi bookshop. 
  5. Need a healthy pick-me-up? Look out for a Vitamin Centre – fresh fruit juices squeezed on the spot. They seem to be on every thoroughfare of any size. Some markets have men with handcarts who put on quite a performance at it.
  6. Fancy a sticky cake instead? Find Hafiz Mustafa in Sirkeci and try the konefe, halva or one of the  countless other sweet treats whilst looking out past the Orient Express Terminal to the Bosphorus.
  7. If you want to see the Harem in the Topkapi Palace at its best , get there early ( 9 a.m) You need to take a left after you have gone through the Topkapi entrance ( past the Executioners’ Fountain) and get your ticket as soon as you can. Look out for the Valide Sultan’s appartments – especially all you Jason Goodwin fans out there.
  8. A tip from Jason well worth passing on – the Rustem Pasha mosque is small, calm and spiritually refreshing. It sits above Hasırcılar Çarşısı (Strawmat Weavers Market) in Eminönü.
  9. For a taste of Stambouliot  flavours, locate Haci Abdullah on Sakızagacı Caddesi (a side treet off Istiklal in Beyoğlu) or Sumerhan Lokantasi on Büyük Postane Caddesi in Eminönü.
  10. And if your feet are aching after all that, use public transport. The trams are cheap and cheerful – you need a little red jeton( one price for any journey) which you can buy from a  Jetonmatik machine. There is cute little funicular at Tunel and the Metro is good for the airport. The ferries are fun too.